Montana takes another step toward restoring free-roaming bison herds


When 34 Yellowstone National Park bison bounded off a trailer into north central Montana this August, their century-long absence from Fort Belknap Reservation ended. The repatriation comes at a time when Montana is making gradual progress towards fostering free-roaming bison herds.

While hundreds of thousands of bison live in Montana, most are commercial stock carrying cattle genes, and none of them range freely like elk, deer and antelope do. Even non-commercial bison, like those owned by the tribes, are fenced-in. In the case of Yellowstone bison, they are confined by state policy that keeps them from freely leaving the park. Since 2011, bison have been allowed to migrate out of the park during winter. But in spring, they are hazed back into Yellowstone, or into holding facilities, even occasionally shot or sent to slaughter, if they venture out of “tolerance zones” into cattle grazing areas.

Thanks to conflicts with cattle grazing, the idea of the state changing its stance to treat bison like wild, free-ranging animals, as opposed to livestock, is perpetually controversial. Even so, Montana is now taking steps towards having more genetically pure bison in the state, and giving them more room to roam. Since 2012, Montana has transferred dozens of bison from Yellowstone National Park’s herd to two Indian reservations in northern Montana, including Fort Belknap. Those bison aren’t free ranging, but the move may reduce hazing and ad hoc killing of errant animals near Yellowstone.

Bison grazing on the National Bison Range in western Montana. By Ryan Hagerty, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

On top of that, Montana is moving forward with two new bison plans. One is a fresh look at the state’s policy towards Yellowstone's bison, which will consider allowing some bison outside of the park year round. Another is a statewide bison management plan that could lead to decisions about how many wild bison should roam in Montana, and where they will do it.

“For all the success that Montana has had with wildlife restoration there’s an important chapter (to be written) and that’s the one that starts with the word ‘bison,’ ” says the National Wildlife Federation’s Northern Rockies region executive director, Tom France, noting that the idea of fostering a wild bison herd on Montana’s plains has gained traction in recent years.

Yet recent progress hasn’t come without its challenges. That’s because some bison (and elk) carry brucellosis, a bacterial disease that can cause pregnancy failures in cattle, and ranchers fear that their cows will catch it, decimating herds (although there's never been a documented instance of wild bison spreading brucellosis to cattle, and ironically, many think that bison first caught the disease from cows). There are also concerns that the animals, known for busting through fencing, will destroy private property and compete with cattle for grass.

As an example of how these fears play out, the recent transfer of bison to Fort Belknap, by way of a Yellowstone herd at Fort Peck, would have happened much earlier if not for a months-long legal scuffle. When the state moved Yellowstone bison to Fort Peck in the spring of 2012, then-Governor Brian Schweitzer, along with conservationists and the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, celebrated it as an early step in building a new source pool for expanding genetically pure bison outside of Yellowstone. (Many of North America’s hundreds of thousands of bison are contaminated with cattle genes, and only four percent, including the Yellowstone herd, are genetically pure.)

But a livestock and property rights group didn’t take it as well. They quickly sued to stop the transfers. A county court blocked further bison transfers, and the state appealed to Montana’s supreme court.

Then, this past legislative session, Montana’s representatives were busy with eight anti-bison bills introduced to drastically inhibit bison movement, allow on-sight bison shooting on private property (as opposed to managing them as a game species with a hunting season that requires licenses and limits), and make the state liable for private property damage from bison. State Senator John Brenden, a leader among bison-haters, compared restoration efforts to trying to bring back dinosaurs, when he asked, “Why do you want to spread this creeping cancer, these woolly tanks, around the state of Montana?”

But the state doesn’t share Brenden’s attitude. Three of the anti-bison bills made it to Governor Steve Bullock’s desk and he vetoed all of them. Montana’s supreme court wasn’t much help for the anti-bison crowd either. In June, the court ruled in favor of the state after it appealed the county court’s bison-blocking decision. That once again opened the gate to truck bison around the state, and onto Fort Belknap last month.

Now Montana is preparing a draft plan for broader bison restoration options, due out early next year. The state could consider a range of options from doing nothing, to restoring a herd of about 1,000 bison, the size geneticists say is needed for a healthy population.

Assuming the state opts for anything but the do-nothing option, the question becomes: Which parts of Montana should see herds return? The National Wildlife Federation considers the area in and around the 1.1 million-acre Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge a prime location for a big bison repatriation effort. It’s a rare expanse of unbroken native prairie, which is necessary for balancing bison conservation with legitimate concerns about having one-ton animals with little regard for fences busting up private property.

The refuge is already wildlife-rich, and it’s even adjacent to a large bison-friendly effort on private land. The American Prairie Reserve has been buying and leasing land adjacent to the refuge, with the ultimate goal of linking up public and private land into three million acres that can support wide-ranging animals like pronghorn, and perhaps someday wild bison.

In a 2012 HCN op-ed, France wrote, “…We should focus on where and how to restore wild bison, not whether we ought to do so.” While the debate about returning wild bison to select parts of Montana hasn’t disappeared, the fact that the state is leading a discussion on the topic may mean that bison will eventually rejoin the venerable ranks of the state’s free-roaming beasts.

Sarah Jane Keller is a High Country News editorial fellow. Follow her on Twitter @sjanekeller.

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