MISSOULA (AP) — Dozens of people turned out in Missoula as Montana wildlife officials began a statewide tour to gauge public opinion on the reintroduction of wild bison to public lands.
Ranchers and landowners sported anti-bison buttons while wildlife advocates and hunters spoke in favor of adding another wild animal to the landscape, The Missoulian reported.
State bison specialist Arnie Dood said no bison plan currently exists. Monday's meeting was the first in a series to gather informal comments about what the plan should consider.
By this fall, wildlife officials should have enough public response to flesh out a proposal of where and how many bison might be wanted or tolerated, Dood said.
Chinook-area rancher Vicki Hofeldt said the bison on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation were "destructive animals" that plowed through fences to find food on private land.
Jim Posewitz of the Helena Hunters and Anglers responded that bison are the last major wild animal to be returned to Montana's landscape, and his group favors allowing bison to roam in the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge.
"We don't think it's asking too much to find a piece of public land to do this," Posewitz said.
Huson rancher Tom Richardson called the state's management of wolves a failure and said he had little faith the agency would handle bison any better. He also questioned where the agency would get the money for this effort.
Wildlife advocate Kit Fischer he thought the bison population could be controlled by hunting, and that landowners shouldn't be expected to take a financial hit because of the reintroduction.
Other issues raised included dealing with the potential for passing disease between bison and domestic livestock, how bison would affect other wildlife in their territory and who would be in charge of managing them.
Additional public hearings are scheduled this month in Kalispell, Glasgow, Helena, Billings, Miles City, Great Falls and Bozeman.
By fall 2013, a draft environmental impact statement is expected to be available for official public review and comment. A final decision to either approve the reintroduction or shelve the idea could arrive around the end of 2014.