Yellowstone National Park, Bison File

A small herd of bison graze in Yellowstone National Park on March 25.

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Tribal leaders and conservation advocates on Wednesday sent a letter to Montana’s governor urging him to veto two bills they say would make it harder to restore wild bison in the state.

The letter was emailed to Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte a day after he announced Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks would be tossing its Bison Conservation and Management Plan in a settlement with a property rights group.

The management plan, which had been in the works for nearly a decade, offered tribes and nonprofits a vehicle for proposing bison restoration projects in the state, according to Chamois Andersen with Defenders of Wildlife.

Last January, the United Property Owners of Montana sued FWP over the plan, claiming officials neglected to adequately analyze the impacts of disease transmission between bison and livestock.

Montana’s livestock industry fears allowing more bison to roam freely could lead to brucellosis transmission. A transmission could cost the state its brucellosis class-free status, leading to significant economic consequences.

Brucellosis is a bacterial disease that can cause abortion in livestock or birth of weak offspring. Though many bison have been exposed to it, it’s never been transmitted from bison to livestock in the wild. Wild elk have transmitted the disease to livestock.

“This is a huge win for property owners in Montana. We’ve successfully blocked the introduction of free-roaming bison for at least the next decade,” said UPOM Policy Director Chuck Denowh in a news release. “This is a major setback for the American Prairie Reserve and their plan to impose wild bison on their neighbors and on our public land.”

A day after the management plan was scrapped, representatives of the Blackfeet Nation, Fort Belknap Indian Community, Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes and InterTribal Buffalo Council signed and sent a letter to Gianforte calling for a veto on House Bills 318 and 302.

Defenders of Wildlife, World Wildlife Fund, Montana Chapter of the Sierra Club, The Humane Society of the United States, Natural Resources Defense Council, Laurel East Animal Center, National Wildlife Federation, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Wildlife Conservation Society and National Parks Conservation Association also signed on.

HB 318 in March was amended by the Senate and returned to the House. HB 302 has passed the Legislature and awaits Gianforte’s signature or veto.

HB 318, sponsored by Kenneth L. Holmlund, a Republican from Miles City, would narrow the definition of a wild bison in Montana. Bison that have been in captivity, owned by a person, subjected to a state per-capita fee or been the offspring of bison subjected to that fee would be classified as domestic.

Montana now defines “wild bison” as bison that haven’t been reduced to captivity and aren’t owned by a person.

The classification would place more bison under the jurisdiction of the Montana Department of Livestock, according to Majel Russell, an attorney for the Fort Peck Tribes and the InterTribal Buffalo Council.

At a March hearing, bill supporters said it provides more clarity on the distinction between wild and domestic bison in Montana. It does not subject tribes to per capita fees, the sponsor said.

Jason Rittal, deputy director of the Montana Association of Counties, said the change ensures animals domesticated as livestock aren’t treated as wild animals.

“Folks need to pay in for their livestock no matter what kind of livestock it is so we can do testing, so we can protect the animals, so we can protect the industry,” he said.

Andersen said HB 318 doesn’t clarify definitions, but places roadblocks in front of wildlife conservation. Public opinion polls indicate that over 75% of Montanans support the reintroduction of bison to public and tribal lands in the state, she said.

“If bison in any way have been subject to a per-capita fee, they could not then be transferred as wildlife,” Andersen said. “It muddies the waters.”

Ervin Carlson, president of the InterTribal Buffalo Council and buffalo director for the Blackfeet Nation, said the bill is an attempt to take away tribal authority over bison by designating them as domestic livestock.

“To me and to those of us that have handled buffalo for a lot of years, they’ll never be domesticated,” Carlson said. “But they’re giving the department authority over what happens to the animals.”

HB 302, sponsored by Joshua Kassmier, a Republican from Fort Benton, would give county commissioners authority to veto decisions to relocate wild bison in any county, even when bison have been certified brucellosis free.

Nicole Rolf with the Montana Farm Bureau Federation said at a hearing in March that the bill brings more local control to decisions over bison restoration.

“We believe that county commissioners are closest to their constituents and are able to gauge whether or not a population of wild buffalo would be tolerated in their communities,” she said.

Carlson said the bill represents a push on tribal sovereignty, as there are parts of counties within Montana’s sovereign tribal nations. It also leaves bison management decisions to county commissioners, who lack expertise on handling of wildlife, he said.

“It’s making that decision more of a political decision than a wildlife management decision,” Carlson said.

Russell said it’s been very difficult for tribes to exercise food sovereignty, as gaining access to bison as a traditional food source has been a continued battle.

“Indian people often equate the destruction of buffalo with the attempted destruction of Indians, so for the tribes, restoration of buffalo to tribal lands has incredible significance,” she said. “Efforts to deter these projects border on racism.”

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