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House Ag Committee discusses bill restricting bison transfers

The Montana House of Representatives Agriculture Committee held a hearing Tuesday regarding a pair of bills that could slow or halt restoration efforts for bison in Montana.

The first, House Bill 318, sponsored by Rep. Kenneth Holmlund R-Miles City would clarify that no bison that has been kept in captivity, is owned by someone or has been subject to per capita fees can be considered a wild bison.

Holmlund and proponents of the bill, including representatives from the United Property Owners of Montana and the Montana Association of Counties, said this would further clarify what animals can and cannot be considered wild.

However, opponents of the bill, who dwarfed proponents in numbers in the hearing, said the bill’s language does the opposite and could easily be interpreted broadly and manipulatively, especially because any bison that the state seeks to transport must be captured and quarantined while being tested for brucellosis.

Sen. Mike Fox, D-Hays, said the tribes his district includes, Rocky Boy’s, Fort Belknap and Fort Peck Indian reservations, have been working hard to help Montana Fish Wildlife

and Parks restore bison in the state and this bill would slow those efforts down because the state is only permitted to move wild bison, not domestic ones.

Matt Leow, a representative of the Montana Chapter of Back Country Hunters and Anglers, said protocols and procedures for quarantining and testing bison for brucellosis before transfer is rigorous and effective.

Thomas Elpel, another opponent, said he’s read and discussed the bill with others and everyone who does seems unsure of how far the interpretation of this

definition, particularly the matter of captivity could be taken.

He said he fears the matter would need to be taken to the courts for true clarification if it passes.

When asked if this definition would

apply to bison that have been held for quarantine, Holmlund said the definition used already exists in law and if bison are affected in that way that’s just how it is.

When asked if ownership by a person could be interpreted to include ownership by a tribe he gave a similar answer.

He also pushed back against the idea that the bill would cause confusion.

“The idea that we are muddying the water by making things more clear, I don’t see the connection there,” he said.

Senior Representative of Defenders of Wildlife

Chamois Andersen also spoke in opposition to the bill and said the bill would negatively impact the state’s ability to build up conservation herds.

She said the state has been treating many bison that would be affected by this change as wild animals but wouldn’t be able to transfer them to other public land despite this.

She said the vast majority of Montanans want to see bison restored and this bill flies in the face of that desire.

Chairman of the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of Fort Peck Floyd G. Azure said classifying these animals as domestic is just not accurate to what they are.

“Buffalo are incredibly important to my people,” he said, “Our tribes keep buffalo herds and participate in the Yellowstone Buffalo Conservation Transportation Program. We treat our buffalo as wildlife. They roam on large pastures where they can eat grass, form social groups and breed on their own.”

Montana Wild Bison Coalition Coordinator James Bailey also criticized the bill for introducing a basis for classification that doesn’t have a basis in biology.

“(This bill) has no clear purpose,” he said. “It provides no clarity and it insists on defining bison only based on what they are not, instead of what they are. They are a public trust national resource and there seems to be no problem that House Bill 318 is attempting to alleviate.”

Eric Clewis of MWF went further and said the bill has all the appearances of an effort to stop the restoration of buffalo.

Representatives from Montana Audubon, Montana Wildlife Federation, the Blackfeet Buffalo Program, and the Inter Tribal Buffalo Council also opposed the bill for similar reasons.

Holmlund was asked if he consulted with Native Americans about this bill and said he’d spoken with many when the bill was brought up in the last session and that they were fine with it.

He said he did not consult with any tribes directly but instead with legislators.

Legal Council for the Fort Peck and the Inter Tribal Buffalo Council Majel Russell said the law requires that matter affecting tribes be brought up with the leadership of each tribe and speaking with native legislators does not meet this requirement.

The second bill discussed was House Bill 302, which would require any transfer of bison to a community to be approved by the county commissioners of the area.

Rep. Joshua Kassmier, R-Fort Benton, the sponsor of the bill and chair of the House Agriculture Committee said the bill is an effort to give more control back to local communities.

“I strongly believe that the locals need to have input before the state relocates wild animals into their counties, because the ones dealing with this problem are local officials,” he said.

