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Published June 11, 2012, 10:25 AM

Do Montanans really want more bison?

Have Montanans expressed a true desire to see more bison, or is the pressure coming from outside the state?

By: Watty Taylor, Agweek

HELENA, Mont. — As Montana begins discussions about establishing a “free-roaming” bison herd in Montana, there seems to be much disparity in opinions.

Some want to see the state return to a time when bison roamed the plains without the annoyances of modern towns, farms and ranches or a web of highways and railroads. Others can see only conflicts with establishing a herd of “wild” bison in the state. The question is, have Montanans expressed a true desire to see more bison, or is the pressure coming from outside the state? We do not know of any area in Montana where the local community is clamoring for a truly free-roaming bison herd.

Montana already is home to many significant bison herds. There’s the herd at the National Bison Range in Moiese, the wild bison in Yellowstone National Park and many other private herds that are raised both for conservation purposes and for agricultural purposes. Why do we need to establish another herd, let alone a free-roaming one?

Is it about preserving genetics of wild bison? Preservation is already happening. People and groups across the West have been working to preserve the genetic integrity of bison. If genetics is not the issue, what is? Hunting? There are bison hunting opportunities in Montana near Yellowstone National Park. There are other opportunities in states such as Utah. Is there really that much interest in more hunting opportunities for bison?

Some of the outside interests pushing for a free-roaming bison herd say that because of Montana’s wildlife heritage, the state should restore bison in a free-roaming capacity “just because.” Ranchers certainly understand the importance of protecting Montana’s wildlife heritage. In fact, ranchers work hard to steward the private and public lands that provide the majority of habitat for wildlife in the state. Bison are being conserved throughout the West, so the question we should be asking is what benefit will another herd provide? Perhaps more importantly: What impact will these animals have on working lands in Montana that provide the foundation of the state’s economy, the beautiful scenery and wildlife habitat?

Restoring wildlife for the sake of doing it isn’t a good enough reason to move ahead with the effort.

Montanans have seen the problems associated with wolf reintroduction and the effects it has had on other wildlife species and on working lands. It is the private landowners and local communities who typically shoulder the burden when it comes to these efforts. Bison already are being conserved in a responsible manner that takes into consideration genetic diversity, hunting opportunities and the realities of our modern day infrastructure. Let us not allow outside interests to come into the state, dictate what happens in Montana and leave it with an unnecessary mess — and bill — to deal with.

Editor’s Note: Taylor is president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association.