Bison got a cold reception from the Montana agricultural community during two hearings at the Legislature on Thursday.
“Our members are very concerned,” said Chuck Denowh, of United Property Owners of Montana, in testimony before the Senate Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation Committee. The APR has “made it clear in the future they want wild, free-roaming bison. Obviously, this is the first step.”
The joint resolution passed the House earlier this month on a 59-40 vote.
Nearby in the House Agriculture Committee at the same time, Rep. Tyson Runningwolf, D-Browning, introduced House Bill 478, which would allow Yellowstone National Park bison that haven’t cleared quarantine and been declared brucellosis free to be transported to the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation’s 360-acre, “state of the art” quarantine corral.
“This is truly a hard time for tribes, especially the Fort Peck Tribe, who has built a facility,” Runningwolf testified. “The tribes want the bison dead or alive.”
His pleas didn’t sway agricultural interests.
“We do recognize the importance of bison to the tribes,” said Jay Bodner, testifying for the Montana Stockgrowers Association. “But we’re concerned about moving disease to parts of the state where we have none.”
Eastern Montana-based advocates for the joint resolution sent out emails encouraging recipients to contact their legislators to advance the measure and send an anti-APR message. How that might affect the BLM’s process is unknown, since the agency can be buffeted by political winds.
Tom Darrington, BLM’s Malta Field Office manager, said the environmental analysis has begun on the APR’s request but he couldn’t say when a draft would be finished and available for public comment.
“We’re still at the beginning stages of that process,” he said.
Once done, however, the public would have a chance to comment on the document.
The APR has submitted to BLM a request for grazing lease modifications on almost 261,000 acres of BLM land. APR also proposes the BLM include in the BLM allotments 29,000 acres of state land and 86,400 acres of APR deeded land.
On those lands the APR is seeking to change the class of livestock from cattle to bison; allow for year-long grazing; fortify existing external boundary fences by replacing the second strand from the top with an electrified wire; and remove interior fences on all 18 permits.
The request for comments drew almost 2,500 opinions from the public.
“It certainly is an issue that people on both sides feel strongly about,” Darrington said.
Former Gov. Brian Schweitzer even stepped into the fray this week with an opinion article published in state newspapers in which he wrote: “This socialist philosophy of picking winners (cattle) and losers (bison) is silly. What happened to freedom? What next? Ban Charolais and Limousine breeds because they have French names?”
Although proponents of the resolution are focused on bison, Betty Holder, senior land acquisition manager for the APR, said her employer is “about the entire ecosystem, not just bison.”
If the APR’s changes were granted and the BLM ruled that the land was suffering, Holder said the agency “has every tool” necessary to “request us to put fences back in.”
Rep. Dan Bartel, R-Lewistown, said the resolution he introduced does not infringe on the APR’s private property rights, since these are public lands at issue. Instead, he sees the measure as a way to “ensure that we as a body support our agricultural community.”
Denowh called the resolution the “most important legislation to our members right now,” saying it would send “a very powerful message.”
Many of the same agricultural interests testified that loosening the reins on bison shipments to reservation lands as requested in HB 478 would be a threat to a profitable ranching industry.
“This has nothing to do with tribal entities seeking to grow bison numbers, it’s all about disease management,” said Chelcie Cargill of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation.
She called brucellosis, a disease carried by Yellowstone bison, “a formidable threat” not only to the livestock industry but also to humans who may contract the disease.
Majel Russell, legal counsel for the Fort Peck Tribes, said the “return of the buffalo to Indian country” is the objective of the legislation. When the bill was drafted, she said legislative council could not even see a prohibition currently existing in Montana law against quarantine of bison outside of an area around Yellowstone National Park called the Designated Surveillance Area, or DSA.
“I believe there’s a difference in the interpretation of that law,” Russell said.
Passing the bill would allow tribes to be partners in the conservation of Yellowstone bison, Russell argued, while also helping tribal people heal, eat better and revive their economy.
“I think it’s long past due … that tribes have the capacity to manage these animals,” she said.
Marty Zaluski, state veterinarian, who did not attend the hearing, told the Billings Gazette that expanding the DSA to encompass the Fort Peck Reservation “would result in a significant expense to cattle producers” in the area, as well as require monitoring of bison movement and verification that testing is done.
“Who would pay for that test?” he questioned.