Jonathan Proctor, Rockies and Plains Representative
The Montana legislature meets in Helena, our state’s capital, every other year for just four months. Our elected representatives have a lot of work to do in that time, but for a few anti-wildlife legislators there seems to be plenty of time to beat up on bison. A whopping 10 anti-bison bills have been proposed this year, including one to allow private landowners to shoot any bison that sets hoof on private land and force the state to remove the carcass, another to allow county commissioners to veto bison restoration efforts, and one even calling for all wild bison to be removed or shot on sight.
Defenders is working overtime to stop all of these bills. We’re working closely with a diverse group of bison supporters to testify against these bills and tell the public what is going on in Helena. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with tribes, sportsmen and other conservation groups, we’re rallying all bison supporters to let the legislature know that Montanans want wild bison and oppose these awful bills.
Working together is the only way we will succeed in Montana’s legislature, and we’ve had some great success so far: At least five bills have already been defeated! But each bill that remains and is still moving is detrimental to our efforts to restore wild, genetically-pure bison to places within their historic Great Plains landscape. We want to see every piece of damaging legislation defeated.
According to a recent poll, 68 percent of Montanans support the return of wild bison to public and tribal lands in the state. But you’d never know it from some of the voting results in the legislature. Apart from the bills that we have already defeated, one anti-bison bill passed the House 61-37, and three bills passed the Senate by wide majorities. But they are not yet law and we still have a short window in which to stop them.
Spokespeople from the Assiniboine, Gros Ventre and Sioux tribes of the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Reservations in eastern Montana have been working especially hard, showing up to oppose these bills and challenge those who repeatedly claim that “nobody in eastern Montana wants these bison.” These tribes not only want wild bison, but are actively working to restore them to their reservations.
For many years Defenders has worked with Robert Magnan, Director of the Fort Peck Reservation bison program, to restore genetically pure Yellowstone bison to tribal lands. He has repeatedly traveled the eight hours to Helena to testify against many of these bills that would stop any further bison restoration, including to tribal lands. Sadly, he’s had to make the same arguments this year that he made in 2009 and again in 2011 to defeat similar anti-bison bills from state Senator Brenden (R-Scobey). Defenders has been there each time as well.
We’ve also had a long collaborative partnership with Mark Azure, Director of the Fort Belknap Reservation bison program. We hope to help Fort Belknap reintroduce genetically pure Yellowstone bison later this year, but these bills threaten this plan. Mark has traveled to Helena again and again to testify against several of the bills, and recently wrote a guest column that appeared in many Montana papers.Tribes with treaty rights to hunt wild bison on public lands, such as the Salish, Kootenai and Nez Perce tribes, have also actively opposed these bills. Should any of these bills become law, “I guarantee there will be litigation,” said John Harrison, an attorney for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Western Montana, in a recent news article. “When (tribes) talk about treaty rights, it’s as sacred to them as the Constitution is to American citizens.”
These Native American tribes are our greatest allies for wild bison. They have stepped forward as the leaders in wild bison restoration, even while many governmental agencies remain largely silent and noncommittal. Sportsmen’s organizations are also turning their attention more and more to restoring wild bison on the Great Plains after a long history of restoring wildlife such as deer, elk and wild sheep. Their involvement is important because they have a lot of clout at the state level.
My testimony against these bills on behalf of Defenders’ 4,500 Montana members and supporters focused on the collaborations on wild bison conservation. In addition to working with tribes to restore wild bison to tribal lands, we have also been working with others to secure more protective policies for dealing with Yellowstone bison when they step outside the park. As a member of the “bison citizens working group” on Yellowstone bison, we met for more than a year with ranchers, landowners, local businesses and other bison advocates to find common ground on the management of Yellowstone bison when they leave the park. We found many things we could agree upon, and several of them are being implemented now, giving bison additional freedom to roam out of the park without being killed. These are small but important steps. If this diverse group of Montanans can come together on behalf of the state’s wild bison, we expect the legislature to take our results seriously and not ruin our efforts with these anti-bison bills. Together, we are fighting these bills so that the iconic creatures that once roamed the Great Plains by the millions can be seen wild in key places of the American west once again.
Click here to support our efforts to fight anti-bison bills in Montana and other legislation that threatens wildlife.