The endless debate over where bison can and can't roam in Montana stepped in a mud pie recently. Several northeastern Montana landowners peeved over the presence of Yellowstone bison on the Fort Peck Reservation, and frustrated with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks' ongoing talks of establishing a new free-ranging herd, decided to back out of their block management contracts. The act sends a clear message to the public: Side with us, or hunter access to our land is kaput.
Holding access to land hostage isn't an uncommon political tactic. When President Clinton designated the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, conservatives decried it as a federal land grab. Some countered by withdrawing their private lands from public access. When Montana inherited wolf management back in 2009, a rancher in the Big Hole Valley didn't like how FWP was going about it. He withdrew from the block management program.
We're all for protesting government acts we disagree with, and we're not in the habit of saying what landowners should do with private property. But the landowners are off target in terms of who this will affect. The intent of this latest protest is partly to limit hunting opportunity and bleed permit revenues from FWP. But the impact to FWP will be nominal compared to the impact of turning away dozens of hunters who already have their licenses. Most will simply hunt elsewhere; only 50 of the 1,300 block management participants statewide canceled their contracts for various reasons this year. Hunters who do notice a change will probably just be irked that neighbors are robbing them to rob the state.
In the end, this block management dispute seems pointless. FWP's bison management plan is years from completion. There will be plenty of public input in the interim. Hopefully this protest is the final cry of outrage from those most ardent opponents. Bison have already returned to the plains. While the September brush fire at Fort Peck claimed the lives of 10 bison, none broke out. So far, that big sky doesn't appear to be falling.