BILLINGS – Native American lawmakers criticized Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte on Friday over his decision to scrap a bison management plan that would have allowed the wild animals to be restored in more areas of the state.
Members of the Legislature’s American Indian caucus said they should have been consulted before Gianforte canceled the plan, citing opposition from ranchers.
Bison, also known as buffalo, have deep historical meaning for Plains Indian tribes that once depended on the animals for food, clothing and other necessities. Bison were driven to near-extinction by settlers in the late 1800s.
Efforts to restore the animals outside of Yellowstone National Park have long met resistance from agricultural interests. Bison in sufficient numbers could compete with cattle for grazing space on public lands. Ranchers also have raised worries about a disease carried by Yellowstone bison called brucellosis, although no transmissions from bison to cattle have been recorded.
The bison management plan scrapped by Gianforte, a Republican, had been in the works for almost a decade when it was adopted last year by his Democratic predecessor, Steve Bullock.
Gianforte said Tuesday that he was ending the plan after state officials reached a March 22 settlement with a property owners group that had challenged the management framework in state court. The settlement blocked wildlife officials from adopting any similar bison restoration plan for the next 10 years.
“We were blindsided by this administration’s decision,” Rep. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, a Democrat from Crow Agency and Indian caucus chairwoman, said in a statement. “We read about the governor’s decision in the newspaper. That’s not a government-to-government relationship. We expect better.”
Gianforte spokeswoman Brooke Stroyke did not immediately respond to the criticism.
Earlier this week, a group of tribes and conservation groups asked Gianforte to veto two bills that opponents say would make it more difficult to reintroduce bison to areas they once roamed. One measure would let county officials block bison reintroductions, and the other would treat bison in some instances as livestock instead of wild animals.
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