NWF Says It’s “Time to Pull Out All the Stops” on Bison Introduction in Montana

A sign put up by ranchers at the southern end of Phillips County, MT protesting efforts to re-introduce bison to the CMR, and restrict farming and ranching activities. (photo by Media Trackers)

The National Wildlife Federation is ramping up calls for the immediate introduction of free-roaming bison onto North Central Montana’s Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge (CMR) as farmers and ranchers raise concerns about the bison’s affect on local agriculture and continued federal overreach.

“Now we must pull out all the stops to win room for bison to once again roam their native habitat,” NWF wrote in an article on its website last week.  “It’s time to fully engage ranchers and agency decision-makers—address their concerns, examine the facts and deliver a resounding message that the American people are steadfast in support of the restoration of bison.”

Environmental groups have grown increasingly vocal in recent years in calls for the re-introduction bison onto the Northern Plains. In its web article, NWF pointed to what it called “successful” examples of the re-introductions of wolf and grizzly bear populations into other Western states as a precedent.

In Montana, much of the focus on bison re-introduction involves the 915,000 acre CMR, which surrounds Fort Peck Reservoir in one of the state’s most sparsely inhabited regions, and the federal land — managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) — that adjoins it.

“This is the best bison habitat in Montana – a national wildlife refuge – and the species is an American icon. Bison restoration is a hugely positive opportunity for Americans to right a historic wrong,” states NWF.

Spoiling the NWF’s narrative is the fact that much of the land (including the BLM land) surrounding the CMR is still either owned or leased by local farmers and ranchers who have worked the land for generations, and who often see free-roaming bison as a threat to their livelihood.

In an e-mail to Media Trackers, Republican state Rep. Kerry White, who also serves as a spokesman for the group Citizens for Balanced Use (CBU), stated that the very large animals destroy private property, trample crops, and carry diseases, such as brucellosis, that threaten cattle herds.

“If free roaming bison are introduced on the landscape as wild the property owners have no alternatives for compensation on property damage. FWP would be the sole authority over wildlife and recent court decisions have decided that private property owners must allow wildlife on their property,” stated White. “Bison have damaged property in North East Montana several times when they escape from the reservation. They tear down fences, destroy crop land, haystacks, and pasture land.”

White also emphasized that many farmers and ranchers see this issue as bigger than simply allowing free range bison on the CMR. They see it as part of a larger federal environmental policy shift to force them out of business.

“This is about control of land by our federal government and removing people from the land. In Northeast Montana the bison is being used to take private property or destroy private property and in fact reduce our ability to produce food. The bison as free roaming will destroy agriculture operations and small communities. The tax base of these small communities will suffer and essential services will disappear,” wrote White.

In a telephone interview with Media Trackers, Montana Stockgrowers Association Natural Resource Director Jay Bodner would not say that the main interest group representing Montana ranchers and farmers outright opposes free-roaming bison. However, Bodner did state that stockgrowers had “very real concerns” about bison reintroduction. He also noted that, given the geography of the CMR, containing the bison in the refuge and keeping them off of nearby ranch lands would be difficult.

“Until these issues are addressed, I would say that most of our members will continue to oppose free-roaming bison,” stated Bodner.

Already under way near the refuge is an effort by a non-profit organization called the American Prairie Reserve to buy up private ranch land adjoining the CMR and the BLM grazing leases that go with them. The group’s eventual goal is to work with the federal government to put bison put back on the land. The organization is staffed with several NWF activists, including NWF Regional Executive Director Tom France.

The American Prairie Reserve also has direct ties to left-wing billionaire George Soros: one of the group’s board members is Soros Fund Management Chief Investment Officer Keith T. Anderson, who the Wall Street Journal called “Soros’s money man.” Anderson is listed also listed as a “private investor.”

Currently, nearly all Montana bison herds outside the areas around Yellowstone National Park are privately owned. As a result, they are classified as livestock rather than wildlife and are managed as such.

Environmental groups are pushing for the “free-roaming” classification of re-introduced bison because that classification offers state and federal protections as “wildlife” and leaves landowners with little recourse when their private property is harmed. Earlier this month, a Montana District Judge ruled that bison being relocated from Yellowstone to other parts of the state for “bison restoration efforts” could not be reclassified as “livestock.”

Last month, the Montana Supreme Court ruled that landowners in Park County — just north of Yellowstone Park — had no legal recourse when the state decided over the winter to expand the “free-range” territory for Yellowstone Bison.

Editor’s Note 4/24/2014 at 11:39 AM: Corrected a grammatical error in the 11th paragraph.