Landowner fears, anger stoke barrage of bison policy bills at Legislature

2013-02-24T00:05:00Z 2013-02-24T09:59:03Z Landowner fears, anger stoke barrage of bison policy bills at LegislatureBy MIKE DENNISON Gazette State Bureau The Billings Gazette
February 24, 2013 12:05 am  • 

HELENA – For Republican state Sen. John Brenden and many of his Eastern Montana neighbors, the idea of bison roaming the Montana plains as wildlife is absurd — and they want to do what they can to stop it.

“Buffalo have their place in the world, but it isn’t going back to the 1850s,” Brenden said last week. “It’s no different than the dinosaurs. We’re living in a modern world, whether we like it or not …. We don’t need free-roaming buffalo.”

Brenden, a farmer from Scobey, is sponsoring a bill to prohibit moving wild bison from Yellowstone National Park herds to anywhere in Montana except the National Bison Range in Moiese.

His bill also creates a year-round hunting season for bison, allowing any hunter who pays $125 to shoot up to three bison.

“(My bill) says if the National Park Service and the feds don’t want to cull (the Yellowstone bison herd), we’ll cull them ourselves, when they come on private property,” he said.

Brenden’s bill isn’t the only one this session taking a whack at Montana’s bison management policies.

As the 2013 Legislature reaches its midpoint, a half-dozen bison bills are still alive, doing everything from requiring the state to remove bison from private property outside Yellowstone National Park to allowing landowners to shoot any “wild bison” that come on their property.

The wave of bison legislation is from Republican lawmakers who say they’re responding to heightened landowner concerns about bison encroaching on farms, ranches and other private property, not only near Yellowstone National Park but also in Eastern Montana, where wildlife advocates are talking about possible free-roaming herds of bison on mostly public prairies.

Opposing the bills are wildlife and hunting groups, state wildlife managers and Indian tribes, who say the bills derail a 2-year-old compromise that set up a planning process with tightly drawn restrictions on how or where bison could be “translocated” somewhere in the state besides near Yellowstone Park.

“We’re saying, rather than have a whole flood of new bills and supersede what we’re trying to do, as we work through a process — let’s let the process work, and see what the results are,” said Jeff Hagener, director of the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Several Indian tribes also say many of the bills trample treaty rights for tribal members to hunt bison that range outside Yellowstone National Park.

“If that happens, it’s going to be a chaotic situation,” said John Harrison, an attorney for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Western Montana. “I guarantee there will be litigation. … When (tribes) talk about treaty rights, it’s as sacred to them as the Constitution is to American citizens.”

Two years ago, the Legislature passed a law that said the state must adopt a management plan before allowing wild bison to be transplanted to any private or public land in Montana.

The state is preparing an environmental review that examines where wild bison could be located in Montana other than near Yellowstone National Park. If some areas are identified, the next step is working with local groups of citizens on what safeguards should be in place if relocation might occur, Hagener said.

“Anywhere we’d put them in, we’d look at managing them on the landscape,” Hagener said. “What is the intent for that herd? How big would it be? What’s our long-term goal?”

Brenden, who chairs the Senate Fish and Game Committee, and Rep. Jeff Welborn, R-Dillon, wrote Hagener a letter late last month, asking about department plans for relocating bison.

Hagener replied a week later, saying the issue has spawned “no small amount of speculation, rumor and misinformation about bison management.”

In the letter, Hagener said the department has no current plans to move bison anywhere outside the Greater Yellowstone Area, and if translocation is considered in the future, it would follow the process in the 2011 law. He also said there are no plans to move any new bison to tribal lands in Montana.

Welborn said last week he thought Hagener’s letter addressed many concerns, and showed that the agency has “a genuine interest in bringing all of the stakeholders to the table and working out solutions.”

But the letter hasn’t stopped the flood of bills attempting to change state policy on bison.

Brenden’s Senate Bill 143 is an extensive rewrite of bison hunting and management policy, and House Bill 484, from Rep. Alan Redfield, R-Livingston, would direct state agencies to take certain actions when Yellowstone bison come onto private property.

Redfield, a rancher in Paradise Valley, said last week that his bill merely clarifies how the state departments of Livestock and Fish, Wildlife and Parks should handle bison that leave the park and cause problems on private property.

Tom France of Missoula, the senior director for western wildlife conservation at the National Wildlife Federation, said his group and others believe wild bison can be restored on and near the C.M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, which surrounds a remote stretch of the Missouri River in northeast Montana.

Bison could be viewed by eco-tourists and hunted, he said, “with really minimal conflicts and a great deal of benefit” to the area.

The Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks should be allowed to study that possibility and other options for wild bison, France said.

“Until we have a result from that (process), it seems premature to be passing legislation that second-guesses it,” he said.

Wildlife advocates and state wildlife officials also say the bills revert state bison policy to what existed in the late 1980s and 1990s, when hundreds of bison were slaughtered by hunters and fish-and-game personnel when the animals left Yellowstone Park, causing a national outcry.

Pat Flowers, the state Fish, Wildlife and Parks regional director in Bozeman, said last week that HB484 essentially “requires that no bison will come out of Yellowstone National Park into Montana, ever.”

“This is very similar to the approach we took in the late 1980s,” he said. “It’s a failed policy then, it’s a failed policy now. This bill will take us right back to that same point in time.”

Brenden, however, said he and others are only seeking a balance in bison policy, and that if landowner concerns aren’t addressed, sportsmen’s groups should be worried about the backlash.

“People have closed up their properties to hunting because of the actions of Fish, Wildlife and Parks on this translocation of buffalo,” he said. “If we don’t get this bison thing solved, there won’t be hundreds of thousands of acres locked up, there will be millions of acres.”

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