There has recently been a lot of press about bison being designated a free roaming animal in Montana. As a retired cattle rancher, I would like to raise a few thoughts that have not been brought out in various opinion pieces.
The public needs to understand that the concept for re-wilding lands in Montana with indigenous bison is not limited to just Montana Fish, Wildlife and Park’s (MTFWP) recently announced bison restoration planning. In fact, there are multiple interest groups and federal agencies involved in bison restoration in Montana. The short list of bison proponents include the Montana Wildlife Federation, the American Prairie Reserve, the Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Land Management, the Blackfoot Nation and of course, MTFWP.
Strategies range from establishment of small pilot bison herds initially contained, to thousands of bison roaming freely over millions of acres of prairie land that could one day be ripe for a national designation.
Regardless of the level of implementation, the concerns I have are applicable to all bison restoration initiatives.
One of my major concerns involves the issue of fences to keep bison from roaming into cattle pastures. Fences would need to be stronger, at the expense of the rancher. This stronger fence could very well be an impediment to other wildlife movements. Also, if the fence becomes broken by the bison, resulting in the rancher’s cows and calves becoming mixed up with the neighbor’s, think of the job that must be done to sort those two herds apart again, the cost of rebuilding the fence, plus herding the bison away.
The second concern is that if a bison bull gets in with a rancher’s beef cattle and breeds any of his cows, in all likelihood those cows will die giving birth due to fetal size. Furthermore, the invading bison bull could do harm to the rancher’s beef bulls.
A third concern is in regard to range management. Grazing needs to be controlled, like stocking rates and rotational grazing. We no longer have the same range environment that existed before settlement. Also, invasive noxious weeds are becoming more of a problem for ranchers. Bison, with their long shaggy hair, could easily pick up weed seeds as they roam about. Then, when they roll in their wallows, the seeds could easily be planted in the soil, thus spreading the weeds to previously uninfected areas.
It is time for bison advocates and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to come to reality. They should communicate with the hard working ranchers/range managers. There should not be more burdens placed on these stewards of the land who provide the open space that we all cherish in Montana. Good land management decisions must give priority consideration to the impacts imposed on the farmers and ranchers that live in bison restoration target areas. Decisions must be based on science and common sense, not archaic romantic notions.
—Chuck Jarecki is a retired rancher and rangeland manager. He lives in Polson.