BILLINGS, Montana — A long-awaited study on wild bison weighs restoring the burly animals to public, tribal or private lands in Montana more than a century after they were driven to near-extinction.
But the 170-page draft study released Thursday by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks steers clear of the crucial question of where bison restoration work will occur.
Instead, officials offered three restoration alternatives, all of them variations on previous proposals: restoring the animals to private or public lands, restoring them to additional American Indian reservations, and re-introducing bison on a large-scale landscape that could hold 400 or more bison.
If one of those alternatives is selected, the state would put out a request for proposals from interested people or organizations, said Lauri Hanauska-Brown with Fish, Wildlife and Parks. That would include the possibility of a five-year pilot restoration program, she said.
"We would perhaps dip our toe into the pool of bison restoration with a short-term project," she said.
The livestock industry and its backers have opposed prior restoration attempts out of worries that bison, also known as buffalo, would spread disease and compete with cattle for rangeland.
But conservation groups and wildlife advocates have lobbied hard to restore a species that once roamed most of North America and numbered as many as 30 million animals. Commercial hunting killed most plains bison by the late 1800s.
Agency officials said the study sets broad guidelines for future proposals to reintroduce bison to specific sites. Those include using only disease-free bison and taking input from any community that's proposed to receive them.
Representatives of the advocacy group Defenders of Wildlife said they hoped the final plan would include restoring bison to the 1.1-million-acre C.M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in north-central Montana.
State Sen. Taylor Brown, a Huntley Republican who participated in a series of public meetings that led up to Thursday's study, said any future proposal would have to meet three conditions: bison confined within a limited geographic boundary, fencing or other measures to contain the animals, and respect for private property rights.
"For many of us, any proposal has got to include those kinds of parameters in order to get buy-in from people that are landowners and property owners and in agriculture and livestock," Brown said.
Wildlife officials moved aggressively under former Gov. Brian Schweitzer to expand where bison can roam outside Yellowstone National Park. They also relocated some of the animals to the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap American Indian reservations in northeast Montana, following a multiyear quarantine to make sure the bison were disease-free.
Gov. Steve Bullock's administration has proceeded more cautiously, with pledges to landowners, ranchers and other restoration skeptics that their voices would be heard. That's slowed the process of coming up with a statewide conservation plan, which has been in the works since at least 2010.
In November, Bullock proposed allowing bison to roam year-round in an area of Montana west of Yellowstone if the park's bison population drops from the latest estimate of 4,900 animals to less than 3,500. Above that threshold, park bison would be subject to slaughter, increased hunting and being hazed back into the park.
A final decision from Bullock is pending.
Comments on the study are being accepted through Sept. 11. Any sites proposed for bison would need approval from state wildlife commissioners.
Bison study: http://1.usa.gov/1L3TZve