Where will the bison roam?
“Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) got themselves in a pickle. They took over a quarantine situation with bison at Ted Turner’s Green Ranch, and now Turner says he doesn’t want them anymore. They have no place to go with these bison, so have put out a proposal for people to take them on,” began Mont. Farm Bureau Federation (MFBF) Vice President of Governmental Affairs John Youngberg.
The bison in question originated from the Yellowstone herd, a known carrier of brucellosis. Concerns over potential spread of brucellosis in addition to the damage the buffalo could cause to neighboring private landowners’ property and livestock have ag and landowner entities in agreement that private partnerships are a better alternative than introducing the bison as a “free-roaming,” but by no means an ideal solution.
“There has been a big push by the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations to put a free-roaming herd of bison into Eastern Montana. The crux of the controversy is the threat a free-roaming herd would pose from a disease and property damage standpoint, in addition to the fact no one would be responsible for the damages they cause,” explained United Property Owners of Montana (UPOM) Policy Director Chuck Denowh.
Youngberg added that along with promoting a free-roaming herd, the same groups are pushing heavily to classify the bison as wildlife, and are faced with objection from MFBF.
“We believe they should be managed as livestock, because once held in captivity and having been owned by someone and managed as livestock, they cannot just wave a magic wand and turn them back into wildlife. They either are or aren’t wildlife, and that decision has already been made. We also feel there should be strict protocol on how they’re managed, and that they should be subject to our per-capita tax and all other fees associated with being livestock in our state,” he stated.
Ultimately, the bison’s final destination will be decided after a public comment period according to Montana FWP Communications Director Ron Aasheim. He added that the bison’s management has always been conservation driven, with the decision now simply being how to use them to that end.
“Roughly a decade ago these bison calves were captured in Yellowstone National Park and quarantined to see if a disease-free, wild, genetically pure bison herd could be developed for conservation purposes. It started with 100 calves, and today consists of 145 head.
“At present we have decided any bison moved would have to be contained in some way, and have taken applications from parties interested in housing the bison. We’re anticipating moving those animals by November of this year. In addition, we’re in the process of developing a long-term conservation strategy that would look at alternatives including the possibility of not moving additional bison anywhere in Montana,” he explained.
Aasheim continued, noting that in both the current instance and development of the long-term plan, there will the opportunity for public comment.
“The bison being considered for movement at this time have been tested for brucellsosis multiple times by expert scientists. We understand the concern regarding brucellosis, but the testing indicates these bison to be disease free,” stated Aasheim.
While both MBFB and UPOM agree that the likelihood of one of the bison harboring brucellosis is low, both stated that “low” is by no means a guarantee, adding that some individuals can be a carrier and repeatedly test negative for the disease.
“Another issue is that whether they’re free-roaming or managed, these aren’t whitetail deer we’re talking about and there isn’t a fence that will hold them in if they don’t have adequate feed. Unless they are housed by someone who will feed them and properly manage their pastures, they will be all over the country,” noted Youngberg of an additional foreseeable issue.
He added that MFBF is encouraging a solution that moves the bison out of the state of Montana, stating that would be the best possible outcome for the farming and ranching industry within the state.
“The best solution from our perspective would be for the administrator of the Yellowstone National Park bison herd to get their numbers down to a responsible level and eliminate programs such as this one that attempt to find additional places to house bison from that herd. Thus far they have been unwilling to do that, and continue to run an extremely overpopulated herd, resulting in a huge amount risk for surrounding property and livestock owners,” said Denowh of UPOM’s proposed, big picture solution.
Aasheim stated assurances that all involved entities will be at the table throughout the decision-making process, which is by no means near completion.
“The big thing is we don’t want people to have a lack of trust. This is a sensitive and important issue for Montana, and we want everyone to be assured the public will have input and that the decision has a long way to go,” he concluded.