Bison management proposals stir debate in Montana Legislature (Video)

HELENA, Mont. — Free-roaming wild bison, once vital to the history, culture and ecology of the high plains and then hunted nearly to oblivion, are back at the center of a new debate as they compete with cattle for space on Montana’s vast grasslands.

 For the last 15 years, environmentalists and Indian tribes have worked to restore herds of American bison to portions of their former home here. But that effort has not gone over well with some in this state, which is now dominated by cattle that eat the rich grasses that the bison once consumed. This time around, the undeclared competition for rangeland is playing out in courts, the State Capitol and the news media.

New legislation to limit the bison’s numbers is under consideration in the State Legislature, stirring deep and old feelings. It is clear that wild bison, which once grazed freely by the millions before they were reduced to a handful in the 1800s, remain an emotional symbol.

“It was ‘wipe out the buffalo, starve the Indians and put them on reservations’ ” during the slaughter, said Mark Azure, director of the Fish and Wildlife Department at Fort Belknap, where members of the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes reside. Both tribes once hunted bison on the high plains of Montana.

As the animals return, Mr. Azure said, some people here have renewed a traditional way of life, bringing back old ceremonies and stories. “It’s hard to describe, but seeing the animal outside, you feel things inside — a connection to our ancestors,” Mr. Azure said.

For now the only wild, free-ranging herds of bison in the region are in Yellowstone National Park. While there are many more bison in the state, they are owned, fenced in and considered livestock, not wildlife.

The goal of tribes, conservation groups and others is to restore wild herds using bison culled from the 4,000 or so animals in the Yellowstone herd, which are descendants of the handful who survived the 19th-century slaughter, and are considered genetically pure. Wild bison are a keystone species and graze in ways that create patches of habitat for other wild prairie species, like birds.

The debate over this restoration plan is heating up here as legislators who represent livestock-growing regions have tried to block the introduction of new herds with several bitterly contested bills.

One bill, introduced by State Senator John Brenden, a Republican and a leading opponent of wild herds, would allow landowners to shoot bison that wander onto their property, prevent the transfer of the animals anywhere in the state and create a new bison hunting season.

A bison at the gate to Yellowstone Park in Gardiner, Mont. 

Another would require the permission of commissioners before bison could be brought to their county, a third would redefine the term “wild buffalo” to make it much harder to create new herds, and a fourth would make the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks liable for damages caused by bison. Critics say the bills would end their plans for new wild herds.

Which is exactly the point, Senator Brenden said. “Why do you want to spread this creeping cancer, these woolly tanks, around the state of Montana?” he asked. “Trying to bring back the buffalo in big herds across Montana is like bringing back dinosaurs. And who wants dinosaurs in Montana? I certainly don’t.”

Montana tribes have made known their opposition to the bills. In mid-March, Indians from around the state held a pipe ceremony on a bison-hide robe in support of the restoration projects, filling the Capitol rotunda with drumming and singing.

Former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat who fought for the transfer of bison to Indian reservation land, believes the battle comes down to a competition for grass. “These cattlemen make a great part of their living off subsidized grazing,” he said. While the federal government charges $1.38 to graze a cow and calf for a month, private landowners charge $22. “Buffalo are a large animal that could become active competition” for cheap grazing on federal land, Mr. Schweitzer said.

What to do with Yellowstone bison that wander away from the park has long been a quandary. For many years hundreds of the massive animals have been killed by state officials and hunters, or hazed back into the park. Many people here, including Mr. Schweitzer, consider such treatment an outrage and have sought alternatives.

One solution was to repatriate wild bison to the plains. In 2010 Ted Turner received 83 Yellowstone bison on his Montana ranch, the first to be located outside of the park. Last year 61 bison were moved by the tribes to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, with the help of environmental groups and federal and state agencies.

But as soon as the animals were moved, bison opponents went to court and received an injunction to prevent further transfers. The injunction has been appealed to the Montana Supreme Court by environmental groups and will be heard next month. If it is lifted, bison will be loaded on trucks and start rolling out of Yellowstone to new homes around the state. The wild bison in the park are quarantined, tested and certified free of disease before they are moved.

Nonetheless, some ranchers say they are concerned about brucellosis, an infectious bacteria-borne disease carried by some of the Yellowstone bison that some fear could infect cattle.

Trampled fences are another concern. “When bison are hungry they move,” said Representative Kerry White, a Republican who is a partner in a family ranch. “Free-roaming bison will walk right through a fence,” he said, and when they leave the reservation, there is often no one to round them up.

Nonetheless, a restoration is taking place in one vast area, and it has been controversial with some ranchers, even though the acreage has been purchased or leased. The American Prairie Reserve in northern Montana has 250 bison on some 273,000 deeded and leased acres.

The reserve is contiguous to the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife refuge, which is about a million acres. The goal of some conservation groups is some three million acres with a large roaming herd of bison filling their ancient ecological role on the prairie.

“The effort is to restore wild bison to the grassland on a landscape level,” said Tom France, a wildlife advocate with the National Wildlife Federation, who opposes the Montana legislation because it would make their efforts more difficult. “And it will give us a sense of what once was.”


Now that the Buffalo's Gone

Responses to "On the Montana Range, Efforts to Restore Bison Meet Resistance"

  1. Unknown says:

    White people in power cannot stand the idea of any creature being free. If you leave it up to the law and law makers we would all be living in cages and only let out when they say so.

  2. diane says:

    let the bison roam free, let our grandchildren know of them, the goverment doesn't own them.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I don't feel color is an issue in this debate. The Buffalo must be saved. They was here long before humans. What is the difference with saving the lions, cheetahs in Africa? We must undo what was done in the 1800's. The people complaining are probably the ancestors of the people that slaughtered the Buffalo in the first place. The shouldn't be about money. Come on people it's about doing the right thing.

  4. Unknown says:

    America's ranchers and cattle owners have had the politicians "bought and paid for" for way over a century now, especially in the western states. If anything interferes with what they want they call up their "friends" (bought and paid for remember), and just tell them what they want done. No better than when they hired killers to roust and burn whole families of farmers off of their land because THEY (the cattle ranchers) wanted it all to themselves. It is time to put an end to this monopoly of land. People..ALL people..have the right to raise their own food..and bison IS food!! I hope these stupid bills get shut down and that the bison are allowed to roam again in Montana and everywhere else!!

  5. Fred Tatum says:

    THESE GREEDY PEOPLE WHO ARE FIGHTING AGAINST THE RESTORATION OF THE BUFFALO ARE A DISGRACE. These are decendents from the thieve's who stole the land from the native american to begin with.It is way past time for these people to experience what our govt.calls justice.

  6. Unknown says:

    something has got to break. . .if you don't bend . . .you break. . .horses bison bears and all wild life also live here on planet earth!

  7. Anonymous says:

    When will people wake up and realise that animals live in certain habitats AS A LINK IN A CHAIN necessary to the whole ecosystem. Bison is important in that ecosystem, they can defend themselves against wolves (also AS IMPORTANT in that ecosystem) they can live in the extreme climate and can work the soil both in the very cold winter AND in the hot summers, helping plants to grow...The ranchers should be obliged to take down ALL their fencing and why not make it mandatory to have bison instead of cattle or sheep (who are NOT native to the area) We all need to learn to LIVE WITH the nature and not AGAINST it....Bison meat is actually better for the health than beef...

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