Viewpoint: Montana needs to change the conversation about bison
Bison have spent a lot of time in the news lately and are particularly top of mind for many Montanans. Much of this attention is due to the manufactured controversy escalated by several state entities, including Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Governor Gianforte, Attorney General Knudsen, and now various Stockgrowers and Cattlemen’s associations.
These groups have taken it upon themselves to publicly drag the Bureau of Land Management through the mud regarding their approval of a change of use application that would allow American Prairie to graze bison and/or cattle on several of their northeastern Montana grazing allotments.
The wholesale attack on the federal agency comes from a longstanding opposition to bison by the Montana Department of Livestock, which is afraid of losing grass (and perhaps political influence) to our national mammal. This sentiment has worked its way into leadership at other Montana agencies despite previous openness to wild bison reintroduction.
The vigor with which FWP is attacking the Bureau’s decision to approve bison on public lands is a great example of the whiplash experienced within the agency since the election of Governor Gianforte in 2020. FWP was once known as a one of the premiere state wildlife agencies in the country. But recently, rigorous science has taken a backseat to anti-environmental politics, and bison are just another casualty.
Between 2011 and 2020 FWP undertook an extensive investigation into the ecology, economics, politics, and legality of reintroducing bison to the state. In January 2020, FWP concluded that, “if wild bison are restored to Montana, the record shows that management issues can be successfully addressed at a landscape scale.” This 2020 decision acknowledged that bison have a biological, cultural, economic, and social role in the state of Montana and that an appropriate proposal for reintroduction could move forward. Shortly after taking office, Governor Gianforte dismissed this decision, setting the stage for the FWP of today that is spending countless hours and taxpayer dollars to fight a BLM decision to allow a few hundred new bison owned by a permittee with a good track record of management to graze on four federal grazing allotments.
Instead of taking what was learned from that 10-year Environmental Impact Statement process about the benefits of bison, FWP and others are raising hyperbolic alarms about a few hundred well-managed bison. But the concerns raised are just that, hyperbolic. There have been successful bison re-introductions to 65 herds managed by 82 tribes and counting from New York to Alaska throughout the years including several already in Montana. The management of these approximately 20,000 bison provide excellent examples of how well-managed bison herds can be allowed to fulfill their ecological and cultural roles.
The opposition of FWP and others to American Prairie’s bison is fanning the flames of bison hysteria and giving valuable airtime to false claims that enhance fears about the potential of bison reintroduction. From a scientific perspective, bison are known as “ecosystem engineers” as they have outsized benefits for the prairie ecosystem. In a time where drought, climate change, and biodiversity loss are top of mind the state should be encouraging a broad range of wildlife management solutions rather than pandering to unfounded fears about bison spreading disease and destruction.
Earlier this month, the final report on “Stakeholder Perspectives Regarding Potential Bison and Bighorn Sheep on the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and Recommendations for Public Engagement” was disseminated to the “stakeholders” that participated in the interview process. The report regurgitated ideas about bison being harmful to agriculture interests. Notably, the report mentioned that many Anglo “locals” do not consider the Tribes “locals” despite their proximity to the Refuge and their inhabitance of and ties to the land since time immemorial.
Upon reading the report, one thing is certain. Entrenched interests that have successfully blocked wild bison reintroduction for decades still have the upper hand. Intentional fear-mongering by the Department of Livestock and other powerful Montana leaders aids this agenda. If they have it their way we’ll keep talking in circles for decades, all the while successfully avoiding the reintroduction of bison to public lands. It’s a shame that our national mammal cannot be respected as a species of native wildlife with an important ecological and cultural role on the landscape.
The expansive area of connected public lands included in the CMR Refuge, the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, and the UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge is the logical next step for bison reintroduction. We need more than endless stakeholder meetings designed to result in stalemate. We need action. And we need to change the conversation to reflect the realities of what bison do—and do not—bring to the landscape.
Jocelyn Leroux, M.A. is the Washington-Montana Director with Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit conservation group dedicated to protecting and restoring wildlife and watersheds throughout the American West.