Are Bison Wildlife or Livestock?

By Beacon Staff

If there’s a conservation issue more volatile or confusing than the bison controversy centered in Yellowstone National Park, I’m not sure what it is. And enduring, too, going way back to before brucellosis became big news. Bison migrating out of the park have always been controversial.

Through the decades, lawmakers and agencies have made many attempts to address the problem, but each new law or policy somehow seems do little more than add a new layer of complication and makes the solution even more elusive, if not impenetrable. The Montana Legislature recently had a great chance to start reversing that trend, but decided instead to stay with our currently unworkable status quo.

One basic problem is definition. The livestock industry considers bison “livestock” and conservationists consider the species “wildlife,” with the livestock definition ruling the day. As a result, in Montana, the Department of Livestock (DOL) has responsibility for bison management, including the wild animals migrating out of Yellowstone Park.

That fact was the focus of HB 253, co-sponsored by Mike Phillips (D-Bozeman) and Ted Washburn (R-Bozeman). The controversial bill was, according to a flier distributed by its primary ball carrier, the Gallatin Wildlife Association (GWA), “a bi-partisan first step toward returning bison management to wildlife professionals, while respecting and protecting private property rights.”

“Bison aren’t livestock,” GWA President Glenn Hockett insists. “They’re wildlife, so they should be managed by FWP.”

Keeping in mind the complexity of the bison issue, the legislation would have done three things: (1) define bison as “valued, native wildlife,” (2) take bison management authority away from the DOL and gives it to the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), and (3) protect private property rights.

On January 29, the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee heard testimony on HB 253, the Montana Wild Buffalo Recovery and Conservation Act of 2009. (P.S. That title illustrates the depth of the disagreement. We can’t even agree on what to call the animal, bison or buffalo, but that’s another story for another time.)

At the hearing, a wide spectrum of proponents supported the bill, but as expected, the livestock lobby opposed it. The state agencies (FWP and DOL) provided “informational testimony,” which means, politically, they’re keeping their heads down and aren’t supporting or opposing the bill. A week later, the committee defeated the bill.

The Greater Yellowstone Area is the home of the largest wild bison population and the only wild herd in Montana, Hockett explained. Even though HB 253 would’ve covered all of Montana, not only the Yellowstone area, it wouldn’t have affected ranchers who raise bison commercially. It only applied to wild, free-ranging populations, which, in essence, restricted its impact to the Greater Yellowstone Area.

“While HB 253 would largely transfer management authority for publicly owned wild bison to FWP, the bill maintains a spirit of cooperation between the FWP and the DOL regarding conflicts on private lands,” Hockett said in a phone interview before the committee voted on the bill. “Private property rights must be protected and respected, for both those concerned about bison on their property and those who welcome bison onto their lands. The current law allows the DOL to trespass onto private property without permission.”

That seems like innovative strategy to me. The proponents packaged bison recovery as a property rights bill and solicited and received support from several ranchers. “This bill will allow private landowners to lead and limit wild bison recovery,” Hockett said.

The end-game, as envisioned by Hockett, is the creation of a wild bison hunting district north of Yellowstone Park where the FWP could manage a free-ranging bison population like any other big game animal, including a real, “fair chase” hunting season. “We need to manage bison like elk,” he emphasized.

“There is a lot of habitat that’s conflict free, that doesn’t have cattle,” he noted, referring to several private landowners who actually want bison on their property and to public land (state and federal) currently devoid of cattle.

“Right now, bison can’t even enter public land that doesn’t have cattle on it,” he explained. “The FWP sees this as an enforcement issue. We’d like to see the biologists involved and see how many bison we can harvest on a sustainable basis, no different than mule deer or elk.”

For landowners who don’t want bison on their land, the proposed legislation would’ve maintained the status quo, he said. The bill clearly stated that if a landowner didn’t want bison on his or her ranch, the FWP in cooperation with DOL must remove them or the landowner can shoot the trespassing animals.

From my perspective, we need to start unraveling the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into over bison management. The essence of the bill was simple – bison are wild animals, so manage them like wild animals. That doesn’t sound like a revelation to most people, but legally, it isn’t clear, and regrettably, our lawmakers have decided to keep it that way.

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