Vetoes leave bison ambiguous in Montana

Two bills regarding bison sent to Montana Governor Steve Bullock’s desk were snubbed this past month, dampening private property rights and local input on land use in the Big Sky state.

One piece of legislation, HB 132, would have standardized the definition of wild bison – as opposed to livestock – by deeming any bison held in captivity at any point in their life as livestock. Current Montana statutes vaguely offer two definitions of wild bison. The livestock title declares wild bison as those that have not been reduced to captivity and are not owned by a person. The Fish, Wildlife and Parks title simply defines it as those that have not been reduced to captivity. This bill would have closed loopholes in the definition by including “captivity at any point in their lives,” and also required a per capita filing on bison declared as livestock, similar to cattle.

Representative Ken Holmlund of Miles City, Mont., says he carried the bill with support from the Montana Association of Counties and livestock groups, and says the intent was not about the taxes, but about the definition.

“This was an effort to stop groups from bringing in any buffalo they can get – including those that come from captivity – and declaring them wildlife,” says Holmlund. “We need to make the definition of a wild bison tighter – you can’t have it flux back and forth as it suits you.”

“This was an effort to stop groups from bringing in any buffalo they can get – including those that come from captivity – and declaring them wildlife,” says Holmlund. “We need to make the definition of a wild bison tighter – you can’t have it flux back and forth as it suits you. Rep. Ken Holmlund, Miles City, Mont.

In particular the American Prairie Reserve, which has brought in out-of-state money and silver-tongued political pressure to ranching communities in north central Montana, stands to benefit from defining bison as wild. Their general goal is to create the “largest wildlife reserve in American,” with free-roaming bison on a combination of federal, state and private lands. The bison they currently own are subject to the per capita tax.

“The APR wants to have no fences and call these wild buffalo,” says Holmlund. “However, that is not what they are. They can’t just turn around and say they’re wild.

“We aren’t opposed to groups having wild buffalo. We just don’t like the idea that one day they can be domestic and the next day wild.”

Several versions of the bill were passed back and forth between legislators and the governor. Holmlund said Bullock supported the idea of a consistent definition, but his wording changes required only that wild bison are those that are not “currently” covered by the per capita definition, meaning being in captivity. He opposed the wording “have ever been.” Holmlund says the amended change in intention was not acceptable to the legislators, and therefore the original version was vetoed.

A letter from Bullock’s office states: “Though well-intentioned, these changes present significant, adverse consequences for bison management in Montana.” He noted that bison herds that are generally accepted as wild, such as those in Yellowstone National Park, are descendants of animals once owned and reduced to captivity, and the bill would threaten their status as wild.

The second bill he vetoed, HB 332, would have required authorization of county commissioners to transport wild bison into a county. The parameters allowed the county to require that before bison could be brought in they must be: certified as brucellosis-free; not be a threat to public health, safety or welfare; and the relocation be consistent with county growth policy.

Bullock’s letter of rejection stated: “House Bill 332 would set the dangerous precedent of supplanting the state’s management of its fish and wildlife with county regulation.” He added that wildlife is an asset of the entire state, not just a county, and the current management practice of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks welcomes input on management practices from all county governments and will continue to do so.”

The vetoes did not come as surprise to many in the ag community. Bullock’s support of less restrictions for bison comes shortly before a May 14 official announcement of his presidential campaign, and years into tensions between ranchers and the APR.

The Montana Stockgrowers Association was a strong supporter of both HB 332 and HB 132, as well as similar past legislation that also was vetoed. Jay Bodner, executive vice president of MSGA, says, “We were disappointed in the rejections of both bills, which would have allowed necessary input at the local level and provided clarity on the definition of wild bison. Even though these bills failed, it is evident that ranchers who will be impacted by bison need to have their concerns addressed in any proposed management action.”

Representatives from the Montana Farm Bureau Federation also expressed disappointment in the veto. “These bills were simply about clarifying the definition of a ‘wild’ bison and providing local some control in discussions about the establishment of wild bison herds,” says Nicole Rolf, director of national affairs for the MFBF. “We got close on the definition bill, but in the end, it comes down to the fact that anything dealing with bison tends to get controversial and convoluted, even when it doesn’t need to.”

Vicki Olson of Malta is a rancher and president of the Montana Public Lands Council. She has worked tirelessly to protect the interests of ranchers against the push of the APR machine, which she says ignores local culture and is overall detrimental to the health of grazing lands.

Olson notes that ranchers who graze BLM permits have to monitor their grazing and the health of the pasture, and that range management research shows rotational grazing as a best practice.

“Now the APR wants to take out all the fences and let bison graze free will year around. That’s like stepping back 100 years in grass management and riparian area conservation. Even Ted Turner put his fences back in after he realized the buffalo were trampling his fly fishing streams.

“The APR thinks they’re going to take us back to ‘the way it was,’ when finally just recovered our fragile, arid prairie from the Dirty ’30s,” says Olson.

Holmlund says, “The whole concept of what the APR stands for is antithetical to the way Montanans look at things. The APR are not good neighbors for the people up there.”

Meanwhile, the wild buffalo will roam alongside the domestic buffalo. And no one knows the difference.