Baptism of Fire 

With both successes and failures behind her, freshman rep Gail Gutsche finds her place in the Capitol

First-time legislator, state Representative Gail Gutsche, gathered enough nerve several months ago to face the rest of the members of the House and dispute the necessity of a bill that was on the floor. It was her first time and, even though she was nervous, the entire experience was a pure adrenaline rush.

"The scariest thing for me was standing on the House floor because debate on the floor is an art," she says. "You only learn to do it with practice, but having 99 of your peers and whoever's in the gallery looking at you is scary. It helps that when I'm nervous, I get an adrenaline rush."

Since then, the nervousness has faded-so much so that the idea of running for another term is thrilling. "If the people choose to send me back, I would absolutely love to go back," she says. "It's extremely energizing."

Even though Gutsche is a member of a powerful group capable of changing laws and defining the state's future, she admits there are frustrations, especially as a Democrat. "It's frustrating because you don't always get what you want," she notes. "In fact, you often don't get what you want." On Tuesday afternoon, Gutsche added another item to the didn't-get-what-she-wanted list. But she wasn't alone. Dozens of people who supported her also ended the day disappointed.

Gail Gutsche, first-time legislator from Missoula.

House Bill 643, commonly known as the Buffalo Bill, died in the House Agriculture Committee with a vote of 14-to-6, after a four-hour hearing the previous week. Gutsche and dozens of others testified at the hearing, explaining to committee members the importance of the bill.

Gutsche's bill would have transferred the management authority of bison that roam out of Yellowstone Park from the Department of Livestock to the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Other provisions included preventing the state from selling captured or slaughtered buffalo-the state made $200,000 from their sales in 1997-and directing Fish, Wildlife and Parks to study the carrying capacity for buffalo on public lands around Yellowstone Park. The bill also directed the state to develop a bison management plan in conjunction with Native American tribes, in order to better address the cultural concerns that surround its current management policies.

Under the present system, livestock officials can haze bison back into the park, or send them into quarantine for brucellosis testing and then, depending on the results, slaughter or release the bison back into the park-all in order to protect cattle. The Department of Livestock worries that bison infected with brucellosis, a disease that causes cows to abort their first pregnancies, will transmit the disease to cattle. Since the slaughter of more than 1,000 bison in 1996-97, people across the country have joined forces to save what they say is one of the last national treasures-a treasure that shouldn't be sacrificed for the perceived good of the cattle industry.

"People are saddened and outraged at wild animals being slaughtered," Gutsche says. "It hits home for people. Bison are a symbol of Montana, and certainly for Native American cultures, they are their sustenance and a source of spirituality."

Opponents seem to argue that cattle are a source of something much more tangible than spirituality: money. The Montana Stockgrowers Association and many ranchers claim that cattle infected with brucellosis will affect the state's brucellosis-free status and financially harm the cattle industry. As a defense, however, Gutsche cites that the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the agency that grants the brucellosis-free status to states, uses a low-risk definition when dealing with bison. They say that since bulls, calves and nonpregnant females cannot transmit the disease under normal conditions in the wild, they should be allowed to graze undisturbed on public lands until 30 days before cattle roam the same public areas. Unlike APHIS, however, the state Department of Livestock applies a no-tolerance policy for bison caught out of the park.

Gutsche knows that it is the rare bill that passes on its first introduction, and she is too busy to dwell on the failure of just one bill. And perhaps the bill didn't really fail at all. Representative Don Hedges, a Republican member of the Agricultural Committee, approached Gutsche after the bill's vote to say that the bison issue still needs to be resolved, even though this particular bill failed. He also mentioned that the bill could be reviewed in an interim committee after the official session ends.

"I was really pleased to have a couple of folks on the other side of the issue come over and talk to me about it," she says. "I feel positive because we brought the issue out."

In the last weeks of the session, Gutsche will continue to debate new issues, raise awareness of important public concerns and face the challenges of being in the minority party.

Through it all, an experience she refers to as "baptism by immersion," she strives for more and more information, hoping to somehow absorb all the knowledge inside the Capitol. She has taken her role as representative seriously, and introduced four bills, one of which she signed into law on Tuesday, a bill that sets up the process for appointing a student to the Board of Regents. Her other three died in committee.

But if there is one bill she would like to pass while in the Legislature, it's the one that will truly make a difference. "I think we should pass a bill that says everyone must serve in the Legislature for at least one term," she says, laughing. "The whole experience is too much of an education to pass up."

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