The recent Montana Supreme Court decision validating the transfer of bison between tribal lands on the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap reservations again put bison in the news. Now is a good time to provide some clarity regarding the State of Montana’s approach to this issue.
Bison management by the State of Montana falls into three categories: bison around Yellowstone Park, bison on non-tribal lands in the rest of the state, and bison on tribal lands.
Bison that migrate into Montana from Yellowstone National Park are managed by three federal and two Montana agencies under a court-ordered agreement that allows for management to adjust in response to changing and unpredictable conditions.
Under that management plan, the state agencies are currently considering some degree of year-round allowance for bison in specified areas on the west and north sides of Yellowstone Park. On the west side, the proposal could allow bison to range from the Hebgen Basin to as far north as the Taylor Fork drainage, but not further north into the Gallatin Canyon. On the north side, this proposal could allow for bull bison to be present in the Gardiner Basin.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has held public meetings in Gardiner and West Yellowstone, and a draft environmental review was released last week. A decision is anticipated this fall, that will be based on public input and appropriate science.
Outside Of The Yellowstone Area
On non-tribal lands in the rest of the state, FWP has no current plans to move bison anywhere in the state of Montana.
FWP believes it is critical to take a statewide look at bison management in Montana, and has started a planning process to explore the future of wild bison. In 2012 there were eight public meetings around the state, and FWP received more than 20,000 comments. There are no pre-determined outcomes to this statewide planning process, and the anticipated completion of this bison plan is late 2015. To assist with the next step in this process, FWP plans to convene a meeting of stakeholders to provide input to the planning effort.
If bison movement is contemplated in the future, FWP will convene a local working group to provide input and develop an area-specific management plan, all through a public process. This process will occur before any bison under FWP jurisdiction are released on private or public land in Montana, and the owner of that land must authorize any such release.
Native American tribes have expressed strong interest in obtaining wild bison for the restoration of cultural and subsistence values, but no bison will be moved to tribal lands by the State without extensive brucellosis testing and specific management measures agreed to by the parties, as was done with the bison moved to Fort Peck lands.
Presently, no plans exist for moving bison to any tribal lands, other than the potential for moving the bison originally destined for the Fort Belknap reservation from Fort Peck lands, which was the subject of the recent decision by the Montana Supreme Court.
FWP has an obligation to manage all wildlife for the greatest benefit of all Montanans. We believe it is important to undertake an open and honest planning effort to determine the course of bison management. We are committed to an inclusive process that allows all interests to weigh in, and to expect a forum that provides for reason and respect.
M. Jeff Hagener is executive director of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.