Montana tribes push state to restore wild bison herd

Bison ponder the distant Mission Mountains from their home on the National Bison Range earlier this month. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

Montana’s tribal nations will no longer wait for state officials to decide whether bison will be allowed to roam free somewhere on public land, even though the state acknowledges the need for action.

If the state can’t establish a wild bison herd, individual tribes will restore herds on their reservations.

That was the take-away message of Buffalo Unites Us, a gathering of about 60 tribal, state and nonprofit leaders who met in Polson this week to discuss the status of efforts to establish more herds of wild bison in the United States.

Montana has a federally managed herd on the National Bison Range north of Missoula and wild bison on its doorstep in Yellowstone National Park.

But a push to establish a wild herd in the state – most likely on the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge – stalled in 2015, when a Fish, Wildlife and Parks environmental impact statement was opened to public comment but went no further.

FWP director Martha Williams agreed the EIS has been on hold too long and that a decision is coming, but she wouldn’t reveal what the decision would be made – or when it would be announced.

In fact, it’s likely that the Bullock administration would wait until the 2019 Legislature adjourns, because bison opponents – mainly agricultural producers – could try to pass bills to limit the species’ expansion into new habitats.

“While I feel the weight of the public trust responsibility in wildlife, it is incumbent upon Fish, Wildlife and Parks to adhere to the laws set by the Legislature,” Williams said. “And if we want to restore bison, the Legislature is a big piece of it. But I don’t get to say the state doesn’t have a role in this.”

Chris Smith of the Wildlife Management Institute agreed, saying states are responsible for managing wildlife in the public trust.

So if the federal government or the tribes try to create wild herds, the state would inevitably have to deal with those bison at some point.

As a former FWP operations chief, Smith said he knows how such issues can devolve into political power struggles.

“One of the realities is that the Legislature plays a significant role in exercising or failing to exercise the state’s public trust responsibilities with respect to wildlife,” Smith said. “Talking about restoration at the state level, dealing with those legislative challenges is going to be a big obstacle.”

Attendees at this week’s gathering heard about Utah’s success in establishing wild herds in the Henry Mountains and Book Cliffs.

Bill Bates and Dax Mangus of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources said bison present challenges, so states or tribes need to work on gaining social acceptance. One way Utah has done that is to control the bison population through hunting, and the permit fees support bison management.

Mangus admitted that his agency has it easy compared to Montana. Bison proponents started working on establishing the first Utah herd in the 1940s, long before there was much resistance.

But he still has to work with the neighboring Ute tribe, which doesn’t approve of a bison hunting season, Mangus said. And he has to appease landowners who complain when bison leave the Book Cliffs.

“One of the lessons is bison are going to be bison,” he said. “If you’ve got that one really nice field that belongs to the son of a legislator who hates bison, that’s where they’ll go.”

A bison strides along the back road of the National Bison Range earlier this month. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

Williams said Montana has two paths forward: approving an EIS alternative that creates a state herd or empowering the tribes to move forward with their herds.

Tribes have grown impatient with state and federal governments so they’re ready, but face financial and societal challenges.

Jason Blades of Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation said he’d like to expand his new herd of 20 bison, but gets resistance from livestock producers both on and off the reservation.

Montana’s Fort Peck Reservation has a herd of Yellowstone bison, but still gets resistance from neighboring cattlemen. Tribal members complained of racism and a lack of government consultation.

Even so, University of Montana law professor Monte Mills said Indian leaders should push the federal government to honor the trust responsibilities it owes tribes but sometimes neglects.

“As we’ve seen in recent years, whether it’s on the plains of North Dakota at Standing Rock or the desert Southwest at Bears Ears, tribes are making those demands on the federal government and reshaping the trust responsibility,” Mills said. “To me, there can be no better example of how that trust relationship can move forward than federal government support for tribal demands to restore bison to public lands across Montana.”

CMR Wildlife Refuge manager Paul Santavy said if the state wants to restore a wild herd, officials should take a page out of the wolf recovery play book and start a small herd on the CMR.

“I’m a big proponent of getting hooves on the ground to change the narrative,” Santavy said. “Then the discussion changes. We’re past the yes or no part, and now we talk about how do we manage bison that works for everybody on the landscape.”

The daylong discussion was the culmination of two days of treaty talks between more than 20 tribes interested in restoring wild bison to the Western landscape.

It was sponsored by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, National Wildlife Federation, Wildlife Conservation Society, American Prairie Reserve, University of Montana Indian Law Program and the Turner Endangered Species Fund.

A day earlier, three more tribes signed on to the international Medicine Line Northern Tribes Buffalo Treaty created in 2014 to augment the Iinnii Initiative, a Blackfeet movement that brings indigenous people, governments, and local authorities together to restore bison.