Closing Range

Save the Cowboys!

The state government's bison battle

You might have read news reports that Montana governor and presidential hopeful Steve Bullock (D) and Montana secretary of state Corey Stapleton (R), who just happens to be running for governor, duked it out in court over whether or not Bullock properly vetoed a bill the supposedly-Republican-run Legislature passed.

Let’s begin with the bill under dispute, House Bill 132, sponsored by Ken Holmlund (R-Miles City):

To be legally “wild,” a bison could not be “reduced to captivity,” or “subject to the per capita fee” paid annually on livestock, or “owned by a person” at any time in its life. In other words, a domesticated “livestock” bison couldn’t be turned free and declared “wild.” Further, excess Yellowstone bison (which get captured then and now) couldn’t be made “wild” either, but they still could be given to tribes as “livestock.”

Homlund’s bill left the Senate 30-20 with amendments, and the House passed the final version 54-45. It hit Bullock’s desk on April 10.

Governor Bullock proposed amendments to the bill, most importantly changing the bill language from “has never been owned by a person” to “is not owned by a person.” So – what if a “person” sells to a “government?” Magic! Both the House (58-42) and Senate (30-20) rejected those changes and passed HB132 on April 25. Governor Bullock vetoed the bill four days later.

However, the governor’s office didn’t send the veto paperwork to the secretary of state until May 22. Stapleton made the argument that a 10-day deadline starting with “transmittal” from the Legislature to the governor to the secretary hadn’t been met. On June 5, First Montana District Judge Michael McMahon ruled in Bullock’s favor, it seems correctly, and the bill stays vetoed.

There was another bison bill, HB 332. Sponsored by Joshua Kassmier (R-Fort Benton), HB 332 would require authorization by county commissioners “before wild bison are released” into that county, and only after quarantine protocols have been followed. Passed House 56-41, Senate 29-20, vetoed. The last time the Legislature overrode a veto was in 1999, by the way.

However, there’s another legislative item, House Joint Resolution 28, that can’t be vetoed by the governor. This resolution, sponsored by Dan Bartel (R-Lewistown) and 26 others, passed the House 59-40, and the Senate, 30-19. It’s just a resolution, a “sense of the Legislature” message “urging” the Bureau of Land Management to “deny the grazing proposal by the American Prairie Reserve.”

In a nutshell, the Reserve (APR for short) has, since 2001 or so, been buying ranches (about 28 so far) along the Upper Missouri Breaks Monument/C.M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge/Missouri River axis. They now control about 95,000 acres (about $85 million worth) of private ground with another 311,000 of grazing rights in 20 allotments on public lands.

Several years ago, APR converted two Phillips County allotments to year-round bison grazing, and they now run about 800 head there. There have been problems with escapement, but mostly minor.

But now, APR wants to convert the other 18 allotments away from conventional rest-rotation cattle grazing to year-round bison grazing with only perimeter fencing, and not much fencing at that – I was given a proposal copy for one unit by a rancher who shares it, and the only fence change proposed is to add an electric wire to a conventional barbed wire fence. Never mind that APR proposed the rancher unilaterally give up about 10 percent of his grazing rights, without a word asked? The rancher is, um, upset. Really upset.

But importantly, APR wants to do this all under an Environmental Assessment (EA) and not an Environmental Impact Statement. Sure – 300,000 acres or so, scattered on both sides of the Missouri canyon for 160 miles east to west, all different habitats due to exposure and moisture? When was the last time a logging project of any size got away with just an EA?

As I was told, not just in Winifred, but in Big Sandy, Grass Range and Malta: “Who the hell do these people think they are?” And I agree fully with all the new signs I saw along 1,500 miles last week: Save the Cowboys!