HELENA — The Montana Legislature is moving ahead with plans to restrict where wild bison can be moved and to decrease the size of herds.
The bills underscore the division between wildlife supporters who want to see free-roaming bison restored to the grasslands where they used to roam by the millions and landowners who say the time of the bison has passed.
One such grassland, The Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Reserve, is a 1.1 million-acre prairie that conservationists say is prime bison real estate, but farmers like state Sen. John Brenden, R-Scobey, fear that potential bison relocation would harm ranches and eventually threaten the rural economies.
Brenden’s bill Senate Bill 143 is one of the most contentious of the legislative session. It directly targets any bison movements from Yellowstone National Park — home of one of the last wild herds in the nation — and aims to downsize Yellowstone herds by increasing the bison hunting season around the park.
Critics say that and the other measures are a reactionary response to the state’s relocation of dozens of Yellowstone bison last year to the Fort Peck Reservation in northeastern Montana.
Landowners like Brenden say that despite Montana’s brucellosis-free status, bison coming out of Yellowstone have the potential to spread the disease to cattle. If those bison are moved to public grasslands they are also likely to damage private property, Brenden said.
“If the federal government doesn’t want to handle it, then Montana should,” Brenden said.
The Senate endorsed the measure Thursday in a 30-19 vote, after hearing strong opposition from Native American Sen. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, D-Crow Agency.
Stewart-Peregoy said the bill ignores the animal’s cultural and historical importance to Native Americans.
“You talk about being a good neighbor — then be a good neighbor to the Indian nations,” she said.
Another anti-bison measure would make Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks responsible should any relocated bison damage private property. Senate Bill 256 is on its way to the full House after being backed by the House Appropriations Committee on Thursday.
A third bison bill is heading to Gov. Steve Bullock office after passing both chambers. Bill 305 would reclassify wild bison as domesticated animals if they have ever been held captive or privately owned.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.