Two new bills introduced in the Montana legislature would usher in a zero-tolerance policy for wild bison, potentially opening the way for a return to the shoot-on-sight practices of years past.
Under a proposed bill in the state Senate, Department of Livestock officials would have the leeway to exterminate all wild bison. And a bill in the state House of Representatives would allow landowners to kill any bison that sets foot on private property. The legislation pits farmers angered by the huge bison?s foraging against a consortium of wildlife advocates, Native Americans and hunters who had hoped that rules banning the bison were easing.
?Why do you want to spread this creeping cancer, these wooly tanks, around the state of Montana? We?ve got zero tolerance left in our bones,? said John Brenden, a state senator from Scobey, Mont., who is chairman of the Senate Fish and Game Committee and authored that chamber?s bill.
Over the last three decades, around 7,000 bison from Yellowstone National Park, descendants of the less than two dozen free-range bison in America known to have survived the great slaughter of the 1870s and ?80s, were killed for migrating from federal parkland into the states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
Yet in Montana, where most Yellowstone bison have been shot or shipped to slaughterhouses, the state agreed last year for the first time to allow bison access to 75,000 acres of public land north of the park for a few months each year.
Last spring, around 60 healthy Yellowstone bison were also moved some 500 miles northeast to a fenced pasture on Montana?s Fort Peck Indian Reservation. The move, celebrated by Sioux and Assiniboine tribe members, marked the first time in decades that any Yellowstone bison were allowed to leave the park alive and the first time since the 1870s that wild bison lived on Fort Peck land.
Opponents argue that the bills would negate years of hard-fought compromises on wild bison management while potentially affecting other wildlife species like elk and bison that live on ranches.
?As a sportsman-conservationist who is proud of Montana?s wildlife heritage, treating one species of wildlife like vermin is very frustrating because we want to have a conversation about the future of wild bison in Montana ? and this bill stops the conversation,? said Land Tawney, president of a sportsmen?s group called the Hellgate Hunters and Anglers. Mr. Tawney was among nearly 100 people who packed a state Senate hearing on the issue on Thursday.
Park County, Mont., a local stockgrowers association and the Montana Farm Bureau Federation filed a suit in 2011 challenging the practice of letting bison migrate across the Yellowstone border. But a judge ruled against them in January, citing a 1940 Montana Supreme Court decision emphasizing that the animals were on the land first. ?A property owner in this state must recognize there may be some injury to property from wild game for which there is no recourse,? that opinion said.
But John Youngberg, vice president for government affairs for the Montana Farm Bureau Federation, said that because wild bison were exterminated by the time Montana became a state in 1889, landowners have the right to live without them.
?They got their property with the expectation that there were no buffalo,? he said. ?And these are not white-tailed deer you?re talking about, they?re 2,000-pound animals.?
Agribusiness lawyers also sued last spring to prevent some Yellowstone bison from being moved from Fort Peck to the Fort Belknap Indian reservation, some 200 miles of rolling prairie to the west. Mark Azure, director of Fish and Wildlife at Fort Belknap, testified last week before a House committee in Helena, Mont., that anti-bison bias still hurts Native Americans.
?These animals are part of who we are ? they?re part of our culture and also part of where we?re trying to get economically to help our people,? Mr. Azure said. He added that the tribe had invested $100,000 in building a bison pasture that now sits empty because of the lawsuit.
Although outnumbered nearly 8 to 1 by the bill?s opponents at Thursday?s hearing, supporters argued that lethal control is needed to protect domestic livestock from contracting brucellosis, an infectious disease that came from European cattle and now afflicts some Yellowstone bison and elk.
For decades state officials cited brucellosis as their reason for slaughtering bison in Montana, even though no Yellowstone bison had ever been known to pass the bacteria to a cow. Opponents of the bills say they fear a replay of bloody scenes from a few harsh winters in the 1980s and 1990s when Department of Livestock officials gunned down hundreds of famished Yellowstone bison that migrated into Montana in search of forage.
As images of bison carcasses appeared in the media, some wildlife advocates called for a tourism boycott, threatening the state?s second biggest industry after agriculture.
?These bills turn back the clock against all the incremental progress that has been made,? said Glenn Hockett, president of the Gallatin Wildlife Association.
Montana?s Fish, Wildlife and Parks department is considering allowing bison year-round access to cattle-free pockets of public land on Yellowstone?s northwest side. Officials are also working on a statewide bison management plan that could allow the reintroduction of a few disease-free bison to some of the most remote parts of the state, possibly including the million-acre Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Montana.
Public polls show that most Montanans support reintroducing wild bison that could be watched by wildlife enthusiasts and harvested by hunters. That approach would parallel established management plans that allowed elk, deer, antelope and bighorn sheep to return after they were hunted to near-extinction around the time bison vanished.
?Every time the public is sampled, it comes out in favor of the buffalo, but now we?ve got a bill to kill every last one of them ? it?s so incongruous,? said Jim Posewitz, a veteran hunter and wildlife advocate who testified against the Senate bill on Thursday.
But Bill Hoppe, who lives in the town of Gardiner, Mont. on the border of Yellowstone, said he supported the bills for the sake of public safety. He testified before the house committee that metal pens were built at bus stops so children could be safe from bison. (The superintendent for Gardiner?s public schools said there were no such pens, however.)
?Buffalo are running free, and we?re corralling our kids in a country where we?re supposed to be free,? Mr. Hoppe testified.