Montana officials are butting heads over the future of the national mammal. At stake is whether bison should be treated as livestock or as wildlife. New legislation and policy changes under the Gianforte administration are derailing hopes of establishing the first free-roaming bison herds in the state.
It’s baby bison season in Yellowstone National Park. Tourists are pulled off on the side of the road, marveling at newborns a couple hundred yards away. One tourist, Kathie King, is from Butte.
"Oh, the babies,” she laughs. “That’s why we like this time of year. To see the babies.”
Tens of millions of bison roamed throughout North America historically. Tribal peoples depended on the animal spiritually and for nutrition, and those connections continue to this day. But by the early 1900s, fewer than two dozen of the animals remained in the wild in Yellowstone National Park. Today, this is the largest bison herd on public land in the U.S.
As these babies are born and the population grows, the National Park Service keeps the population down through culling, hunting, and a quarantine program that sends bison to tribal herds.
The calves’ bright fur earns them the nickname “red dogs.” They walk clumsily next to their mothers in a wide expanse of sage.
“They’re hopping around and having fun and they are just cute,” King says.
King’s husband, Ernie Kindt, sees things a little differently.
“Well I would say those little calves look like they’re ready for branding,” he says, chuckling.
Kindt’s joking, but his aside highlights a tension bubbling to the surface in the wake of this year’s legislative session. Over the past few months, the state government has initiated a major push against unfenced, wild bison.
Chuck Denowh, policy director at United Property Owners of Montana, is on the side of the government.
“I'm seeing everybody at the local level saying ‘slow down.’ We don't want to unleash free roaming bison on our populations, on our ... land.”
For Denowh, that ‘everybody’ includes local governments and the Gianforte administration. Denowh’s group has run a years-long campaign against wild bison in Montana and against the American Prairie Reserve, a massive wildlife sanctuary on mostly private land dedicated to bison conservation.
Ranchers and the livestock industry have resisted free-roaming bison for decades, mostly because the animals can carry brucellosis, a disease that causes cattle to spontaneously abort. There’s never been a documented case of transmission in the wild. But Denowh says, “The reason we haven’t had any transmissions is because we’ve done a very good job of managing wild bison in the Yellowstone area to keep them separated from livestock.”
He added that wild bison run the risk of transmitting brucellosis to elk, which can then transmit to cattle.
Two pieces of legislation addressing bison management passed the Legislature this year, after similar bills were vetoed by Democratic governors in past sessions They require county approval to translocate wild bison and restrict which bison can be legally classified as “wild.” Denowh says he supported them both, and that the policies empower local officials who would live near the bison.
“The people that actually live in that area, that have property that would be negatively affected, that face costs and risks to their own livelihoods. Those are the people that matter. And those are the ones saying, no, we don't want wild bison.”
Last month, Gov. Greg Gianforte scrapped the state’s bison management plan in a settlement with Denowh’s organization.
That plan was eight years in the making. Published in January 2020, it laid the groundwork for what wild bison reintroduction in Montana would look like — without specifying any particular site or plan for a herd. When the plan was released Martha Williams, former director of Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, wrote in an op-ed that “bison restoration has a place in Montana.”
Gianforte reversed course on that idea.
“Bison are classified as livestock here in the state, and to make any change we’d have to build consensus among stockgrowers and conservation groups, and that hasn’t happened yet.”
In a statement, Brooke Stroyke, a spokesperson for Gianforte, said the bison management plan relied on incomplete, outdated data and that “significant additional research and analysis is required” before the state can decide if wild bison belong on the landscape in Montana. The settlement prohibits the state from crafting a new bison plan for a decade.
In an emailed statement, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesperson Greg Lemon said, “We haven’t undertaken restoration efforts and, given the settlement agreement, we don’t have plans to do so for at least 10 years.”
The agency pulled its bison management page from the Internet.
Jim Steinbeisser is president of Montana Stockgrowers Association.
“We’re very happy with the position that Gov. Gianforte is taking on this bison issue.”
He says ranchers can feel the economic impact of bison whether or not transmission of brucellosis occurs.
“We have bordering states and even states as far down as Texas that have indicated that they don’t want Montana heifers if they came from an area where there’s been brucellosis.”
Kit Fischer, director of wildlife programs for the National Wildlife Federation, says bison are the only native megafauna in Montana that haven’t made a comeback as wildlife. He says wild bison and livestock aren’t either/or options. His organization was part of the collaboration that formed the state bison management plan.
“It’s just been disappointing, I think, to continue to see these challenges stir up.”
Fischer says bills signed by Gianforte from the 2021 legislative session will make it harder to introduce free-roaming bison anywhere in Montana. He says managing wildlife should be up to wildlife professionals — not the Legislature.
Nick Gevock is conservation director with the Montana Wildlife Federation.
“I just think it's unfortunate because these decisions, both in the Legislature and coming from the Gianforte administration, are setting us back decades in what we think could be an incredible restoration story of our national mammal.”
He says the state’s management plan laid out strict guidelines for local involvement and that stepping back from that plan creates a vacuum in leadership.
“Now we've basically weakened that local voice and not just weakened, but completely taken them out. So Montana will be on the sidelines as other entities move forward in bison restoration and conservation.”
Tyson Running Wolf, Democratic Representative from Browning and member of the Blackfeet Nation, says throughout the session, he could see the writing on the wall.
“This new administration, I feel, just drew the line in the sand and said, no, we're not going any further. This is it.”
With the state showing clear resistance to wild bison, Running Wolf and some of his colleagues looked to the federal government. Along with seven other members of Montana’s American Indian Caucus, Running Wolf co-authored a letter to Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland in late April, before Gianforte eliminated the state’s bison management plan.
The letter asked the Department of the Interior to consider establishing tribally managed herds on the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Montana and in and around Glacier National Park. It also detailed the tribes’ legal claims to management in those areas. “While much has changed since the Tribes made these agreements,” the letter says, “both the grass and the Tribes are still present; only the buffalo are missing.”
“We were scientists in our own right by managing the land” Running Wolf says. “And I think we get overlooked, and so getting them buffalo back on the landscape, back within our culture will improve our lifestyle, will improve their lifestyle and will improve the ecosystem. So that's the big push.”
Running Wolf said the department hasn’t yet responded specifically to the letter. Under President Donald Trump, the department last year initiated a decade-long program dedicated to preserving bison as wildlife, rather than livestock. In a statement, a spokesperson for the DOI said the organization plans to begin a multi-year process looking at bison reintroduction in the Charles M. Russell refuge this summer.
“If the state decides they want to be players in this, great. If not, I think tribal nations and the federal government are going to keep going forward.”
In response to federal wildlife officials building plans for bison reintroduction, Gov. Gianforte says, “They should stay in Washington.”
The governor says bison pose challenges that are best addressed at the state level.