BILLINGS, Mont. — Montana officials are reviving an attempt to forge a conservation strategy for wild bison, after the effort stalled amid a backlash from ranchers worried about new herds competing with cattle.
A broad plan for managing wild bison in Montana has been in the works since 2010. Concerted opposition from ranchers slowed the initiative, and officials have since scaled back expectations for bison restoration.
Gov. Steve Bullock said in a recent interview that bison were “incredible animals in our history and in culture,” and that it was appropriate to evaluate their future on the Montana landscape. But the Democrat added he has tried to engage the livestock industry on the topic — and he made clear that his role in bison restoration has its limits.
“I don’t have any plans on moving vast numbers of bison all over the state,” Bullock said.
A two-day forum on bison is scheduled for July 14 and 15 in Billings. State officials originally planned that meeting for April in Lewistown, but they canceled it after ranchers pledged to turn out in large numbers in opposition.
Livestock owners are worried about bison competing with cattle for grazing space, knocking down fences and spreading disease.
Among the projects being considered by state officials was the establishment of a free-raging, 1,000-bison herd somewhere in Montana.
After canceling April’s meeting, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks director Jeff Hagener said a herd of only 50 to 100 bison would be a better starting point. Those animals would have to be behind fences or otherwise contained, he said, dimming the hopes of advocates who envision herds again roaming widely on the Montana landscape.
Tens of millions of plains bison occupied much of North America before overhunting drove them nearly to extinction in the late 1800s. Restoration of the animals in Montana likely would rely on surplus bison from Yellowstone National Park, which has the largest remaining wild herds, about 4,600 animals at last count.
During their winter migrations, hundreds of the animals periodically are captured and sent to slaughter to prevent them from spreading the disease brucellosis to livestock.
Under a pilot program designed to ease some of those population pressures, about 60 captured Yellowstone bison were relocated beginning in 2012 to Montana’s Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Indian reservations. The animals underwent a multiyear quarantine to ensure they were disease-free, yet the move was widely condemned by eastern Montana ranchers and some state lawmakers, who sued unsuccessfully to block the move.
State Sen. Taylor Brown, whose family owns a ranch near Sand Springs, said the agriculture community draws the line at any proposal that would lead to bison getting onto private property.
“If we start another bison herd in Montana, then they need to be kept in a place,” Brown said. “I don’t see how you would treat it as a public wildlife resource. … You can’t have that. It won’t work.”