Ted Turner and Yellowstone Bison?


Montana’s proposal to send some or all of the brucellosis-free Yellowstone bison currently quarantined just north of Yellowstone National Park to Ted Turner’s Green Ranch west of Bozeman, Montana, and allow Turner Enterprises to keep up to 90% of the bison’s offspring has caused quite a stir recently.  Some support the proposal, but many more, it seems to me, oppose the plan because it allows for the privatization of public Yellowstone wildlife. 

What is NRDC’s take on the issue?

We want the quarantine feasibility study to be completed as originally planned, and we want the brucellosis-free Yellowstone bison that “graduate” from the study -- both the original entrants and all offspring -- to be placed on public or tribal lands in the West to reestablish wild herds of genetically pure bison.  Needlessly slaughtering any of these bison, which have been the subject of years of scientific research and financial investment, should not be an option. 

While we would prefer to see the bison that need to be moved out of the quarantine facility transferred immediately to public or tribal land, we would support moving the bison to Turner’s ranch for the duration of the study -- so long as none of the originally quarantined bison or their offspring are privatized or commercialized in any way. 

Thus, because the two alternatives that give bison to Turner Enterprises (one gives it all 88 bison and the other sends 14 bison to a state park in Wyoming and the rest go to Turner) allow for the privatization and/or commercialization of bison offspring, we oppose both alternatives as currently written.  We also oppose the other two alternatives because both involve the needless slaughter of Yellowstone bison.

Allowing public wildlife -- wildlife from America’s first national park -- to be privatized and commercialized sets a dangerous precedent.  Forever removing public wildlife from the public domain violates the public trust.  Yellowstone’s wildlife belongs to all Americans, and proposing to give away such wildlife as a form of payment is abhorrent.  Yellowstone’s public wildlife is not a form of currency.  Turner Enterprises should be compensated if it allows the feasibility study to be completed at its Green Ranch, but it should be paid with money (or some equivalent), not Yellowstone wildlife. 

All of the invaluable brucellosis-free genetically pure Yellowstone bison that emerge from the quarantine study should be transferred to public or tribal lands to establish new herds within the bison’s vast historic range.  Under no circumstances should a private entity be allowed to keep 90% of the offspring of 74 bison or 75% of the offspring of 88 bison, as two of the four proposed alternatives allow.  Such privatization would limit the opportunities to establish new herds, which would be especially problematic for Montana, where wild bison are almost literally nonexistent. 

Sadly, as the Draft Environmental Assessment points out, “[i]n Montana, wild bison only exist within the designated bison-tolerant zones near Yellowstone National Park.”  (Page 27.)  It is amazing -- and almost inconceivable -- that in Montana, an enormous state with significant public land and a rich history of public wildlife and wildlife restoration, wild bison are found nowhere in the state except for a few tiny “designated tolerance zones” near Yellowstone National Park.  Montana is The Last Best Place, and it is well past time for the same to be true for wild bison. 

The upside to Montana’s current dearth of wild bison is that enormous potential exists for the state in the near future.  With the reestablishment of wild bison herds on public lands in Montana will come significant values:  ecological, economic, cultural, spiritual, historical.  Restoring wild bison herds around Montana will help restore communities struggling in a changing economy.  Tourism, fair-chase hunting, eco-tours and wildlife-watching, new museums; the opportunities are innumerable.

It is also vital that new herds of genetically pure bison be established from the Yellowstone herd in places outside the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.  Creation of such new herds will protect the precious genetic value of the Yellowstone population, which is critical for the long-term conservation of the species.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks should analyze which of Montana’s abundant public lands are suitable for reestablishing herds of wild bison (e.g., Wildlife Management Areas).  And the ongoing development of a statewide bison management plan, which is long overdue, should not prevent transferring quarantined bison to suitable state lands prior to completion of the state management plan. 

Transferring quarantined bison to tribal lands should also be a top priority.  The Draft Environmental Assessment states that the Fort Belknap proposal for quarantined bison “could meet many of the quarantine monitoring requirements,” but Fort Belknap could not accept the first cohort of bison in the necessary timeframe.  (Page 17.)  Because reestablishing a genetically pure bison population on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana with the quarantined bison would be a desirable outcome for many stakeholders, FWP should do all it can to achieve a Fort Belknap translocation with these bison. 

Allowing for the privatization and/or commercialization of brucellosis-free Yellowstone bison when such bison could be used to reestablish wild bison herds on public and/or tribal lands cannot occur.  Montana must creatively work to find alternatives to the false choice of “either slaughter or privatization/commercialization of public wildlife.” 

Other options we would support include, but are not limited to: (1) temporarily sending the bison to the Green Ranch until Fort Belknap, a Wildlife Management Area, or some other public or tribal land is ready to receive the bison (and paying Turner Enterprises for the costs it incurs, if needed); (2) temporarily moving the bison to other suitable private property until Fort Belknap, a Wildlife Management Area, or some other public or tribal land is ready (and paying the private entity for the costs it incurs, if needed); (3) temporarily moving the bison to suitable state property until Fort Belknap, a Wildlife Management Area, or some other public or tribal land is ready; (4) leaving the bison in quarantine until Fort Belknap, a Wildlife Management Area, or some other public or tribal land is ready (assuming such readiness is imminent – e.g., Fort Belknap, as mentioned in the Draft Environmental Assessment); or (5) transferring the bison to the Green Ranch for the duration of the feasibility study and instead of compensating Turner Enterprises with Yellowstone wildlife, pay Turner Enterprises for the costs it incurs in being a steward for public wildlife and allowing the feasibility study to be completed on its property.

Montana cannot set the dangerous precedent of allowing for the privatization and/or commercialization of public Yellowstone wildlife.  Significant time, money, research, and resources have been invested in the quarantined bison.  These bison are too valuable, and too much potential for reestablishing wild bison herds on public and tribal lands exists for the state to squander this priceless opportunity.  Montana cannot let brucellosis-free genetically pure Yellowstone bison disappear from the public realm.  

(Photo courtesy of Sarah Skoglund)

About the Authors

Matt Skoglund

Director, Northern Rockies office

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