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Montana Releases New Bison Management, Conservation Plan

A bison standing off the road in Yellowstone National Park.
Jackie Yamanaka
Yellowstone Public Radio
A bison standing off the road in Yellowstone National Park.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks this week released a document nearly eight years in the making that outlines how bison could be restored in the state as publicly managed wildlife. 

Greg Lemon with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks says the Bison Conservation and Management Plan focuses on the potential of new conservation bison herds in the state.

He says it does not include bison that migrate out of Yellowstone National Park, which are managed by the Interagency Bison Management Plan. Neither does FWP’s document identify where bison restoration should happen.

“We don’t have specific projects in mind. It just identifies a process for that to happen should somebody or a group of people or an entity, an agency or non-profit want to go to that effort,” Lemon said. 

He says projects can be proposed for public, private or tribal land or on large landscapes where there are minimal conflicts with livestock.

To be approved, Lemon says the projects will need to comply with state and tribal laws. Any concrete proposal for bison restoration will have to undergo a site-specific environmental analysis and include a public review process.

FWP’s press release says it started a public scoping process in 2012 with a group of stakeholders and finalized a draft of the guiding document in 2015. Five public hearings and a 90-day comment period followed.

Lemon says the livestock industry, which has largely opposed bison restoration in the past over concerns that bison could spread a bacterial disease to cattle, had a seat at the table.

“Bison have proven to be a very controversial topic for Montana, but because they’re controversial doesn’t mean FWP doesn’t have a responsibility to see this effort through,” Lemon said. 

In a statement, Chamois Anderson with the advocacy group Defenders of Wildlife said it’s “encouraging that Montana will now officially restore wild bison to the state” but unfortunate that FWP “did not offer any specific sites where bison can return.”

She said Defenders of Wildlife will advocate and help develop proposals for wild bison restoration in the Badger-Two Medicine/Chief Mountain areas of the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest and the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge southwest of Glasgow.