The roaming bison vision for Montana: A giant step backward



(Note from author: Haven't heard much from anyone yet, only a few. I hope agriculture takes this seriously -- it is happening now.)


September 15, 2006


By Jack D. Jones [email protected] 


As printed in the September 15, 2006, issue of Agri-News (by permission of the editor) 


P.O. Box 30755

Billings, Montana 59107


To submit a Letter to the Editor: [email protected]


Rangeland cattle ranching is under siege along the highline area of north central Montana. Bison restoration on the prairie is the "vision" underway that should raise the hackles of cattle ranchers, as well as sportsmen, who use public and private land for hunting.

This "Buffalo Commons" philosophy to restore bison on the prairie as they were in 1806 was originally promoted by Frank and Deborah Popper of New Jersey, renamed from the original academic brain child "Big Open," which was spawned on the University of Montana campus at Missoula.

Following closely now are new 'visions' for buffalo roaming free in Montana: those of the World Wildlife Fund, American Prairie Foundation and Ted Turner.

The 'vision' [may] be viewed in the American Prairie Foundation's DVD "Restoring America's Serengeti"

The latest wish list includes bringing back the prairie wolf and plains grizzly bear, along with thousands upon thousands of wandering bison and dense prairie dog towns.

These environmental organizations have targeted large blocks of land for purchase in north central Montana. A recent article by Becky Bohrer appeared in the Billings (Montana) Gazette: "Conservationists get ready to launch bison preserve."

Curt Freese of the World Wildlife Fund is quoted to say, "Our vision is not a small herd on a few acres."

Sean Gerrity of the American Prairie Foundation says, "We will keep getting larger until it doesn't make any sense any longer." A close endorsing organization is The Nature Conservancy, which also is planning for genetically pure bison wandering free in north central Montana.

The average Montanan's lifestyle is about to change -- if these organizations have their way for the Malta area. The 'vision' leaked out in the New York Times (November 17, 2005): "Milestone approaches in bid to restore the Great Plains" by Jim Robbins. "The [American Prairie Foundation's] project is one of several major efforts under way across the West intended to re-create North America's ancient prairie,"

Robbins wrote. "The players include The Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund and Ted Turner, the media mogul who owns a large bison herd. With the 1.1 million acre Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, the 700,000 acre Missouri River National Monument, and land management by the federal government, the foundation is hoping to create a refuge larger than Yellowstone National Park."

The Missouri River Monument is made up of Bureau of Land Management-administered public lands, and the CMR is also public land. But state land grazing leases and thousands of acres of private land, also scheduled to be purchased or taken from ranchers and included in this "Serengeti," are not mentioned in most accounts. In reality the bison preserve vision represents 3.6 million acres of public and private lands.

Sportsmen should be outraged, as should Fish, Wildlife & Parks, the Montana Department of Natural Resources & Conservation, and the BLM, in particular... but are they? Cattle ranchers who use the public lands should be especially concerned about the BLM rolling over to the Big Open plan and transferring grazing leases from cattle to bison, from ranchers to environmental organizations.

The BLM at Malta has already written a flawed environmental assessment
(MT-090-04-02-06) for a "change in class of livestock," from cattle to bison, for the Telegraph Creek allotment.

Two concerned Montanans have appealed that document through the Interior Board of Land Appeals, because in it, the BLM portrays the bison as a grazing animal more suited for using public lands than cattle.

BLM states in the document, "Bison wander more, are less apt to re-graze a site during a single growing season, will use steeper terrain, select and consume drier, rougher forage, and spend less time in riparian areas and wetlands. Bison in the Telegraph Creek allotment might then take longer to graze all portions of the allotment than cattle would."

Most of the statements by the BLM cannot be supported with any scientific evidence, other than wishful thinking. BLM has also recommended a 12-month grazing season for bison, when cattle have had a shorter grazing season.

BLM's lack of understanding how large ungulates graze vegetation is apparent from their incorrect statements. The facts, supported with scientific evidence, are that large ungulates are selective grazers and graze the more desirable and palatable plants by species and areas. Bison are no different than cattle; they are selective grazers and will graze accessible areas closely and continuously.

BLM went so far as to use Yellowstone National Park as an example of [its] flawed philosophy. ...[T]he rangeland in YNP occupied with bison -- especially the Lamar area and Hayden Valley -- is overgrazed to the point that soil loss and watershed protection loss are in advanced stages. YNP riparian areas have no possibility to ever recover with a bison population numbering close to 5,000! If the same were happening on public grazing allotments outside the park, it would be a clear violation of U.S. Forest Service and BLM grazing standards. BLM talks "range health" but today seems to have little understanding of rangeland grazing management, plant physiology and how large ungulates use the range. BLM does not seem understand as well that bison have the natural urge to wander -- even through fences.

