HELENA — The Montana Legislature will consider year-round bison hunting and prohibitions on the animals' movements amid a slew of bison-related measures to be tackled during the second half of the legislative session.
Senate Bill 143 is one of the most contentious bison bills this session. Besides extending the current three-month bison hunting season year-round, the measure would increase the number of bison that could be killed and prohibit the transfer of wild bison.
Republican state Sen. John Brenden, of Scobey, says the bill is necessary to contain bison herds coming out of Yellowstone National Park. Montana hunting regulations allow some bison that move out of Yellowstone to be killed every winter, but Brenden says that's not enough.
Hunters, both with licenses from the state and from several Indian tribes with treaty rights, have killed an estimated 172 of the park's more than 4,000 bison this winter. Wildlife managers say slightly more than twice that number of animals needs to be killed to keep the population in check.
"Hunting has to play a part of it, managing the herd, selling some of the buffalo to folks for food production - it's got to take a combination of all things to make it work," Brenden said.
Opponents, including conservationists, however, say the bison population could be devastated by a year-round hunting season, as it has in the past.
"It basically is a bison extermination bill," said Nick Gevock with the Montana Federation of Wildlife. "There would never be bison in the state because it would allow year-round hunting and three tags per hunter."
Another Senate measure would require Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to reimburse property owners for damages from wild bison. Senate Bill 256 also requires the agency to estimate potential damages.
Opponents say the proposal is financially unsustainable, and gathering a damages estimate would be virtually impossible. Fish, Wildlife and Parks, which gathers revenue primarily from sportsman licenses, would be required to foot the bill.
Supporters say bison not only present safety concerns, but can wreak havoc on farms and ranches by knocking over fences and competing with cattle for grass. This damage should be compensated, Brenden says.
The Scobey senator also fears the spread of brucellosis, a disease that can cause cattle to abort their first calf.
Yellowstone remains a hotspot for the livestock disease despite periodic slaughters of bison leaving the park that have killed thousands of animals in the last two decades. There have been no recorded transmissions of the disease from bison to cattle, and livestock infections that occurred in the last two decades were all traced to diseased elk.
Ranchers nevertheless remain wary of allowing bison beyond the park, in part because an estimated 50 to 60 percent of the animals in the Yellowstone area test positive for the disease.
House Bill 396, which passed the House on Monday, is designed to prohibit the relocation of bison. It now heads to the Senate.
Gevock, with the conservation group, says preventing the spread of brucellosis is essential to any bison management plan. But he said the first step is to let state wildlife officials proceed with their work on a management plan that will examine the potential of having bison in other places besides Yellowstone National Park and a few bison ranges.
"We think everyone should slow down and let Fish Wildlife and Parks craft this wildlife plan," Gevock said.
A small herd of bison was relocated last year from Yellowstone to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation after extensive disease testing and spending years in quarantine. Other animals that have been declared disease-free have been awaiting relocation for several years.
Still, landowners fear the economic consequences of wild bison grazing on the plains.
Brenden said conservationists and other advocates for the animals "want to have free-roaming buffalo up in my neck of the woods - north central and northeastern Montana. But I wonder how they'd like if I put them down in Missoula or Bozeman."
Wildlife advocates are not against every bison bill.
House Bill 328, supported by the Montana Wildlife Federation, allows biologists to give hunters a general location of bison, which would make it easier to kill the animals. Gevock said similar measures already apply for sportsmen hunting other wildlife.
Among other bison bills, Senate Bill 305 would reclassify wild bison as domesticated animals if they have ever been held captive or privately owned. House Bill 507 revises the bison management plan already in place and puts restrictions on where the animals could be relocated.