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Oped: FWP should stop free-roaming bison plan

Photo credit: Bruce McKay

The Montana Department Fish, Wildlife, and Parks is on a strange mission to impose a free-roaming bison herd in Eastern Montana.  It’s puzzling because it’s a plan that few Montanans want, and a large, diverse majority oppose.  Yet, inexplicably, Governor Bullocks’ administration and FWP Director Jeff Hagener seem determined to give us a dose of a bitter medicine we don’t want or need.

The opposition to free-roaming couldn’t have been more evident at a recent FWP meeting on the issue in Lewistown.  One after another, ranchers, sportsmen, farmers, local business owners, and others voiced their objections to FWP’s proposal to move bison from Yellowstone National Park to an undisclosed location in Eastern Montana.

They spoke loud and clear that free roaming bison would be an economic hardship; lead to the destruction of property, forage, and crops; and put pressure on other native species.

At FWP’s meeting there was virtually no support for the plan from Montanans—but there was plenty of support from out-of-state environmental groups.  The American Prairie Foundation, Wildlife Conservation Society, and National Wildlife Federation flew in their national officials to explain why Montana should accept their plan.

The reasons so much vocal opposition has formed to oppose free-roaming bison are fairly obvious.

Sportsmen are opposed because wild bison would compete for scarce resources and destroy habitat, ultimately displacing game animals.  Hunters have been largely disinterested in hunting bison because of the lack of sport involved.

Landowners are opposed because wild bison would destroy fences and crops, expose livestock to disease, and be an enormous financial burden.

A landowner invaded by free-roaming bison would largely be on her own to absorb the cost of any damage done to property, just like she would for any other wildlife.  The difference is the potential amount of forage lost and damage done is orders of magnitude greater for bison than it is for deer or elk.

With the damage that could be done to agriculture from free-roaming bison, there is a very real potential of significant, negative shocks to local economies.  If ag producers are forced to absorb the cost of bison foisted on them, the effects will be felt throughout the community.

We’ve already seen what havoc a wild free-roaming herd can do.  The damage to property and habitat and the spread of disease to livestock near Yellowstone National Park is well documented.  Yet even as the bison advocates admitted Yellowstone bison management is a debacle, they saw no reason not to move forward with a new herd.  It’s obvious they don’t care what happens to communities in Eastern Montana.

A middle-road compromise position was offered to allow a small herd as long as stringent confinement measures were in place.  But the BLM made it clear they have no interest in building a fence along their boundaries and FWP Director Jeff Hagner was clear that FWP had no interest in the management of a fenced-in herd.  With their refusal to compromise, it’s clear these bison advocates won’t stop until they can force bison onto private property.

It’s both obvious and puzzling that MT FWP has partnered with out of state environmental groups.
From their offices in Washington, DC and New York City they’ve pulled out a map, drawn a circle in Eastern Montana, and come up with their own plan about what’s best for us.  They’ve given no consideration to the financial hardship or damage to our local communities that their plan would create.

Restoring bison is a deserving goal, and it’s already happening as a result of private initiative.  Already in Eastern Montana, bison populations have been rapidly rising due to the efforts of Montana’s Indian Tribes and private landowners who’ve taken it upon themselves to bring bison back to the prairie.  This approach is working, and it’s being done without placing any burden on landowners who don’t want bison on their property.

Free-roaming bison have no place in modern Montana.  We can’t turn back the clock two hundred years to a time before the land came into private ownership.  I think the time is appropriate for all Montanans to look toward our Eastern Montana brothers and sisters and ponder for a moment whether we want to force free roaming Bison down their throats and across their private property.

Toby Dahl is a director of United Property Owners of Montana, an advocacy group committed to protecting and enhancing property rights and preserving traditional agriculture in Montana.