The Courier recently received the following letter from the National Wildlife Federation.
Dear Phillips/Valley County Resident:
Last year, through a similar letter, National Wildlife Federation (NWF) heard from hundreds of residents in northeast Montana regarding concerns over a wild bison restoration. We have listened and responded to those concerns and are hopeful we can continue to find solutions where both livestock and wildlife can thrive on Montana's prairies.
As many of you know, the 2013 Legislature considered a number of bison bills, some of which would have made it difficult or impossible to restore wild bison. The Legislature killed most of these bills and a couple were vetoed by the Governor.
With the law unchanged, the most important bill concerning bison remains the comprehensive planning bill that the Legislature enacted in 2011. Under SB 212, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is required to prepare a comprehensive plan before any wild bison are released on to private or public land in Montana. FWP has been carefully – some would say cautiously – developing such a plan.
Over the last year we have been in many meetings with people from Phillips and Valley Counties, including legislative hearings, the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge working group and most recently, a listening session that FWP convened in Lewistown near the end of September. While we appreciate that many people are unalterably opposed to bison restoration, we have heard suggestions about ways forward.
Here are some of the most important concepts that we have heard as we think about bison restoration:
Restored bison will not be free-roaming. They must be constrained in some fashion in accordance with state law, their range limited to an agreed upon area in an appropriate way.
Areas where bison will be tolerated need to be identified sooner rather than later. Many people, even those who oppose bison restoration, feel they have been to an endless series of meetings where nothing is decided.
Source populations for any new bison herd must be absolutely disease-free, and the herd must be monitored to ensure it stays disease-free.
A new herd of bison should be managed as wildlife, public hunting should be the preferred tool for managing herd size and distribution, and bison restoration should be focused on public lands where hunting and management can be most effective.
Private property rights must be respected.
As we said last year in a letter to residents of Phillips and Valley counties, the National Wildlife Federation is fully committed to restoring a well-managed herd of wild bison to the area in and around the CMR. But that's not our only goal. We are equally committed to maintaining a healthy livestock industry and fostering prosperous agricultural operations and diverse local economies.
We believe the expansive C. M. Russell Wildlife Refuge – made up of public land managed with a mandate of wildlife conservation – is the best place in Montana – and likely the best place in the nation – to restore bison.
Two statewide polls show a large majority of Montanans agree. FWP's planning process will determine if we're correct about CMR as a good place for bison. We can even take this a step further – NWF does not support bison restoration on small areas such as the Spotted Dog Wildlife Management Area, the Marias River Wildlife Management area, and similar sites of marginal size.
Other questions also need answers.
How many bison are appropriate?
How do we ensure they are managed effectively?
What are the costs and benefits?
How do we prevent problems? And how do we make sure, even if we can't make everybody happy about returning bison to the CMR, that we at least work together to ensure adverse impacts are negligible?
We all need answers to these and other questions about bison restoration at the CMR. The best way to get these answers is for FWP to complete the draft management plan and environmental impact statement, and put them out for full public comment.
Many Montanans have opinions about bison. Once FWP completes its work, we'll all have more solid facts to work with. With the best information, Montanans can be assured of the best decisions.
We're trying to do a lot more listening than talking at gatherings like the stakeholders' meeting in Lewistown, and we hear and respect the concerns that some people have about bison. We're determined to address and resolve those concerns. We want you to know that we're committed to working with one and all. We invite your thoughts and suggestions.
Kit Fischer rides point on our bison work, and he'd be happy to hear your ideas about how we all can work toward win-win decisions on bison restoration and management. You can reach Kit at 406-541-6731 or firstname.lastname@example.org.