MATT GOURAS Associated Press Writer HELENA
A coalition of bison advocates and owners of property near Yellowstone National Park said Thursday that bison wandering out of Yellowstone should be managed by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, rather than by livestock interests. A long line of people asked a legislative committee to support a bill dubbed the Wild Bison Recovery and Conservation Act. Primarily, the measure would make the wildlife agency rather than the Montana Department of Livestock responsible for managing bison that wander out of Yellowstone. Opponents, mainly ranchers, said the proposal puts them at risk. The bill's sponsor said management of bison has been bungled by the Department of Livestock, which answers to a board run by ranchers. Rep. Mike Phillips of Bozeman said that after two decades, policies of the livestock agency have failed to prevent transmission of brucellosis, a disease found in some Yellowstone wildlife, to domestic animals. He said the Department of Livestock has slaughtered bison even if they were not really a threat. Interests of ranchers have trumped the interests of hunters and other landowners, said Phillips, a Democrat. "Sometimes on some occasions we fail to balance the competing needs," he said. "I believe that is the case with publicly owned wild bison." Phillips said the wildlife department manages game animals such as elk and deer, and should have responsibility for the bison. "Over the last 20 years we have operated under a paradigm that says the Department of Livestock should manage wild bison," Phillips said. "These results of 20 years of work demonstrate that change is needed." Montana ranchers lost their brucellosis-free status after wildlife, likely elk, transmitted the disease to domestic cattle. The industry is working to regain disease-free status and thus avoid difficulty in exporting livestock. Ranchers said that switching management of the bison to Fish, Wildlife & Parks would hamper that process. "We feel that it puts the cattle industry at risk," said Bob Hanson, president of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation. "It puts the management in the agency which manages the elk which gave us the brucellosis." Landowners from the Yel lowstone area said that Department of Livestock representatives trespass on their land regularly to haze bison, and that their interests have been ignored. The landowners want Phillips' bill gives them assurances their rights will be respected. They testified that helicopters buzz their homes and government agents run through their property to chase bison. "We are fed up with the harassment, trespassing and erosion of private-property rights," said Kerry Taggart, who lives near West Yellowstone. "As landowners we've been exploited and completely ignored." The bill is House Bill 253.