A proposal to extend and modify the issuance of bison hunting licenses to people on Montana's Indian reservations and the Little Shell Tribe was strongly supported by tribal legislators during the first hearing of House Bill 108 on Thursday.
The bill would extend a law on the books since 2005, which was originally supposed to sunset in 2015, and ensure the tags are over and above the 80 issued to state applicants annually. Under the bill that was heard by the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee, two tags would be provided to each of Montana’s seven reservations, as well as to the Little Shell Tribe, each year.
“We would like to see it increased to five,” said Rep. Rae Peppers, D-Lame Deer. “We feel like the buffalo are part of our tradition and what we do with them is important.”
That was echoed by two other American Indian legislators who testified in support of the bill. No one spoke in opposition to the measure.
Sen. Lea Whitford, D-Cut Bank, also said the number should be increased. “Bison are an important cultural component of who we are,” she said.
The state already allows four tribes with treaty rights to hunt bison that migrate out of Yellowstone National Park, only one of which is a Montana tribe — the Confederated Salish and Kootenai. Those treaty tribes regulate their own hunters. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks also issues 80 tags annually through a drawing to other hunters who apply.
Increasing the number of tags given to the eight tribes beyond two could make the small region where bison are hunted outside of Yellowstone in Montana even more crowded, warned Mike Volesky, FWP’s chief of staff.
“The treaty hunt is really getting to capacity,” he said, which at times has resulted in the harvest of up to 400 bison.
Adding more hunters to the area could be a safety concern as well as exceed local residents’ tolerance of bison hunters, Volesky noted.
“We are a little bit loath to add more,” he said.
Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman, asked Volesky if FWP had pursued a motion by the Environmental Quality Council to allow tribal bison hunting inside Yellowstone National Park. Volesky said FWP has no jurisdiction inside the park.
Another bill before the committee, HB 69, would extend the paddlefish caviar agreement with the city of Glendive to June of 2020. Under the agreement, a contractor removes the eggs from paddlefish caught on the Yellowstone River and sells them for up to $300 a pound. Seventy percent of the money made from the sale goes to a Glendive grant program, the rest to FWP for research of the fish.
Glendive resident Bob Gilbert said renewing the agreement for only two years isn’t fair to the contractor. FWP wants the term short because of concern about dwindling numbers of paddlefish and the possibility that a fish bypass channel may be constructed at Intake Dam, allowing the fish to move beyond the structure. Right now the dam acts as a blockade to paddlefish, which migrate upstream in the spring to spawn, allowing anglers to snag the fish.
Eileen Ryce, Fisheries Division administrator for FWP, told the committee there has been limited recruitment of young paddlefish into the population since 1999. “If this trend continues we will have to consider less harvest,” she said. Last year the harvest was 1,000 fish.
The third bill before the committee would get rid of the archaic name “civet cat” used to refer to skunks, and remove spotted skunks from designation as predators. HB 98, sponsored by Rep. Janet Ellis, D-Helena, is meant to ensure that if the spotted skunk is ever considered for endangered species listing Montana wouldn’t get caught in any fray.
“We’re really just trying to take away an argument for federal listing,” said Ken McDonald, FWP’s Wildlife Division administrator. “The Eastern spotted skunk is being considered for listing.”
Striped skunks are the more common critter most Montanans are familiar with. There have been only 22 documented sightings of spotted skunks in the state, mostly in southwestern Montana.