Soon, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks is expected to release its draft environmental impact statement on the possibility of developing a state bison herd. While some doubt the state’s ability to establish such a herd, the American Prairie Reserve is already well on its way toward returning large herds to Montana’s plains.
In its recently released annual bison report, the American Prairie Reserve predicts that its herd should grow to more than 1,000 animals by 2018, based on the more than 600 bison now roaming 31,000 acres of the 306,000-acre reserve.
To accommodate those animals, APR will soon expand the bison range by another 22,000 acres, according to the report. The reserve abuts about 3 million acres of public land and APR plans to purchase more private land as it becomes available, so the ultimate goal is to have 10,000 bison scattered across the reserve. But that’s not expected to happen until 2029.
“Right now, we’ve got a big enough task trying to build a large conservation area,” said APR spokeswoman Hilary Parker.
At about 600 head, the APR still has far fewer than Yellowstone National Park, which cycles between 3,500 and 4,500 bison. But it now has more bison than the National Bison Range, which just sold 75 bison to maintain its herd at around 300.
Starting in 2005, APR grew its herd by importing bison – about 300 - from either Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota or Elk Island National Park near Edmonton, Alberta. Last year’s shipment of 73 bison from Elk Island was probably the last large group to be added to the herd, Parker said.
“We have 85 percent annual recruitment so we don’t need to add any more. That said we’re always interested in getting more bulls to help with the genetics,” Parker said.
The various bison reserves often swap bulls. This year, the National Bison Range was sending a few young bison to Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, which maintains about 600 bison in two areas.
A year ago, the APR was one of four groups under consideration to receive 145 Yellowstone bison that had been held in quarantine by millionaire Ted Turner.
The bison had been held since 2004 when FWP tested them for brucellosis and culled any animals that tested positive. On the condition that he could keep a quarter of the resulting calves, Turner took some of the disease-free bison in 2009 when FWP ran out of money to keep the animals.
Ultimately, the FWP commission voted to send the Turner bison to the Fort Peck Reservation. A few years earlier, Fort Peck received some of the quarantine bison that hadn’t gone to Turner in 2009.
Parker said APR would happily take Yellowstone bison if any more quarantined animals became available.
That may come to pass. Since bison have few predators, bison managers have to develop ways to keep herd sizes in check. So Yellowstone National Park has approved the use of quarantine for controlling the park’s bison population. Other tools include trapping and shipping the bison to slaughter and hunting outside the park in winter.
At this point, Yellowstone Park bison provide the only opportunity for Montana hunters to shoot bison. If hunters aren’t members of the tribes that have treaty rights to hunt Yellowstone bison, they have to vie for the 60 Montana tags available and then hope the winter is cold enough to push bison out of the park.
APR indicated its herd would provide hunting opportunity if Montana decided to treat bison as wildlife.
According to the annual report, “Should bison in Montana eventually achieve wildlife status similar to elk, deer, grizzly bears, wolves, moose, and big horn sheep, they would be allowed to move freely across the land. As we have noted since the inception of the project, at that time, and when we have adequate assurances that the population will remain large, the Reserve would consider turning our bison herd over to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks to manage for the public just like other wildlife species.”
To that end, we support the State of Montana’s consideration of placing bison onto the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge."
The initial EIS did not include any specific locations, but many consider the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge a likely and appropriate site for introduction. The C.M. Russell Wildlife Refuge is connected to much of the APR property.
FWP spokesman Ron Aasheim said the final EIS should be published around the first of the year.
But in a Sept. 27 letter to the Montana Standard, United Property Owners of Montana president Mark Robbins pointed to a law passed in 2013 that requires private property owners to approve of any transplant. He argues that makes the idea of free-roaming bison moot because they should not be able to wander onto private property where they aren’t wanted.
A Park County lawsuit doesn’t support that contention because the judge ruled that dealing with bison is “a consequence of living in Montana and with her abundant wildlife.”
But Robbins hinted that other lawsuits would follow if Montana tries to treat bison like other wildlife.
So it’s possible the APR herd may swell to the 10,000 mark before Montana hunters get a chance to hunt bison on the plains.