Maybe you heard. Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP) was planning a bison discussion meeting for April 15 and 16. The meeting was cancelled late Saturday, April 12. Personally, I found out less than 24 hours before I was set to leave for the gathering.
So what does this cancellation mean in the ongoing discussion of whether or not the right to self determination applies to Eastern Montanans? I just can’t tell.
Make no mistake. Simply having the discussion is a huge improvement. Under the past administration, the approach was: There is no self-determination in Eastern Montana. The executive branch will inform them what has been decided for them. The statements that made the biggest impressions at FWP's first Eastern Montana bison meeting were, “first the Indians and now you guys,” and “what you think doesn’t matter. You are going to be gone.”
There has been one hopeful sign. Matthew Brown, after interviewing FWP Director Jeff Hagener for the Associated Press wrote on April 23, “it was no longer considered viable to establish a herd of free-roaming bison without any fencing or other limitations on where they can go” and that “a small herd of 50 to 100 bison is a potential first step” as opposed to “one earlier proposal to create a new herd of roughly 1,000 animals”.
There has been one grim sign. FWP’s Ron Aasheim told the Jordan Tribune editor that the concern was making sure the appropriate people attended and that they wanted equal pro and con representation. Unfortunately, there is no pro and con to this issue. The first position is, “we do not want people from over 200 miles away forcing something on our county that 80 percent of the residents oppose.” The second is, “we want to force decisions on counties 200 miles from where we live over the objections of 80 percent of the residents.”
On Sept. 26, 2013, FWP Director, Jeff Hagener asked (from the video of the first bison panel discussion meeting), "the biggest question that to me comes forward, is there any acceptance at all to have bison on the ground? What I would consider to be a wild bison that's managed as wildlife?" So, had that question been addressed? Was there any evidence at that time that Eastern Montana counties accept having wild bison released in them?
Valley County’s Commissioners and the Valley County Resource Use Committee commissioned a survey in late 2010. Seventy-nine percent of those surveyed did not want wild, free-roaming bison released in Valley County. Only 6 percent were in favor. Respondents came from churches, schools, restaurants, auto dealerships, hospitals, fabric stores, banks, and hotels, not to mention the Fort Peck Reservation.
In Phillips County, a petition opposing wild bison being released in Phillips County has been running since June 10, 2010 and has garnered 2,089 signatures. Phillips County has only 2,394 registered active voters.
The Montana Conservation Districts are part of a network of 3,000 conservation districts nationwide. They were created by the Montana legislature in 1939. The elected supervisors of the Conservation Districts are charged by Montana law with a mission to ensure “the conservation of soil and soil resources of this state… furthering the conservation… of water… preserve natural resources… preserve wildlife, protect the tax base, protect public lands, and protect and promote the health safety, and general welfare of the people of this state.” Phillips Conservation District (March 2011), Valley County Conservation District (Sept. 25, 2013), Petroleum County Conservation District (Nov. 28, 2011), and Garfield County Conservation District (Feb. 24, 2011) have all provided FWP with resolutions and position papers opposing the introduction of wild bison into their counties on conservation grounds.
In 2012, the voters of McCone County approved an ordinance that any state-owned bison in their county would have to be managed under a plan approved by their local Conservation District.
The FWP had held six bison meetings that I am aware of in Eastern Montana by September, 2013. At each meeting, between 30 and 100 members of the public attended, and between zero and three of those people were in favor of bison releases in this area.
At the panel discussion, on Sept. 27, after the public comment period, the facilitator, Virginia Tribe of Missoula stated, "you heard a lot of things, including the fact that local people certainly don't support the business of bison coming in in a wildlife sense." FWP Commission Richard Stuker said, "everything that I heard yesterday [at the public comment period], other than a couple of comments, are things that we've heard before... Now we know, and I think we all knew before, that people from Valley County, Phillips County, and the outlying areas do not want any bison there."
At the panel discussion on Sept. 26, Representative Mike Lang talked about a bill he had introduced that would require the FWP to coordinate bison planning with local county commissioners, “that thing passed the House and the Senate, 65 percent. It went to the Governor's office. I met with those people and with Mr. Baker ... And when it come down to it, I said, ‘okay, so you're telling me that, are you scared that no county commissioner group, 56 counties in this state, will give you approval to run bison in the state?’ And he said, ‘yes, that's why we are against your bill.’ The discussion was pretty well over at that point. To me that speaks volumes.”
The bison themselves are irrelevant to this discussion. It wouldn't matter if the National Wildlife Federation and Wildlife Conservation Society (not to mention a state senator) wanted to come over 200 miles to hand out free ice cream sandwiches in Valley County. If 80 percent of the people in the county did not want them to do so, that should be the end of the discussion.
They should not be in talks with the state to determine under what circumstances they can circumvent the right to self determination in Valley County. They should start looking for a different county that is willing to be done unto.