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Lawmakers consider the future of bison in Montana

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Rep. Dan Bartel (left), R-Lewiston, and Rep. Kenneth Holmlund, R-Miles City, are working on legislation together to address the possibility of bison moving into central Montana. PHOTO BY SHAYLEE RAGAR / UM LEGISLATIVE NEWS SERVICE

UM LEGISLATIVE NEWS SERVICE TEAM

Debates are intensifying at the Montana Legislature over the state’s management of North America’s largest land mammal: the American bison.

Some argue bison are a critical cultural, spiritual and historical resource. Others argue bison pose a threat to the health and well-being of cattle. Now, legislators are considering a number of bills that would decide where bison are allowed to graze and which government entity gets to make that decision.

Rep. Tyson Runningwolf, D-Browning is carrying one of those bills. It would allow bison to be transferred from Yellowstone to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.

Bison populations were decimated in the early 1800s as Europeans moved West, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Native Americans had been hunting bison for centuries. Their hides and meat were staple resources for tribes, which became scarce when hunting bison became a sport, rather than a necessity, for settlers.

Bison were nearly extinct when a small herd was moved to Yellowstone National Park. The population revived.

In 2019, bison are confined to certain areas in the state. Some ranchers feel strongly about keeping bison in these areas because they’re carriers of brucellosis, a disease that affects bison, cattle, elk and humans. It can lead to high rates of abortion in cattle, bison and elk.

Brucellosis cost cattle ranchers billions of dollars in the last century, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Montana achieved brucellosis-free status in 2002.

Researches have not been able to document a transmission of brucellosis from bison to cattle in the wild, although it is possible. According to the Department of Agriculture, more than 50 percent of bison in Yellowstone have tested positive for the disease.

A private organization’s application for a bison grazing permit in central Montana has led to anxiety and fear of possible damages. Lawmakers are asking the federal government to deny the request.

House Joint Resolution 28 urges the federal Bureau of Land Management to deny American Prairie Reserve’s request for a year-round grazing permit that would cover land in Choteau, Fergus, Petroleum, Phillips and Valley Counties. It passed the House 59-40 and was heard in a Senate committee.

The Bozeman-based conservation organization owns this land and argues HJ 28 is an attack on private property rights. However, the lawmaker sponsoring the bill says he believes bison grazing will affect private property of ranches in the area.

Rep. Dan Bartel, R-Lewistown is carrying the resolution and said it’s “critical to the well-being of Montana’s livestock and wildlife.” Bartel said ranchers have implemented best practices for soil and grazing management and that it would be counterproductive to allow this new grazing permit.

The United Property Owners of Montana, the Montana Stockgrowers Association, the Montana Farm Bureau Federation and the Montana Wool Growers Association support the resolution.

Other bills include House Bill 332, which would give local officials “a seat at the table” when it comes to deciding bison transfers into Montana. House Bill 478 would revise laws related to transferring wild bison to tribal entities, allowing bison to be transferred from Yellowstone to tribal lands before the bison have received brucellosis-free certification.

Many voiced their opinions regarding proposed bills and resolutions relating to bison management in the state. While some argue the issue most closely relates to science and agriculture, others say that it has to do with disease management, native rights and property rights.

While presenting his bill in committee, Runningwolf said, “Our beautiful state is embroiled in a management conundrum.”

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