BLM is in the dark about successful range management programs involving rest-rotation grazing with cattle, following the concepts outlined by August L. Hormay in his 1970 publication for the BLM and Forest Service: "Principles of Rest-Rotation Grazing and Multiple-Use Land Management." Today the Montana FWP has incorporated livestock grazing with cattle into the management of several Wildlife Management Areas and provides technical assistance to many cattle ranchers in developing true rest-rotation programs throughout Montana, including the Malta area. BLM, on the other hand, mostly won't acknowledge progressive grazing programs utilizing cattle and instead seems to be subscribing to a bison vision of the past.

BLM at Malta is promoting the same vision as the WWF, APF and Ted Turner and states in their own document: "This project would enable the establishment of only the second known bison herd in the Great Plains with a pure and relatively diverse bison genome" (Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota being the other). Of course, those bison are hybrid livestock, and the FWP and Montana Department of Livestock will attest to that.

Another popular buzzword is "indigenous bison." So what is this "change in class of livestock" all about if the animals they plan to implant are wild bison? Wild bison would actually be an illegal reintroduced species in Montana, according to current law. Of the 5 million members of the WWF, only 20% are residents of the US. Most members are from foreign countries that would like to run Montana. The bison vision appears to represent a public and private land and wildlife grab.

Years ago Ted Turner was so critical of farm subsidies -- and now he's at the top of the list as the largest recipient of Department of Agriculture subsidies for his hybrid bison herds in Montana. Many of Turner's hybrid bison are slated for Malta, according to Scott Laird of the APF. So Turner's hybrid bison would be delivered at Telegraph Creek and suddenly be "wild bison"?

The Montana DNRC has discussed the danger of domestic bison to the public: "Though they are still somewhat timid and will often flee, older bison do tend to be more unpredictable and aggressive, particularly when cornered or when approached too closely. This is especially true of adult bulls during the breeding season...

Additionally, cow bison are relatively protective of their young calves. The combination of speed and unpredictability can pose a real hazard to a recreationist who might venture too near a mixed herd of mature bison at breeding time, or too near a young calf separated from its mother cow..."

So will the sound of rifles during hunting season in the Telegraph Creek area stampede the bison through the fences that are meant to hold them? Or will the BLM and FWP put an end to hunting on public lands? No one is talking.

Technically, BLM cannot legally close the public land to hunting and other uses. What if the FWP block management program disappears with the bison vision? Maybe this is all an anti-hunting tool, just like wolf reintroduction. Bison can also carry diseases like brucellosis to other wildlife and to neighboring cattle.

The WWF and the APF are asking for money for the "wild bison" at Malta and even take donations by credit card. Of course, these domestic-hybrid bison they plan for could never be considered wild animals, so the Attorney General and Department of Commerce should determine if this is false advertising. Since the BLM is referring to them both as domestic livestock and wild animals, the BLM could be a party to a federal and state crime, since money is being collected. Again, this entire bison vision seems to be a movement by large environmental organizations to remove cattle from public lands. They don't realize that the use of public rangeland for cattle remains the most compatible multiple use of public lands under law. The BLM's Federal Land Management Policy Act of 1976 is clear on what the BLM's intended mission is: to never convert multiple use decisions over to a private entity like the WWF or APF -- and in that process allow the party to control public land access and hunting, thus privatizing the existing abundant wildlife resource.

Only Congress can create a bison preserve on public lands -- not environmental organizations.

We as Montanans cannot let this bison vision go any further. Greater consciousness within the agriculture community and with public land users about this ill-conceived, outdated bison vision is paramount. Contact your Montana congressmen, organizations, and news media and ask tough questions about the bison vision and why you have been deprived an opportunity to comment on the vision. Land taking could well become the most serious rangeland resource issue we face -- and it will have a drastic impact on the economy of our state. A few bison lookers behind the "dangerous bison" signs will not replace the tax-based economy, the cattle and agricultural industry, and revenue derived from public hunting and other recreational activities.

Why go back to the bison, wolf, grizzly bear, and prairie dog vision of 1806? The generations before us progressed beyond that point for reasons.

Don't be buffaloed by the bison vision -- it's a giant step backward ... not a step forward for Montana.



Special to Agri-News by Jack D. Jones, a native Montanan and retired wildlife biologist with the BLM who served 12 years in Malta.