Nicole Rolf of the Montana Farm Bureau Association said county commissioners are the people best equipped to determine if wild bison can be tolerated in their community, citing the possibility of property damage, increased grazing competition and brucellosis.

Opponents again outnumbered proponents, with many of the same people speaking in opposition to this bill.

Fox, the Hays senator, said he see this added step as unnecessary considering the livestock industry already has substantial protections when it comes to the moving of bison, in the form of state and local veterinarians and a robust and lengthy quarantine and testing processes for brucellosis which must take place before bison can be moved.

He said a tremendous amount of hoops already exist for the state to jump through when transporting bison and adding one more will just make restoration efforts more difficult.

Fox also said he fears this would strain government relations between counties and the reservations.

Mike Nelson of the Buffalo Field Campaign echoed Fox’s sentiment despite sympathizing with the argument for more local control.

“There’s already plenty of legislation to thwart any effort of reintroduction in Montana,” he said. “ ... while I agree that local control is key, and information is vital, this bill should be rejected.”

Eric Melson of Back Country Hunters and Anglers said the bill would usurp FWP’s authority to restore bison and is out of line with Montana’s past of strong state-level conservation efforts.

“It would be highly irregular considering Montana’s long history of state-based wildlife management for the benefit of the people of the state,” he said.

He said giving commissioners veto power would set an inappropriate precedent for wildlife management as well.

Andersen, of Defenders of Wildlife, also expressed concern about the precedent this bill would set, one that might lead to a cascade effect that will further hamper the state’s ability to manage wildlife.

She said the ongoing efforts for bison restoration need to continue and this bill threatens that.

“Montana’s bison are on the road to recovery, but this bill threatens to derail the progress that has been made,” she said.

Dan Bailey of the National Parks Conservation Association also praise Montana’s history of effective management and said the bill and the precedent it sets could pave the way for that to end.

“Montana has established a wildlife stewardship legacy that is world-renowned by managing species under the public trust doctrine,” he said.

Another opponent, Amy McNamara of National Resources Defense Council, said FWP is well-equipped to handle wildlife restoration while minimizing risk to local communities and while county commissioners do have an understanding of their areas, they don’t necessarily have the same skills or knowledge as FWP.

“I deeply value my county commissioners, including weighing in on natural resource issues that affect the county,” she said, “however, they are not elected to make wildlife management decisions.”

Clewis, of Montana Wildlife Federation, also spoke in opposition and said even when commissioners do have expertise, the county itself doesn’t have the staff or resources to do what FWP does.

He also said FWP, out of necessity, is always in contact with the counties anyway, and is required to hold public hearings before transfers are made.

Adrian Jawort of Montana Native Voice said, while he’s not callous to the issues of livestock producers, the idea that they are exclusively entitled to public grazing land is disingenuous.

He also said according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that brucellosis is far more likely to come from elk, a species that doesn’t have nearly as stringent vetting policies when being moved.

He said he suspects this bill is a way of tripping up the restoration efforts of the American Prairie Foundation, and while he may not always agree with the American Prairie Reserve they are trying to create in north-central Montana, their restoration efforts are noble and efforts to stop them are not justifiable in this case.

Elpel provided more personal testimony and talked about taking a long paddle down the Missouri River two years ago.

He said not seeing a single bison was jarring after reading the accounts of Lewis and Clark who wrote about indescribably large herds of the magnificent animals when traveling the same area.

He said it’s obviously impractical to see that level of restoration, but something should still be done, if for no other reason than to bring people into the state for tourism.

Russell, of the Inter Tribal Buffalo Council, in addition to saying tribes haven’t been properly communicated with, raised the concern that the bill’s language was also unclear about what constitutes an affected county and brought up the possibility that county commissioners could block efforts to transport bison through a county, not just into one.

Kassmier said the bill clearly states that the decision making authority would only lie with the county into which the bison are released.

Legal Counsel to the Fort Peck Tribe and the Inter Tribal Buffalo Council Daniel Wenner raised his own concern that the bill requires bison being transferred to tribal land be certified as brucellosis-free by the state veterinarian, something they don’t have the authority to do.

He said this amounts to a local government power -grab from the tribes.

Kassamier in closing asked the opponents of the bill a rhetorical question;

”Why are you scared of local input?”


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