Are roaming herds of bison like dinosaurs?
That the question that Montana is considering in a remarkable discussion about the future of wildlife in the Big Sky state. Much of the West, including Montana, is locked in debates over how to prevent sage grouse from disappearing. But Montana is considering an ambitious program to restore one of its keystone game species.
Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks has organized meetings around that state to talk about restoring a large free-roaming herd of bison in the state’s northeast corner. Steve Woodruff, a former Missoulian editor, now with the National Wildlife Federation, examines the issue for Mountain West News.
Woodruff tells how ranchers oppose the measure in part because they worry that free-roaming bison will be allowed to expand everywhere and compete with them for limited water, grass and space. They argue that bison’s near elimination was a necessary prequel to the development of the West.
Bringing back free-roaming bison outside of national parks like Yellowstone and Grand Teton would be step backwards, not forward, these folks say.
Jay Gore, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist, who moved from Boise to Missoula, sent me his thoughts on the issue. For him it's about preserving the North American model of wildlife management, where wildlife is protected as a public trust and not just for a landed few.
He sees restoration of bison as the natural next step now that sportsmen and the public have together restored populations of elk, antelope, giant Canada geese, wild turkeys, mountain bighorn sheep and goats, and others.
Surely there is a small place on our huge Great Plains for a population of free ranging bison,” Gore wrote. “Surely a core area of public land can be found, public and private funds made available, and multiple use lands made compatible for a viable herd.”
Gore acknowledged that neighboring private landowners may be inconvenienced and sustain damage. “That must be recognized and provisions made for fair compensation,” he said.
Montana is one of the Great Plains states where such discussions are farther along. But there is no reason to limit such talks to the Great Plains since bison lived in much of the intermountain West as well. And isn't he major issue about where the can live viably and be tolerated?
In Idaho the Shoshone Bannock Tribes has a small herd of bison on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation. But bison management was largely taken out of the hands of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game by the Idaho Legislature when a few strays came into Island Park from Yellowstone in the 1990s.
Fear of brucellosis, a disease that causes cows to abort their young drove that decision. Ironically, it is nearly the exact opposite of what lawmakers did with bighorn sheep that were threatened by disease from domestic sheep.
It is these kinds of conflicts that make ranches weary of wildlife restoration proposals. But these too can be managed if folks avoid discouraging words.
If Idaho were to consider such a proposal, the natural area for it would be the 890 square-mile Idaho National Laboratory. This huge expanse of sagebrush steppe and grassland, along with perhaps neighboring Shoshone-Bannock lands, could give Idaho a place where herds of bison once again roam.