Steaming Over Free-Roaming Bison

American bison (Bison bison) during Winter at the Brookfield Zoo in Brookfield , Illinois on January 25, 2011

by Kayla Sargent

A move to make Montana a “home where the buffalo roam,” was not well received by the United Property Owners of Montana (UPOM).  The group recently filed suit against the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (MT FWP) to stop potential implementation of free-roaming bison proposals in the state.

In January 2020, the FWP released a programmatic environmental impact statement (EIS) on bison conservation and management in Montana.  In short, the EIS concluded that restoration of a publicly managed bison herd within the state would be “appropriate” and outlined the process should a free-roaming bison proposal be submitted in the future.

“The decision in January establishes a process that the department would use to consider for specific proposals to restore bison as wildlife in Montana,” MT FWP Communication and Education Administrator Greg Lemon said.

Currently, there are no proposals to introduce a free-roaming herd in the state.  Lemon clarified that the EIS does not streamline the process should a proposal be brought forth or ensure that it would be approved – it “simply establishes a clear, transparent public process that any proposal would have to go through.”

“Quite honestly, the process laid out by the citizen’s committee sets the bar pretty high for the public process a proposal would have to go through once it gets to us,” Lemon said.


Major Risks To Consider…


UPOM expressed concern that some of the risks associated with wild, free-roaming bison weren’t adequately addressed in the EIS.  One of the “biggest risks,” according to UPOM policy director Chuck Denowh, is disease.

“The EIS is supposed to take a hard look at all the risks so they can reach a decision on whether those risks outweigh the benefits or vice versa,” Denowh said.  “They did discuss disease in some minor detail but not in the thorough way that they should have to really dig into the risks of transmission to humans, to other wildlife species, and to livestock.”

Denowh said brucellosis is of obvious concern but other diseases like BSE and chronic wasting disease should be taken into account.  One other major concern of UPOM is the risk of damage to private property that could be associated with wild bison herds.

“In the EIS, FWP outlines some very restrictive scenarios under which landowners could potentially be reimbursed for property damage,” Denowh said.  “Without any real meaningful compensation program anticipated, landowners would be expected to shoulder the costs that they suffer through wild bison.”

For example, Denowh said, on the lower end of the spectrum it could be the cost of fence repairs.  Costs could become more extreme with crop and forage loss and even entire cattle herd losses if brucellosis were to be transmitted through wild bison.

“There’s potentially catastrophic damages that could occur that farmers and ranchers would just have to absorb on their own,” Denowh said.  “That’s the fundamental disconnect in this issue, is that the farmers and ranchers who would face all the risk with wild bison and face absorbing all of the cost get none of the benefit.”

Instead, groups like the American Prairie Reserve (APR) “and their network of wealthy donors they have throughout the world” would reap the benefits, according to Denowh.  The APR is an organization purchasing land in central Montana with the goal of creating the nation’s largest nature reserve on which buffalo herds will be restored.  To date, the APR has pieced together 419,291 acres of private and public land and reintroduced 849 bison to the landscape.

“From a fairness standpoint, FWP is not listening to the right people,” Denowh said.  “They are giving more credence to the environmental groups that want wild bison than they are the people who would be affected.”


What Does the EIS Say?


FWP began exploring bison restoration in 2012 after public request.  A “Bison Discussion Group” was created to help “develop evaluation criteria for potential bison restoration opportunities and alternatives to consider,” according to the EIS.

“The process was laid out by a citizen advisory committee that was formed during the draft EIS process,” Lemon explained.  “That committee was a broad cross-section of Montanans that were interested in the topic of bison.”

Lemon said the advisory group’s recommendations were incorporated in both the draft EIS and the final EIS released in January.  Upon releasing the draft EIS in 2015, five public hearings and a 90-day comment period were held.

Throughout the EIS process, the agency was to “determine if bison restoration is appropriate and if so, what potential opportunities are feasible,” according to the EIS.  Four alternatives were evaluated throughout the process as follows:

  • No Action
  • Restoration of a Publicly Managed Bison Herd on the Private and/or Public Lands of Willing Landowner(s)
  • Restoration of a Publicly Managed Bison Herd on Tribal Lands
  • Restoration of a Publicly Managed Bison Herd on a Large Landscape Where There are Minimal Conflicts with Livestock

In the final decision released in January 2020, the agency noted that it “has not chosen any one of the action alternatives over another, as any of them – taken alone, in some combination, or with modification – may fulfill the goals of restoration, depending on the specific elements of a given restoration proposal.”

Instead the EIS is intended to set expectations for any proposals that may reach the agency.  The guidelines were developed from the group’s recommendations as well as direction from Senate Bill 212.

The EIS then suggested that any bison restoration efforts may be most successful by first running a small test project.  This would allow learning opportunities for management techniques and create an easily scalable population that could adjust depending on resources.

