Feds propose management plan for National Bison Range; public meeting tonight in Missoula

The Bison Range is not a national park, and the USFWS has decided the preferred alternative is one that manages the refuge for the wildlife it was intended to protect a century ago. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

The National Bison Range is finalizing its first conservation plan and wants an emphasis on the wildlife. But first, it needs to hear from the people.

On Tuesday evening, Missoulians can weigh in on how the National Bison Range should be managed for at least the next 15 years as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service takes public comment on its draft comprehensive conservation plan and related environmental study for the range.

The USFWS has narrowed future guidance for management down to three options, one of which is the “No action” alternative that keeps management the way it is. The other two options would change the status quo to emphasize either the public or the wildlife.

Right now, the 18,800-acre Bison Range includes a 19-mile loop that allows visitors to drive through the rolling hills that rise above the Jocko and Flathead rivers between St. Ignatius and Moiese so they can glimpse the many species that inhabit the refuge, including bison. With the exception of a few trails, people are required to stay in their vehicles so they don’t damage the habitat or stress wildlife.

Access to the auto tour loop would continue in all cases, but under Alternative B, staff would add things to maximize public recreation and involvement. For instance, staff might update the corral system to allow the public closer access to bison during the roundup; add more fishing access to Mission Creek; or pave the autoroute and add more trails to allow better access to wildlife for photographers.

However, the Bison Range is not a national park, and the USFWS has decided the preferred alternative is one that manages the refuge for the wildlife it was intended to protect a century ago.

Under Alternative C, the refuge staff would focus on making changes that would maintain and enhance the existing ecological communities, especially as climate change makes the environment less predictable.

For instance, biologists would assess the bunchgrass prairie to know what might happen if drought reduces the amount of forage that wildlife depend on. With that knowledge, they could perhaps adjust the size of the bison herd to allow other herbivores like antelope or bighorn sheep to get their share. Under this alternative, some fishing access might be closed if fishing could stress trout that are already fighting low or warm stream conditions.

As the USFWS was developing the conservation plan, it considered an alternative that would have transferred management of the bison range to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, while the federal government would have still owned the land.

Such a move was what triggered the conservation plan in the first place.

Even thought the Bison Range is more than a century old, it’s never had a conservation plan. While a 1976 law required national forests to have forest plans, a law didn’t require the same for wildlife refuges until 1997.

All wildlife refuges were supposed to have conservation plans by 2012. But between federal budget cuts and staff leaving or being reassigned, a few refuges, including the Bison Range and the Rocky Mountain Arsenal in Colorado, are lagging behind.

So in 2016, when the USFWS was considering the idea of allowing the CSKT to manage the range, the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility sued to stop the transfer, citing the lack of a conservation plan and environmental review of what might happen to the refuge.

In response, the USFWS launched its scoping for a plan in early 2017. But two years later, this draft plan eliminates the CSKT management option, along with a possibility of allowing bison hunting on the refuge.

According to an initial USFWS review, a majority of the comments were from Montanans, who said they were againstthe CSKT alternative.

A month before the draft plan was released, CSKT leaders urged the USFWS to include the option.

“We continue to believe that restoration of the Bison Range to federal trust ownership for the Tribes is the best solution,” CSKT Chairman Ronald Trahan said in a March 20 release. “It is also historically just. The Tribes work hard as natural resource and wildlife managers and we look forward to extending our work at the Bison Range.”

The CSKT isn’t completely out of the running. Alternative C would allow the USFWS to “explore opportunities to cooperate with the CSKT on bison conservation and management.”

That may end up being unavoidable, because the conservation plan contains one other troubling detail: manning problems.

Alternatives B and C both require different programs and two to three more employees, which would increase the required annual budget by about $250,000. It’s unlikely that the refuge could get more money with Congress slashing funds and when other refuges are already facing staffing shortages.

The other thing is, under a 2016 Realignment Strategy, the agency intends to combine the National Bison Range Complex, which includes the Lost Trail, Ninepipe and Pablo wildlife refuges, with the Lee Metcalf Wildlife Refuge and the Benton Lake Complex. The resulting Western Montana Complex would share up to 22 employees among several refuges. So the employees required by Alternative C can’t devote all their time to the bison range.

Often, the development of any federal land management plan takes at least two years.

But shortly after the USFWS started scoping, Interior Sec. David Bernhardt – then deputy secretary – issued an August 2017 order that ultimately required all DIO environmental reviews to be completed by April 27, 2019 and be less than 150 pages.

The agency got the draft plan and EIS out by April 27 but has a ways to go until the plan is published. The current schedule has the plan complete by Nov. 30.

In the meantime, the USFWS is accepting comment until May 20. To attend and comment at the public meeting in Missoula, go to the Missoula Public Library at 301 E. Main St. from 5 to 8 p.m.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.