Bison Range plan focuses on wildlife

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A black bear contemplates eating a berry at the National Bison Range last week. (Jeremy Weber photo)

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has released a final Comprehensive Conservation Plan for the National Bison Range that emphasizes wildlife protection and habitat improvements to the 18,800 acres of the range’s grassland, timber and riparian areas.

The range, which is completely fenced in, is home to about 300 bison and was first called for by President Teddy Roosevelt in 1908 and protected by Congress in 1909 as a way to preserve some of the last remaining bison in the American West.

Today about 180,000 people tour the range, primarily by car — there are only a few trails. In addition to bison, the range is home to about 130 elk, 200 mule deer, 175 whitetail deer, 125 pronghorn antelope and 75 bighorn sheep. It also has about 200 bird species and on occasion, a grizzly bear manages to get in as well.

One of the top priorities of the plan to is conserve those species and the native grassland habitat of the range — the plan calls for “a comprehensive rangeland health assessment (and) increase in the acres of grassland in excellent condition by 15 percent.”

Having said that, the plan also looks to thin juniper along Mission Creek and actively manage about 1,000 acres of forest on the range as well.

The plan also notes possibility of an “annual funding agreement” with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes” that could lead to tribal operation of the range in the future — a topic that has been the subject of considerable debate in the past.

As far as the bison are concerned, the plan would continue to cull the herd, with an emphasis of moving bison from the range to other units of the U.S. Wildlife Refuge System and on other tribal lands. There is also the possibility of establishing other herds on CSKT lands outside of the refuge. In addition, the goal is to create more genetic diversity in the range’s bison herd.

The plan, however, rejects hunting on the refuge as a way to thin bison and other species.

The preferred alternative would also boost the range’s budget by a little more than $100,000 to about $906,925. The range, under a realignment strategy of the Fish and Wildlife system nationwide, would become part of the Western Montana Complex, which would include Benton Lake, Swan River and Lee Metcalf refuges, where some staff would be shared. All told, about 22 staff would oversee the refuges collectively.

At the bison range itself, the goal is to add a biological technician position and boost staff from 7.5 employees to 9.5 employees. They also want to make it possible to have 20 volunteer positions at the range.

But the document also recognizes budgeting realities — the Mountain Prairie Region, which includes the range — has a funding backlog of about $162 million and that’s expected to climb to $200 million in the coming years.

From a public use standpoint, the plan would continue to allow fishing on Mission Creek, but with a caveat that it could close at times for wildlife conservation and protection. In addition, wildlife conservation would take a precedence over recreational uses.

The plan looks to “reduce or eliminate all non-wildlife dependent recreation and uses that disturb wildlife or do not substantially contribute to the appreciation of the refuge. Any consideration given to permitting a special use will weigh the effects that use may have on staff time, the benefit to refuge or refuge system, and the effects the use will have directly or indirectly on species of concern.”

Perhaps most interesting is the potential impact Glacier National Park visitation and development could have on the refuge. The refuge could become an alternative destination, the authors note.

“The planned private campground and RV park near Glacier National Park, which would add additional RV spaces and cabins to the region by 2021, would allow for numerous potential new visitors within a two-hour drive of the refuge; the refuge would be an easy day-trip for long-term campers at the campground looking for additional wildlife viewing opportunities. The rehabilitation of the Going-to-the-Sun Road would likely increase public interest and visits to the park, which has limited parking throughout the park. If the park were to fill up quickly (as early as 9 a.m. most days), it is possible Bison Range could benefit from the overflow of visitors who cannot experience Glacier National Park but may be interested in visiting the range.”

Having said that, more people could displace animals the range, the authors noted.

The entire plan can be downloaded directly at: https://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/refuges/planningPDFs/NBR/USFWS-NBR-CCP-FINAL-508-compliant-Sept%202019-updated.pdf

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