When it comes to abundant, diverse wildlife, Montana is marvelously fortunate. When it comes to managing that wildlife, we face some outsized challenges.
For example, the recent decision by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and federal officials to “loan” 88 bison to Ted Turner, a move that comes with a truckload of questions.
The deal is this: Turner agrees to take the bison and let them roam on 12,000 acres of his Flying D Ranch near Bozeman. He tends the bison for five years and gets to keep 75 percent of the offspring. The loaned animals and the remaining 25 percent of the offspring, an estimated 150, will be returned to the state in 2015.
Turner gets some new critters and an infusion of new genes into his existing bison herd, which already contains more than 50,000 animals scattered across of number of Western states. For the billionaire founder of CNN, and former owner of the Atlanta Braves, it’s a business deal, pure and simple.
For the state and federal agencies charged with managing the bison that roam in and out of Yellowstone National Park, and taxpayers, it’s a dicier proposition. The agencies have been spending about $250,000 a year on the bison quarantine program. We hope some of that money can be saved.
But the original plan was for those bison to be moved to public land and indeed, there were several offers to place them on Indian reservations and in a Wyoming state park. Those offers were turned down, for a variety of seemingly legitimate reasons involving management questions, genetics and possible future sales.
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer invited Turner to submit an offer to deal with the bison last fall. The hint of any sort of any deal between the state’s top elected official and its best-known part-time resident is itself unsettling. While Turner may be in the best position to take the park bison, would proposals from other bison ranchers have been considered?
But a broader unsettled question hovers over the bison deal: Is this a privatization of public wildlife, as critics charge? Should private interests be allowed to profit from what is clearly an asset owned and managed on behalf of all of us?
As is the case with most tough questions, there are no simple answers.
And it’s important to remember that this deal is the result of what is at best a weak-kneed plan to deal with the roaming park bison. That plan, which at times has involved hazing, hunts by members of the public and Indian tribes and slaughter by hired guns, has few fans.
It’s clear that the state and federal agencies need to find a way to better manage the Yellowstone bison. There need to be rules that spell out exactly how and when the shaggy beasts can be relocated to public land and managed by public officials. By no means should turning over public wildlife to private interests, even on a temporary basis, be part of a long-term management plan.
But in the short term, are the 88 bison currently in quarantine going to be better off eating Ted Turner’s grass in coming years? Probably so.