“With this in mind, and based on the analysis completed in the programmatic EIS and public comments received, FWP has concluded that thoughtful implementation of a proposal within the general parameters of Alternatives 2, 3, and 4, or any combination thereof, is appropriate,” the EIS read.


Elimination of Alternative 1…


Denowh said much has changed since the 2015 comment period.  Even then, he added, many ranchers spoke out in strong opposition to wild bison herds in Montana.

“The fact that FWP proceeded after hearing all those concerns and proceeded by removing the ‘no action alternative’ and committing themselves to free-roaming bison just shows that they had a predetermined outcome in mind from the start,” Denowh said.  “That’s not how these processes are supposed to go.

He said he has “never seen” an EIS where the ‘no action’ alternative was removed as an option in the final document.  But in this case, according to Denowh, that is the only option that “FWP took off the table.”

“If they continue down this path, it’s a foregone conclusion that we will have a herd or multiple herds of free-roaming bison,” Denowh said.

Lemon said that is not the case – “it doesn’t streamline the process, it doesn’t ensure any proposal would be approved, it doesn’t set the stage for any proposal.”  He said the EIS only sets a clear process to follow should a proposal be submitted to the agency.  Lemon said remaining at “status quo,” or leaving the option of no action, would make the proposal review process unclear.

“From the decision, it was obvious that continuing with the lack of clarity on how we would consider wild bison proposals wasn’t acceptable for us,” Lemon said.  “And, quite frankly, I don’t think should be acceptable for anybody – the people who would advocate for wild bison in Montana and people who would oppose wild bison in Montana.  Clarity in the process benefits everyone.”

Setting a clear process may be beneficial, but Denowh’s major concern is that the EIS sets the “basis for multiple future proposals” and the “big one we’re worried about is the APR.”

“APR and FWP have been collaborating with each other for years now,” Denowh said.  “So that’s an obvious first place, and there’s other locations that are possible as well.  It’s hard to say where they’ll move first but it could be multiple locations.”


The Lawsuit…


UPOM’s lawsuit against FWP was filed on March 9 in the Fergus County court.  As of press time, the agency had not been “officially served.”  Denowh said UPOM hopes the lawsuit will lead to a court order for the agency to “go back and do a more thorough analysis.”

Ultimately, UPOM is against free-roaming, wild bison herds in the state of Montana outside of Yellowstone National Park, according to Denowh.

“We know the problems that the park has with that bison herd and we should not be exporting that to other parts of the state,” he said.

Any bison restoration that occurs throughout Montana should be done responsibly and in the eyes of UPOM, that means through domestic herds only.  Denowh said the APR’s current herd is domestic which means the organization is liable for any damages caused by their bison.

“That’s the way it should be done,” Denowh said.  “Not in this free-roaming bison scenario where landowners receive all of the risks and have to absorb the cost.  So that’s the outcome we want – we want to see bison restoration done responsibly and that means no wild, free-roaming bison.”


Senate Bill 212:


The January EIS on bison conservation and management in Montana created a process to be followed should proposals to create a free-roaming bison herd in the state be submitted to the FWP.  The process announced in the final EIS incorporates guidance from both the advisory committee and Senate Bill 212 (SB 212).

Montana Stockgrowers Association (MSGA) Natural Resource Director Brian Ohs said inclusion of SB 212 guidance in the final EIS was a “good thing.”  The bill, passed in the 2011 legislature and introduced by Senator Rick Ripley (R-Wolf Creek), clarified that wild bison are a species in need of management by the FWP.  The act made a requirement for a management plan to be in place before wild bison are transplanted in the state.

“Free roaming bison are going to have a tough time just being put anywhere by the department,” Ohs said.  “A proposal still has to go through the Commission (Fish and Wildlife Commission) and has to follow the parameters and guidelines in SB 212.  There’s going to have to be transparency and they’re going to have to get support from local communities so it’s not a slam dunk and we certainly don’t want it to be one.”

He said guidance set out by SB 212 and the EIS is extensive, but by no means a “silver bullet.”

MSGA, a rancher group whose members have voiced clear opposition to free-roaming bison in the state, shared their concerns with both the MT FWP Director and Governor Steve Bullock, according to Ohs.

“They certainly made sure they understood our concerns and the amount of traffic we heard in regard to bison,” Ohs said of the Board of Directors meetings with officials.  “In both cases, they assured us that there are no potential places in the hopper that free-roaming bison are set up or listed to go.”

That’s not to say that MSGA doesn’t have some concerns with the concept of free-roaming bison though.  Ohs said potential expansion of the Brucellosis Designated Surveillance Area or creation of one elsewhere in the state could come with “huge costs.”

“There’s very big concerns in the ag community and we’ve certainly heard loud and clear from the concerns of our membership,” Ohs said.  “We hope that the guidelines set forth in SB 212 are adhered to and that this isn’t an open door.”

Ohs had yet to see a copy of the UPOM lawsuit at the time of the interview so declined to comment specifically on it.  He assured that, should a proposal “come in front of the Commission” MSGA will be a part of the conversation.


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