By Watty Taylor
Montana Stockgrowers Association president
As the state begins serious discussions about the potential of establishing a “free roaming” herd of bison in Montana, there seems to be a lot of disparity in opinions. Some would like to see us return to the time when bison roamed the plains without the annoyances of modern towns, farms and ranches, or a web of highways and railroads. Others can see only conflicts with establishing a herd of “wild” bison in the state. It’s quite the debate. Our question is: have Montanans expressed a true desire to see more bison, or is the pressure coming from outside our state? We do not know of any area in Montana where the local community is clamoring for a truly free roaming bison herd.
Montana is already home to many significant bison herds. There’s the herd at the National Bison Range in Moiese, the wild bison in Yellowstone National Park, and many other private herds that are raised both for conservation purposes and for agricultural purposes. Why do we need to establish another herd, let alone a free roaming one? Is it about preserving genetics of wild bison? Preservation is already happening. People and groups all across the West have been working to preserve the genetic integrity of bison. If genetics is not the issue, then what is? Hunting? There are bison hunting opportunities here in Montana both privately and publicly near Yellowstone National Park. There are also other great opportunities in states like Utah. Is there really that much interest in more hunting opportunities for bison?
Some of the outside interests pushing the hardest for a free roaming bison herd say that because of Montana’s proud wildlife heritage, we should restore bison in a free roaming capacity “just because.” Ranchers certainly understand the importance of protecting Montana’s wildlife heritage. In fact, ranchers work hard to steward the private and public lands that provide the majority of habitat for wildlife in our state. Bison are being conserved in Montana and throughout the West, so the question we should be asking is what benefit will another herd really provide? Or perhaps more importantly: what impact will these animals have on our working lands in Montana that provide the foundation of our economy as well as our beautiful scenery and important wildlife habitat?
Restoring wildlife just for the sake of doing it isn’t a good enough reason to move ahead with this effort. Montanans have seen the problems associated with wolf reintroduction and the effects it has had on other wildlife species and on our working lands. It is the private landowners and local communities who typically shoulder the burden when it comes to these efforts. Bison are already being conserved in a responsible manner that takes into consideration genetic diversity, hunting opportunities and the realities of our modern day infrastructure as a state. Let us not allow outside interests to come into our state, dictate what happens here and then leave us high and dry with an unnecessary mess, and bill, to deal with.