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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to explore the possibility of reintroducing bison to the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge drew a swift and predictable response from Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte, who said such a move would present “unique challenges” at the state level.

The Republican Gianforte, in a nod to agricultural interests that are a big part of his political base, recently canceled a state bison restoration plan and signed a bill giving county commissioners say-so over any plans to reintroduce bison in their counties. State law, however, won’t give counties any authority over plans to introduce bison on a federal refuge.

Surrounding states’ relationship with Yellowstone bison has been checkered to say the least. The species is held up as iconic in the hype to attract tourists. It’s even a centerpiece on the Wyoming state flag. But then we mow them down mercilessly when they cross the park boundary.

The ranching industry opposition to tolerating bison outside the park is longstanding and fierce. Historically the resistance has been rooted in the perceived threat of spreading brucellosis — a disease that can cause livestock to abort calves. But there has never been a case of bison infecting livestock in the wild.

There is a growing national will to preserve and cultivate what is left of wild places and wildlife. And the million-acre CMR refuge offers what is arguably the best opportunity to establish a wild bison population outside Yellowstone. It’s the species’ natural habitat, and it is remote enough for the animals to be managed with minimal conflicts with human activity. Ranchers in the region are understandably anxious about the prospect. But the FWS has described what will be a “multiple year” process beginning in July to “engage Tribes and stakeholders on the topics of bison and bighorn sheep reintroductions” on the refuge.

Gianforte and the ranching community would be wise to accept that invitation and get involved in the discussions. That will be the best way to ensure the concerns of livestock producers and local communities are addressed.

In the end, establishing wild bison on the CMR would create a national attraction that could turn into a boost for the state and local economies. The wisest course may be to embrace it rather than fight it.


Editorial Board

  • Mark Dobie, publisher
  • Michael Wright, managing editor
  • Bill Wilke, opinion page editor
  • Richard Broome, community member
  • Renee Gavin, community member
  • Charles Rinker, community member
  • Will Swearingen, community member
  • Angie Wasia, community member

To send feedback on editorials, either leave a comment on the page below or write to citydesk@dailychronicle.com.

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Editorial Board

  • Mark Dobie, publisher
  • Michael Wright, managing editor
  • Bill Wilke, opinion page editor
  • Richard Broome, community member
  • Renee Gavin, community member
  • Will Swearingen, community member
  • Angie Wasia, community member

To send feedback on editorials, write to citydesk@dailychronicle.com.