Guest opinion: Let tribes restore wild, healthy bison to Montana

2013-02-08T00:05:00Z Guest opinion: Let tribes restore wild, healthy bison to MontanaBy MARK AZURE The Billings Gazette
February 08, 2013 12:05 am  • 

Once again, the Montana Legislature is considering bills that would block tribes from restoring wild bison to our own tribal lands. By generally banning wild bison from Montana, House Bill 249 and Senate Bill 143 represent an astounding level of disrespect to the tribes of this state. We call on the Legislature to defeat these offensive bills and on the governor to veto any that make it through.

After the great bison slaughter of the 1800s, fewer than 25 wild bison remained in Yellowstone. Their descendants are some of the only bison on earth free of cattle genes and the only continuously wild herd in America. They are critical to bison conservation, yet thousands have been sent to slaughter over the years for roaming outside the park. In 2005 an effort began to quarantine some of these roaming bison rather than send them to slaughter. Those that proved free of disease would start new conservation herds elsewhere. Tribal lands were at the top of the list of potential new sites.

On March 19, 2012, 61 of these bison returned to their historic range at Fort Peck Reservation amidst a great community celebration. Tribal members from Fort Belknap Reservation helped with the transport and attended the celebration. We are next in line and have spent more than $100,000 for bison fencing and infrastructure in preparation. Now, some in the Legislature want to put an end to this dream.

House Bill 249, sponsored by Rep. Alan Doane, would allow unlimited and unregulated slaughter of bison that stray onto private land, including those that walk across the boundary of Yellowstone National Park, effectively ending tribal hunting rights and future Yellowstone bison restoration to tribal lands. This bill turns bison into vermin with no protection or regulation.

Senate Bill 143, sponsored by Sen. John Brenden, goes one step further. It would order Montana officials to kill or remove all bison migrating into Montana and end efforts to restore wild bison elsewhere. Sen. Brenden made his intent clear back in 2009 and in 2011 when he sponsored similar bills: prevent bison relocation to tribal lands. Tribes had to work hard to kill those bills; it is astounding that we have to do so yet again.

These two legislators did not even bother to meet or talk with tribal agencies or governments prior to submitting their bills.

These bills would ban wild bison — an animal that has lived here for centuries — from having any future in Montana. These bills would reverse decades of progress in tribal-state relations.

We invite Montana’s legislators to work with us rather than against us. Come visit and learn why bison are so important.

Mark Azure of Fort Belknap is director of Fort Belknap Fish, Wildlife and Buffalo.

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