Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks has a rich history of working with the people of this state to restore elk, moose, mountain goats, bears, wolves, lions, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, and other wildlife species that had all but disappeared by the early half of the 20th century. One reason for these successes is the landowners who steward habitat and provide hunting access and the hunters who pay for wildlife management agree that Montana is a state defined by healthy and abundant wildlife populations. One of FWP’s roles is to bring these and other interests together, help find common ground, and iron out the finer details of wildlife management.
Such has been the case with restoring bison.
After an exhaustive public process that spanned nearly a decade, FWP recognizes that bison restoration has a place in Montana, whether on tribal land, public land or private lands of willing landowners. In deciding this, FWP sets out a process a bison restoration proposal should follow that allows for collaboration and transparency. Any restoration proposal must follow extensive guidelines addressing the interests of bison restoration along with those of the people living near and directly affected by the project. This sort of process is the way Montana stands apart – we still have the capacity to roll up our sleeves and find solutions when we want to.
The formal process for evaluating the potential for restoring bison was an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that we began in 2012. In 2015 we drafted the final Bison Conservation and Management in Montana EIS and put it out for public review and comment. Hundreds of people attended public hearings held across the state, and thousands of people from Montana and across the United States submitted comments.
Now, nearly 8 years later, we have made our decision.
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Restoring bison herds is nothing new. It’s been done successfully in select locations in several other states and Canadian provinces. Wildlife agencies in Oregon, Utah, Minnesota, South Dakota, Alberta, and Saskatchewan have successfully managed and conserved bison by working closely with public and private landowners and other citizens to address their concerns. There’s no reason Montana can’t do the same.
State law requires that FWP provide stewardship for all wildlife, including bison. We’re also required to manage wildlife in ways that keep them from being listed as a state or federally endangered species. Given our charge, it would be irresponsible for us not to help lead the discussion on where and how these denizens of the Great Plains, which once lived throughout much of today’s Montana, might be conserved and managed in the state.
Part of this responsibility is to require that, before consideration, any bison restoration proposals must be devised collaboratively, taking into account the concerns of landowners and communities small and large. They will also need to follow guidelines outlined in state law and generally supported by a wide range of interests.
FWP recognizes that a sustainable future for wild bison in Montana depends on carefully balancing complex biological, sociological, and economic considerations. Only by building trust and working earnestly with these various interests, especially people concerned that their livelihoods might be affected by restoration, will Montana be able to return bison to its rightful place among the other successfully restored wildlife species that, collectively, make Montana a state unlike any other.
Martha Williams is the director of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.