Montana Governor drops bison plan, cites need to protect ranching interests

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte said Tuesday he is ending a bison management plan that would have allowed the wide-ranging animals to be restored in more areas of the state.

Citing the need to protect ranching interests, the Republican said the state has settled a lawsuit brought by a property rights group last year following the plan’s adoption under his Democratic predecessor, Gov. Steve Bullock.

Gianforte said the state’s wildlife agency “didn’t do right by farmers, ranchers and private property owners.”

“In its effort to spread bison across parts of Montana, (Fish, Wildlife and Parks) didn’t do enough to account for the impacts to local communities,” Gianforte said in a statement.

He said the agency also had relied on outdated data and failed to consider the risks of disease transmission between bison and livestock.

The idea of restoring bison to more areas of Montana had been met with enthusiasm by wildlife advocates, who had long pushed for the animals to be treated by the state as free-roaming wildlife, rather than livestock that’s subject to capture and slaughter.

“This will roll back years of work, to be so close to having bison restored in Montana outside Yellowstone (National Park),” said Chamois Andersen with Defenders of Wildlife.

Under the framework of the Bullock administration’s plan, Chamois said her group had been working on a proposal to return bison to the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in central Montana. Another proposal would have returned the animals to areas outside the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in northwest Montana, she said.

The plan adopted under Bullock had been in the works for almost a decade. The agreement that killed it blocks wildlife officials from adopting any similar bison restoration plan for the next 10 years, according to an unsigned version of the document provided by United Property Owners of Montana, the plaintiff in the case.

It also calls for the state to pay the group $5,000 to offset its attorney fees.

Gianforte’s office did not release the settlement as part of the announcement and did not immediately respond to a request for the document from The Associated Press.

United Property Owners of Montana claimed in its lawsuit that state officials had not adequately examined how wild bison could impact ranchers and farmers. Bison in sufficient numbers could compete with livestock for forage on public grazing lands, and ranchers also have raised worries about them spreading animal diseases.

“This is a huge win for property owners in Montana. We’ve successfully blocked the introduction of free-roaming bison for at least the next decade,” said Chuck Denowh, the group’s policy director.

He said documents obtained as part of the lawsuit showed the state had been negotiating to establish a bison population in central Montana in conjunction with the American Prairie Reserve, a private group that has a large bison herd currently fenced in and on private lands.

Reserve spokesperson Beth Saboe said it has not offered a proposal to restore free-roaming bison.

“We are more focused on our own efforts to grow our conservation bison herd,” she said.

Bison are absent from most areas of the state. The largest population lives in Yellowstone. Bison that migrate from the park into Montana each winter are culled primarily through slaughter and hunting to prevent the spread of the disease brucellosis, which can cause animals to prematurely abort their young.

Brucellosis has been largely eradicated in the U.S. outside the Yellowstone region. No known transmissions from wild bison to cattle have been recorded.

“They continue to raise this bogeyman of disease. Any bison that would ever be translocated would be tested multiple times for brucellosis,” said Nick Gevock with the Montana Wildlife Federation.

Fish, Wildlife and Parks Director Hank Worsech said in a statement that the agency was “grateful to have this lawsuit behind us.” Agency spokesperson Greg Lemon declined further comment.