Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks released a long awaited environmental assessment last week analyzing four interim relocation sites for as many as 150 Yellowstone bison. And while the inclusion of the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap reservations on that list put to rest concerns that the state would exclude tribal lands from consideration, a different host of critics has surfaced.
State Sens. Rick Ripley, a Republican from Wolf Creek, and Gene Vuckovich, a Democrat from Anaconda, blasted the EA just hours after its Sept. 15 release. Vuckovich chastised FWP for its proposal to relocate bison to the Spotted Dog Wildlife Management Area, near Avon. The state acquired the 27,000-acre complex last summer, allocating $16.6 million for the purchase. Gov. Brian Schweitzer defended the purchase at the time, calling it "an extraordinary opportunity to protect the permanent interests of the people of western Montana."
Neither the state's purchase agreement nor the management plan for Spotted Dog drafted last year include any mention of bison. The purchase agreement allows the property's former owner, the Rock Creek Cattle Company, to maintain livestock grazing rights in the area through 2012. But the agreement also stipulates the state may fence off as much as four sections of Spotted Dog—roughly the amount of land mapped out for proposed bison grazing in the recent EA.
The cost of relocating bison to Spotted Dog is estimated to be the highest of any site proposed—$1.16 million upfront and $139,644 annually. FWP released an addendum to the EA earlier this week outlining specific expenses, and extended the public comment period to Oct. 19.
Several additional factors could also complicate Spotted Dog's consideration. Establishing a herd there would require FWP to close hunting access on 5,200 acres of the management area. And a resolution passed by the Powell County Commission in January declares that all bison in the county be managed as domestic livestock, though the EA says state law would trump the resolution.
The EA is a win for Fort Peck and Fort Belknap, which have invested considerable time and money on infrastructure with no guarantee that they would receive Yellowstone bison. The relocation is only temporary while the bison complete a monitoring phase for brucellosis through 2015, but each reservation could receive—and, pending future assessment for permanent relocation, keep—as many as 40 of the 150 bison proposed for relocation from Ted Turner's Green Ranch and the state's quarantine facility in Corwin Springs.