I received a letter from the National Wildlife Federation recently, encouraging me to write a letter to our Governor, Steve Bullock. He can be reached at PO Box 200801 Helena, MT 59620. If you’re interested in wild bison, you might wish to send him a letter.
Montana is nearing the final stages of developing a plan for managing bison. The practical side of the matter is that the Yellowstone herd consistently outgrows its wintering ground, in that is has none. Historic, lower elevation areas outside the park are not public land, and have been built up. The park itself, gifted with massive snowfall and long summer days, feeds many bison well every summer. Thus, they procreate and the resultant herd pushes more forcefully outside the park every winter.
Many people do not like this. Bison smash conventional barbed wire fences with little thought. They carry brucellosis, a disease which causes cattle to abort. Whether they often transmit it to cattle is another question. Elk also carry brucellosis, but the disease is passed via cattle eating the afterbirth of the offending species, and elk tend to not calve in areas frequented by cattle. More than all that, there is a great ideological objection to the prospect of free-ranging bison outside federal lands. Bison are big, and not controllable in the way which elk, deer, and even bears are. The current debate correctly leads to the spectre of an increasing bison herd spreading across much of the state, in a way which humans would doubtlessly find hard to control.
The above link details several options. The first is no action; specifically no restoration of bison on federal and state land outside Yellowstone (various tribes have been taking this into their own hands in recent years, on large fenced compounds). The second is the introduce a small, experimental population. The National Wildlife Federation bought up a bunch of grazing leases on the east side of the Gallatins (NW of Yellowstone), and suggests that bison be allowed to naturally establish themselves in that area under this alternative. The third and fourth alternatives specify introducing various numbers (400 and 1000) of bison elsewhere in the state.
These last options are quite scintillating. Suggested area include the greater Missouri River Breaks and CM Russell Wildlife Management Area, the Rocky Mountain Front, some small mountain ranges near Helena, and the areas west and north of Yellowstone. What is exciting about these ideas is both that they are ideally suited to supporting a substantial herd of wild bison as they exist today, and that bison would surely not confine themselves to those areas for long.
What would happen if wild bison were as free as elk in Montana? There is a truly wild herd of bison in the lower 48, in the Henry Mountains of south-central Utah, but these bison are contained by geography, in that they are surrounded by impassable-to-bison desert. In Montana, a lot would depend on the extent to which they were hunted. Experience in the Henry’s suggests that once they receive regular hunting pressure, bison become exceptionally wily. That said, hunting in Montana would have to have some restrictions, as even in places like the eastern Bob and the Breaks bison couldn’t hide that well, due to size and habit. What would be done with their tendency to smash fences, and what would be done about disease?
The answer to the latter is simple. Bison can be tested and inoculated while in captivity. If these new populations are to be seeded with bison caught in the winter outside Yellowstone, doing so would be simple. What is less simple is the issue of fences. It may take a long time, but what we are seeing in this debate is a significant step towards the decline of ranching in the American west. It’s not a uniformly positive development (ranchland sold tends to turn into wildlife-unfriendly suburbs), but the economically and agriculturally absurd practice of ranching this side of the 100th meridian is long overdue for reform. A multi-generational abberation should not be immune to critique.
This is no doubt why the livestock associations are fighting any attempts at reintroduction with everything they have. They want bison qualified as livestock, an idea as false as it is morally offensive.
Hunters, and by economic extension the state division of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (whose budget is funded by hunting licenses), are largely in favor of reintroduction. Beyond the desire to have another (very tasty) creature to hunt, I like to think that any proper hunter wants the landscape as ecologically complete as possible. And that means free-ranging bison.
For my part, seeing wild bison calving in the North Fork of the Sun River before I die would make me very, very happy. If you agree, mail that letter.