Two state lawmakers, including the Senate Fish and Game Committee chairman, pressed a state agency Thursday to keep bison off state-owned land in a hearing that stoked the century-old debate over where bison should roam.
The debate also prompted a top official with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks to suggest the state ran the risk of seeing bison placed on the endangered species list if it did not find habitat for the animal.
The FWP Commission had been asked to give agency staff permission to investigate whether certain pieces of state land would be suitable to house bison now quarantined at a Corwin Springs facility.
Commissioners took nearly two hours of testimony on the request Thursday before unanimously voting in favor of the request.
The idea is still a long way from reality, however. The agency now must determine whether placing the bison on state land is actually feasible, and then conduct environmental studies and public hearings.
Sen. John Brenden, R-Scobey, who chairs the Senate Fish and Game Committee, was among the plan's opponents who testified.
"I think you're looking at the potential of hurting landowners in Montana with more costs and the potential of brucellosis," Brenden told the commission.
Brenden said he intends to pass a bill that bars FWP from moving wild bison anywhere in the state except for the National Bison Range in Moiese. A similar bill last session was approved by the Senate, but died in a House committee.
The bison in question were captured as they left Yellowstone National Park in recent years and tested to see if they had been exposed to brucellosis, a disease that can cause wildlife and livestock to abort their young. FWP is trying to determine whether quarantine could be used to reintroduce bison to the Western landscape without spreading disease.
Those that had not been exposed were pastured behind tall fences at Corwin Springs and tested extensively.
"These are probably the most health-tested animals on Earth right now," said Dave Risley, FWP's fish and wildlife division administrator.
Addressing the commission, Risley said it was "time for us to have movement on this issue." He also raised the prospect of bison being placed on the endangered species list if more is not done to find habitat for the animal.
"We are heading for a train wreck if that happens, especially for management of the Yellowstone herd," he said.
In a broad outline presented to the commission, FWP staffers said they were interested in exploring whether the Spotted Dog, Marias River or Beartooth wildlife-management areas could house two groups of 50 bison now in quarantine while a long term bison management plan is developed.
The bison would be kept behind fences. FWP director Joe Maurier said in a statement last week that Montana would likely never see "a truly 'free-ranging' bison herd."
Many people spoke in favor of the effort, saying it was an important, if preliminary, step toward reintroducing bison to the landscape.
Time after time, Montana's livestock industry was blamed for its resistance to more bison in Montana.
"I find it peculiar that we find it acceptable to have cattle on wildlife-management areas but we can't have bison there," said Stan Frasier, of the Helena Hunters and Anglers Association. "We're going to see (bison) really aren't that big of a problem. Somehow we just can't get this done here in Montana."
But the livestock industry was steadfast in its opposition. Ranchers, industry representatives and elected officials from rural areas said they feared the bison would tear down fences, hurt people visiting state lands and spread brucellosis - regardless of how much they had been tested.
"I'm concerned about three issues: disease, safety issues and damage to private property," said Sen. Rick Ripley, R-Wolf Creek. "No matter where you transfer those buffalo you're going to have three serious issues,"
Daniel Person can be reached at email@example.com or 582-2665.