Wild bison were the topic of a Sept. 26 and 27 meeting hosted in Lewistown by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. FWP Director Jeff Hagener invited people representing the interests of rural communities, government agencies and bison introduction advocates to “explore some common values,” asking, “Is there anywhere we can go as far as middle ground?”
The meeting was open to the public, but the discussion was held “at the table,” moderated by Ginny Tribe, an out-of-department facilitator, who introduced herself by saying, “I’m from Missoula. I know that might be hard on some of you.”
Tribe opened discussion by asking those at the table to introduce themselves and explain their interests.
State Sen. Jim Peterson (R - SD 15) asked for a management plan “that will respect the glue and culture of the local ranchers and local communities and local economics.” He also asked, “Why are we being forced to accept these bison?”
Tom France of the National Wildlife Federation said he wanted “a huntable public herd for all Montana.” France compared bison to deer and antelope and said, “Bison are the one species that has not been restored in the same way.”
FWP Commissioner Larry Wetsit said that to be fair, “We should have a number of buffalo sitting at this table to make this decision.”
State Sen. Taylor Brown (R - SD 22) said, “It is in my interest to protect property rights “because you can’t do effective conservation unless you’re managing for your grandkids’ grandkids.”
After three hours of discussion, Tribe asked if anyone had noticed commonalities. Brown observed that none of the agricultural interests had said they were against biodiversity and none of those advocating bison introduction had said they were against private property rights.
The group also agreed that “wild” is difficult to define. “It’s excruciating,” France said.
No one could say whether bison that had been captured for translocation were still legally wild. Peterson, who spent 90 days in the legislature wrestling with a bill that could have clarified the definition, said, “We were not able to get past that word ‘capture’.”
Director Hagener said the issue may be decided in court.
The group discussed the conservation efforts of bison ranchers and Indian tribes, but the main topic of the meeting was whether Montanans would accept a new wild bison herd managed by FWP.
France of the NWF criticized FWP’s decision to look state-wide for potential bison introduction sites because it made ranchers afraid their place would be the target. He said FWP should focus on Valley and Phillips counties.
The room at the Yogo Inn continued to fill over the course of the day, with attendance ranging from 50 at the beginning of the meeting to 90 when it was time for the public comment period. Tribe instructed the members of the public to hold their comments under three minutes, but she did not cut anyone off. The next day, she said only two people had gone over time.
Among the public, those advocating for wild bison introduction were in the minority. Those concerned by wild bison introduction often received brief applause, which Tribe did not attempt to curtail. On Friday morning, Tribe encouraged those at the table to discuss what they heard in the public comments.
During public comment, Nancy Ereaux from the Content community south of Malta suggested that fixing the bison problem at Yellowstone should be step number one. “If FWP and the governor are listening to public input and it is that overwhelming, why are we moving to step number two?”
On Friday, Jeanne-Marie Souvigney, representing the Greater Yellowstone Coalition at the table, said, “The idea that it has to be solved or fixed before we move forward with this doesn’t make sense to me.”
During public comment, Sierra Stoneberg Holt, an associate supervisor for the Valley County Conservation District, said the reason the legislature had so many bills trying to stop bison introduction was because legislators’ constituents wanted it stopped. Her survey of Valley County found that 79 percent of the registered voters were opposed to wild, free-roaming bison.
On Friday, State Sen. Mike Phillips (D - SD 33) from Bozeman said, in reference to the survey, that leaders must lead. “Ultimately, I don’t think the decision makers would necessarily subject the decision to a public opinion poll.”
Tribe separated those at the table into four small groups to work on guiding principles, constraints and agreements, a description of what the public process should look like, and what a pilot project might look like. Peterson suggested a better term was “test project” because “a pilot is a small hole that might get bigger.”
Another term that needed clarification was “containment.” Rick Potts, refuge manager for the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge said, “As a wildlife biologist, when we talk about ‘containment,’ that means there are management zones: one zone where the animal is allowed to be, one zone where it is hazed back, and one zone where it will not be tolerated. In other words, ‘contained’ doesn’t always mean ‘fenced’.”
Lesley Robinson, Phillips County commissioner, said, “I think I’m the only one who reads the statutes.” She pointed out that according to law, FWP cannot introduce bison without adequate fencing.
Sen. Phillips said the language of the law had been carefully chosen in the legislature. “It doesn’t mean that fencing has to be applied exclusively.” There just needs to be some fencing.
Dick Dolan, managing director of the American Prairie Reserve, said, “Now I gotta be the lawyer here.” In the law as written, fencing was only necessary “if required.” The issue was left unresolved.
During public comment, Dean Rogge, vice chairman of the Garfield County Conservation District, asked that Director Hagener give the conservation districts a seat at the table next time, and Ron Moody, a former FWP commissioner, asked that hunters be represented.
On Friday, Director Hagener said that some hunters had been asked but had not been able to come.
The absence of tribal representatives was frequently noted. FWP Commissioner Wetsit is the 564th keeper of the Assiniboine medicine lodge, but he was attending in his role as commissioner. According to FWP Nongame Program Coordinator Lauri Hanauska-Brown, Mike Fox, a member of the Fort Belknap Indian Community Council, had confirmed he would be attending, but his seat remained vacant.
No decisions were made at the meeting and the group reached no formal consensus. Director Hagener said his next step would be discussions within the department. In particular, the funding was uncertain.
“If we’re going to proceed with anything, we need to take a clear look at that.”
Hagener made no commitment on when or even if the public planning process would continue, saying, “I can’t forecast when we would actually come out with a decision.”
“There is no plan,” said Ken McDonald, administrator of FWP’s Wildlife Division. “We’re trying to get a process to have a discussion about a plan.”
After the director’s comments, Tribe asked those at the table for their final impressions of the meeting. McDonald said, “I appreciate the civil and articulate discussion.”
Disclosure: J. Holt is married to Sierra Stoneberg Holt, the associate supervisor for the Valley County Conservation District mentioned in the article. They were compensated for their mileage by the Valley County Conservation District. A hunter passing through the family ranch volunteered to cover their food and lodging.