With 88 bison from Yellowstone National Park facing possible slaughter, billionaire Ted Turner has swept in and offered to hold the animals for five years on his sprawling Montana ranch while a new home for them is found.
But Turner, ever the shrewd businessman, won't do it for nothing. The media mogul says he will care for the bison only if he can keep up to 90 percent of their offspring.
And in the Rocky Mountain West — where wildlife is cherished both for its aesthetic value and as meat on the table — the plan is stoking a sharp debate over the role of deep-pocketed private entities in conservation.
Hunters, environmentalists and property law experts have all weighed in and most say Turner's plan sets a dangerous precedent for the commercialization of public wildlife. Others describe Turner as a responsible steward of the land with the resources needed to take care of animals that desperately need a home.
Even the urgency of the situation is open to question.
Despite warnings from Montana about possible slaughter, federal officials said earlier this month that the bison could be kept longer if needed at a quarantine compound north of the park. They have already been there for several years to make sure they are disease free.
Robbing from the public?
Dennis Tilton, a rancher from nearby Livingston who worked for a year feeding the animals under government contract, said giving the animals to Turner amounted to "robbing from the public domain." He said the state should put them onto public land to establish new herds.
Since Turner first came to Montana in 1989, his ambitious conservation efforts in the state have been alternately lauded and reviled. He's shielded more than 150,000 acres from development, but in the process put several prized hunting grounds off limits to the public.
Those who want to continue hunting on his Flying D Ranch, in the Spanish Peaks foothills south of Bozeman, today must pony up $14,000 to shoot a trophy elk.
For $4,000, they can harvest a bull bison out of a herd of more than 1,000 of the animals that Turner has been building up for two decades.
His representatives insist the Yellowstone animals are more valuable for their genetics and would be off limits.
Yellowstone's bison, also known as buffalo, represent one the last vestiges of the massive herds that once roamed across North America — tens of millions of animals that were all but wiped out in the late 19th century.
Turner's representatives say his plan for the 88 park bison would advance a long-standing advocacy for wildlife restoration. It also gains him the animals' unique and valuable genetics.
"We don't understand the antipathy," said Turner Enterprises general manager Russell Miller.
He said Turner is interested in the animals as a way to further his private bison conservation efforts, not for their market value.
"That doesn't mean there won't be a market somewhere way out in the future," he added.
Decision expected by month's end
Turner's plan is expected to be acted on by the end of the month by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Guernsey State Park in Wyoming has also put in a proposal to the agency for 14 bison.
Montana officials were largely caught off guard by the billionaire's initial bid, which came at the invitation of the state's Democratic governor, Brian Schweitzer.
State and federal pronouncements going back to at least 2005 had called for the quarantined animals to be relocated onto public or tribal lands. Before Turner came along, those pronouncements included an explicit prohibition against commercialization of the animals.
When plans last spring to move them onto a Wyoming Indian reservation fell through — and the specter of slaughter was raised — the ban on commercialization was lifted.
Neither Montana nor the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the state's partner in the project, has ever offered to take the animals.
That's due in large part to a broader dispute over whether wild bison belong anywhere in the state outside of Yellowstone. Many ranchers see free-roaming bison as a disease risk and unwanted competition for the grass that feeds their cattle herds.
Meanwhile, conservationists are sinking millions of dollars into restoration efforts for the animal. That includes an attempt by the American Prairie Foundation to buy up vast swaths of land in eastern Montana ranches and create a 3 million acre reserve for bison and other wildlife.
"We don't have a real clear direction of what we want to do with bison," said Montana fish and wildlife director David Risley. "Are they going to be behind a fence forever, or is there a place in Montana where they can be free-roaming?"