Survey says…Montana ranchers want to know more about bison and bighorn sheep discussion on Charles M Russell Refuge |

Survey says…Montana ranchers want to know more about bison and bighorn sheep discussion on Charles M Russell Refuge

By Carrie Stadheim for Tri-State Livestock News

Malta, Montana, area ranchers Lee and Perri Jacobs and Dolores Jacobs have concerns about the possibility of some new neighbors.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has hired University of Montana researchers to conduct a survey to test the proverbial waters regarding attitudes of ranchers and others as it relates to the possible reintroduction of bighorn sheep and bison into Montana’s Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. The USFWS oversees the 1.1 million acre refuge located in along the Missour River in northeastern/north central Montana, and clarifies on its website that at this time, no decisions will be made regarding wildlife, wildlife habitat, or the potential reintroduction of bison and bighorn sheep.

“Instead, we would like to understand what an effective engagement process looks like to our stakeholders and to understand their perspectives on potential bison and bighorn sheep reintroduction. These conversations and the surrounding social science are intended to help shape future engagement and communications efforts in a way that both improves upon past processes and gathers diverse perspectives on potential bison and bighorn sheep reintroduction,” says the website.

But that doesn’t totally eliminate the Jacobs family’s and other ranchers’ concerns.

“Why are they doing that? It makes me suspicious, to be honest,” said Perri.

The Jacobs ranch, which consists of private and BLM grazing land, borders the CMR Refuge. Some ranchers do graze part of the CMR Refuge, but the rules require that those grazing permits may not be passed on or sold, so when a rancher who holds a grazing permit dies, so do those grazing rights.

Perri explained that some ranchers actually own land within the CMR Refuge, so said private land will continue to be grazeable for the foreseeable future, but the rest of the CMR Refuge will eventually be void of domestic livestock.

Perri and other ranchers were able to visit with UM surveyors during a recent Zoom call organized by the Montana Stockgrowers Association.

There are currently bighorn sheep on part of the refuge already, so the introduction of more bighorns isn’t a big concern to Jacobs, although it could be to ranchers who have sheep in the area, she said. “We said if they are going to consider putting more bighorn sheep out there they need to be sure there are no conflicts with domestic sheep,” she said.

Perri said one of her big concerns is the fact that the presidential executive order 7509 that created what is now known as the CMR Refuge, stated that the refuge shall first be utilized for the purpose of sustaining in a healthy condition 400,000 sharp tailed grouse and 1,500 antelope.

“Those should be the primary species in the CMR, and to my knowledge, nothing has been passed to rescind that,” she said.

The Jacobs ranch already has bison for neighbors – the American Prairie, formerly known as the American Prairie Reserve, has bison on land that borders the Jacobs ranch to the north.

“For several years, they have had bison on private property that borders a BLM allotment,” she said.

The American Prairie’s bison have not entered their BLM land as far as they know, but bison have been on discovered on private ranch property in southern Phillips County, she said. Usually the American Prairie attempts to haze them back on 4-wheelers, which sometimes works, and other times ends with euthanization of the wayward bison, she said.

As for the effect it would have on her place, Perri has two main worries. One is the prospect of bison escaping from the CMR Refuge because the fence around the property is not well maintained. With profit margins for ranchers razor thin at best, all forage is extremely valuable. “We’ve had a drought. Water is a precious resource, too,” she points out.

But she also worries about bison and/or elk transmitting brucellosis to her family’s cattle. “There is no confirmed passage of brucellosis from bison to cattle but elk will pass it to cows and the elk could be getting it from the bison,” she said.

According to an APHIS, “Even though transmission in the wild is difficult to document, results of epidemiological investigations point to domestic bison as the likely source of the disease in infected (with brucellosis) cattle herds found in Wyoming and North Dakota.”

There are areas of the CMR Refuge with too high of elk numbers, according to MT Fish, Wildlife and Parks population counts, Perri said. Adding more wildlife to the mix will not help with an already stressed situation when it comes to forage and water, especially in a dry year like this one, she said.

Concerns of ranchers and others have caught the attention of Montana Senator Steve Daines who, on Nov. 11, asked the USFWS for more details about the survey.

The Republican is calling for the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services to provide more information on the purpose and scope of what they are considering on the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge (CMR) and to hold a more transparent deliberation process that guarantees any proposal on the reintroduction of bison in the CMR has State, local, and tribal support. Daines’ request comes after emails became public showing activists are lobbying the Biden administration to move forward “without Montana’s permission” and concerns from local stakeholders about the public input process thus far.

“Despite the stated objective of developing an inclusive, informed, and deliberative process to engage local stakeholders and Tribes, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services have not provided any information on the planning process or the intent behind the process nor have they published any information about public meetings or engagement online. Furthermore, troubling email exchanges between the agency and stakeholders about moving forward with a proposal ‘without Montana’s permission’ have been brought to my attention,” the letter states.

“I respectfully urge you to make easily accessible and publicly available all relevant information on public meetings and the scope of this planning exercise. I ask for your commitment that any plan for bison reintroduction has the support of the State of Montana, local communities, and Tribes before being formally proposed,” the letter continues.

Neither University of Montana surveyors nor the CMR Refuge project leader could be reached for comment.

Ranchers around the Charles M Russell refuge in Montana are wondering why the U.S. Fish and Wildife Service has requested a survey regarding reintroduction of bison and bighorn sheep into the refuge. Perri Jacobs
Courtesy photo

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