Robert Magnan, the Fort Peck Reservation's fish and game director, has waited two years for an answer to a fairly straightforward question: Will the reservation in northeast Montana become home to a new herd of Yellowstone bison graduating from the state's brucellosis quarantine facility at Corwin Springs? Despite nearly a decade of interagency discussions contemplating tribal land for quarantined bison relocation—and despite Fort Peck's investment of roughly $200,000 in grazing land, solar-powered water troughs and wildlife-friendly fences to accommodate the ungulates—Magnan has yet to hear any guarantees.
"We fenced the whole 5,000 [acres] with brand-new game-friendly fence," Magnan says. "The money we received from various donors and grants helped us to get it going, and we're all done with it now. We're just waiting for the buffalo."
It's an uncertain situation not only for Fort Peck but also for north central Montana's Fort Belknap Reservation. There, tribes have put bison infrastructure projects on hold pending a response from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) on whether they'll ever receive the animals. The reservation and its supporters in the environmental community are growing tired of years of talk and no action.
"In a meeting last year with Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Helena, we were assured that this was part of the plan, that the tribes would be kept involved in the planning process and ultimately the distribution of these buffalo to tribes," says Mike Fox, a Fort Belknap Community Council representative and former head of the reservation's bison management program. "We never heard anything back."
Several weeks ago, FWP began its latest round of discussions on where to place bison that have successfully passed through the state's quarantine program. Some 50 bison determined to be brucellosis-free are currently awaiting temporary relocation, and in early January FWP identified three state-owned wildlife management areas—Marias River, Beartooth and the newly acquired Spotted Dog—that could serve as interim holding sites until the agency can develop a long-term plan. It's an avenue FWP Director Joe Maurier believes wasn't properly explored in earlier management discussions.
"Nobody in the agency, it appears to me, was really looking at our own public lands as well," Maurier says. "I think we have an obligation to look at that."
FWP took a drastically different approach to bison relocation in 2010. The agency temporarily released 86 quarantined animals to Ted Turner's Green Ranch near Bozeman and promised 75 percent of the herd's offspring to Turner Enterprises. The decision led four bison advocacy groups to file a lawsuit against FWP alleging the state had privatized wildlife held in public trust. FWP defended its actions, stating that no other public or private groups were adequately prepared to house the bison.
While Maurier says tribal lands are a "viable option," he points to the ongoing legal battle as the reason behind the state's sudden hesitancy to relocate bison to Fort Peck or Fort Belknap.
"My view, frankly, is I don't see a difference between [Green Ranch] and the tribes because the tribes are sovereign nations," Maurier says. "When you say public, that means everybody has access to them in an unfettered manner, either for viewing or hunting. And I think the fact of the matter is, on tribal lands that wouldn't be the case."
"If we're going to get sued for it," Maurier adds, "why would I give them to the tribes if the court's going to say, 'No, you can't do that'?"
Yet according to the plaintiffs themselves, Maurier's concerns are baseless. Both the Yellowstone Buffalo Foundation and the Buffalo Field Campaign told the Independent they support, and even encourage, the relocation of Yellowstone bison to tribal lands. Some with the FWP Commission agree that the tribes deserve equal consideration in the coming months.
"I was strongly assertive at the commission meeting [Jan. 13] that Fish, Wildlife and Parks, before we move any bison away from Yellowstone, makes sure we've given full consideration to the tribe's application for receiving bison, that they don't receive short shrift," says Commissioner Ron Moody, adding that he refuses to vote on any relocation measure "until the tribes say they've been treated fairly."
For Defenders of Wildlife, the tribes' questions have gone unanswered for far too long. The group has supported both reservations for over a decade to expand the infrastructure for existing herds and improve bison-related tourism.
"The latest science is showing that very few bison are genetically pure and free of cattle genes," says Jonathan Proctor, Defenders of Wildlife's Rocky Mountain Region representative. "So both tribes want to convert to genetically pure Yellowstone bison and try to manage them in a more wild manner."
FWP's legal troubles aren't the only hurdles facing bison relocation to tribal lands. Sen. John Brenden, R-Scobey, recently introduced a bill in the Montana Legislature banning any relocation of free-roaming Yellowstone bison out of the Corwin Springs facility—one of many legislative attempts to modify bison management. Brenden's legislation, a rewrite of a bill he failed to push through in 2009, went before the Senate Fish and Game Committee last week.
Maurier says he's unsure what will happen to the quarantined bison if Brenden's bill passes, but Proctor believes it will require the wholesale slaughter of all disease-free bison—and render the efforts of people like Magnan pointless.
"I've had people say, 'Well, why do you want Yellowstone buffalo?'" Magnan says. "Genetic purity. They're the closest to our ancestors as we can get, and that's why we want them. To retain that history."