Montana Public Radio

State Plan For Wild Bison On The Table Thursday

Oct 8, 2014

Credit Josh Burnham

Bison management always spurs passionate debate in Montana and a meeting tomorrow in Great Falls will consider whether wild herds should be established outside of Yellowstone National Park.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is considering that possibility.

Conservationist Keith Aune says he thinks Montana can develop a good plan. Aune's director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's bison programs.

He says Montana has a long history of successfully managing difficult and socially divisive species including grizzly bears and wolves. He says bison are good for everything from tribal cultural awareness to local economies.

"It's shown actually all across North America where are are quite a few bison in different places that there's a lot of economic interest there." Aune says, "There are, in fact, hunting opportunities. There's opportunities for sportsmen to engage the species once again. There's opportunities for tourism. There are benefits that come with ecosystem services that comes with having a native grazer back on the land."

Montana Stockgrowers Association members are more skeptical of the perceived benefits of new bison herds. The ranching association's Jay Bodner says many of the group's roughly 2500 members are worried about the potential risks associated with restoring a wild bison population. They could include everything from physical containment to broad management issues.

"Then you have to bring in the funding issue," says Bodner. "If you're going to look at trying to restore some kind of bison, certainly there are going to be significant costs with that. Will they be sufficient to carry on for as long as this bison restoration plan potentially would move forward."

Then there are bison advocates who argue the discussion isn't nearly as ambitious as it should be. The West Yellowstone based Buffalo Field Campaign's Darrell Geist says no one from his organization is participating in tomorrow's event. Geist says Montana's only wild buffalo herd occupies less than one percent of the state's available habitat, and those Yellowstone area animals, he says, are treated like diseased vermin. Geist says Montana needs a real solution and he has no faith this group will produce one.

"Montana's proposing to essentially reintroduce a population of bison that's in a limited range, contained by fences and it's unlikely to result in a wild population." Geist says, "That's the basis for being an advocate in Montana, that we have wild buffalo roaming the landscape again and Montana has eliminated this alternative from consideration."

The Bison Discussion Group meets tomorrow morning at 9:30 at the Great Falls's Holiday Inn.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Park's spokesman Ron Aasheim says a lot rides on what the group decides tomorrow. If it opts to scrap the idea, it dies right there. If participants want to further explore the proposal, follow-up plans will be developed later.