Montanans have 90 days to weigh in on if and how they'd like Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks to proceed with establishing a state bison herd.
At Thursday's FWP commission meeting, Non-game Wildlife Management Chief Lauri Hanauska-Brown announced the release of a draft environmental study for the possible creation of a state bison herd.
"This is a different effort from the (Yellowstone) IBMP or the west-side expansion. The purpose is to determine whether the restoration of bison is appropriate somewhere in Montana," Hanauska-Brown said. "These are not site-specific alternatives - they are broad alternatives."
In addition to a "No Action" alternative, the 170-page draft study includes three alternatives for where a publicly managed herd could be restored: a mix of public and private lands; tribal lands; or a large landscape with minimal conflict with livestock.
The vague descriptions are an indication of the cautious manner in which FWP is approaching a state bison plan.
Due to concerns about bison carrying disease and competing for grass, many Montana ranchers oppose transplanting bison anywhere in the state. As a result, the past two Montana Legislatures have passed laws hindering wildlife transplants within the state. However, resistance to transplanting disease-free bison to Indian reservations has eased since the controversial 2012 shipment to Fort Peck.
FWP has been holding advisory meetings for the past two years to come up with possible scenarios for the reintroduction of wild bison. Most ended up being contentious.
The second meeting was cancelled on two-days' notice after some complained that the public hadn't been allowed to comment at the first meeting in September 2013. They also said landowner groups were underrepresented on the advisory group.
When the group met again in Billings in July 2014, dozens of ranchers from Phillips and Valley counties stepped to the microphone to voice their disapproval of any plan to create a bison herd.
But the 18-member group cooperated to develop the three alternatives laid out in the draft document. Also included are case studies of herds in Montana, Utah, Alaska and British Columbia that illustrate the specifics of the three scenarios.
If FWP decides to take no action, that does not preclude pursuing the option later, Hanuaska-Brown said.
If one of the three alternatives is chosen, FWP will conduct an environmental assessment of the chosen site and the number of bison to be used. Once that's complete, the study lays out guidelines and measurements of success.
"We would like to secure full-funding for at least a five-year period for any project," Hanauska-Brown said.
Public comment will be accepted until Sept. 11. It will take time to process the comments so Hanauska-Brown said a decision might be made by the end of the year. The environmental assessment could take up to another year, depending on the site chosen.
"My guess is you're going to get lots of comments," said commission chair Dan Vermillion.
Former bison lead Arnie Dood was noticeably absent at the meeting.
For years, Dood worked on moving the state proposal forward but was recently demoted from his position as the state threatened and endangered species coordinator.
One of three FWP employees who vied for the Region 3 Supervisor position in November, Dood lost out to Warden Sam Sheppard in a controversial selection process. Denying that politics is at play, FWP leadership cited budget cuts for Dood's removal.
The process is moving forward without him but some, such as the Gallatin Wildlife Association, worry it's an indication of a lack of department commitment toward bison.
Other conservation groups don't have those fears.
"It's not as much as we could hope for but they're moving forward. They didn't have to publish this study," said Defenders of Wildlife Rockies and Plains Director Jonathan Proctor. "Clearly, it will take a few years but it will happen because it's so popular. We're hopeful that the (Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge) is one of the sites they choose."
To comment, go online to Bison draft EIS.