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House Bill 302 from Rep. Joshua Kassmier, R-Fort Benton, passed an initial vote in the Senate on Friday by a 31-19 margin. The vote was party line with all majority Republicans voting in support. The bill had previously passed the House, also along party lines, and faces a final Senate vote next week to go to the desk of Gov. Greg Gianforte.

HB 302 would require any state relocation of wild bison to first receive approval from the county commission of the county where the transplant would occur. The bill exempts tribal lands and management of any transplanted wild bison would remain with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.

The issue of wild bison transplants has been a challenge due to concerns about disease transmission and property damage. Livestock groups came out in support of HB 302 while a number of conservation groups opposed the measure.

The partisan split on the bill continued on the Senate floor Friday with Democrats critical of the putting counties over state wildlife management decisions.

“This allows for an extraordinary veto power essentially over the state’s big picture and work over bison management,” said Sen. Shannon O’Brien, D-Missoula.

Sen. Bruce Gillespie, R-Kevin, supported the bill enthusiastically, saying it adds an extra set of eyes on the process to ensure the protection of livestock.

Sen. Pat Flowers, D-Belgrade, asked why the law was needed if the state already has strict prohibitions against moving bison that are diseased. He further criticized the bill in light of other GOP bills which have sought to limit local control in decision making.

“The irony of this is pretty striking,” he said. “We’ve spent a good part of this session taking away local control on any number of issues, but this one because bison are bad apparently, we’re going to give that local control back.”

Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta touted the bill as getting the people most affected by a decision into the decision process. While wildlife are managed as a benefit to all, county commissioners are often the first contacted and have an understanding of what is going on in communities, he said.

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Tom Kuglin is the deputy editor for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau. His coverage focuses on outdoors, recreation and natural resources.

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