Shoot first, call later

The same crosshairs that conservatives once trained on wolves are, in a manner of speaking, now zeroing in on Montana's wild bison. Ranchers across the state have come out in support of a measure in the 2013 legislative session to allow Montanans to shoot bison that wander onto their private property, citing concerns for their land, their families and their livestock.

State statute already permits landowners to kill bison that pose an imminent threat to private property or human safety. But House Bill 249, sponsored by Republican state Rep. Alan Doane of Bloomfield, takes that right a step further by giving landowners the freedom to "take any action ... necessary to protect the private property," provided they alert state officials afterwards. Doane's bill also strikes out existing language that refers to wild bison as "publicly owned."

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"A free man in a free country on his own deeded property should be able to take whatever action's necessary—that he deems necessary—to protect himself, protect his family and protect his property," Doane said last week to the House Agriculture Committee shortly before it passed an amended version of HB 249. Representatives from the Montana Stockgrowers Association, the Montana Farm Bureau Federation and the Montana CattleWomen testified in support of the bill.

In recent years, the arguments favoring wolf delisting and increased hunting have hinged on the threat of predation on livestock herds. Ranchers across Montana continue to appeal to state agencies to reduce wolf populations, armed with stories of slaughtered cattle and dead dogs.

It seems the threat status of bison has risen enough to warrant a similar shoot-first mentality. But Jim Kropp, law enforcement director for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, believes HB 249 is a gross overreach. FWP contends that state laws are already strong enough to address the issue of wild bison on private property. Kropp says the bill seems largely a response to a series of what-ifs in state bison management, particularly the potential establishment of free-roaming bison herds in northeastern Montana.

Kropp hears the concerns loud and clear. Bison can be destructive on private property, as the species has proven time and again in the greater Yellowstone area over the past several decades. They can even be dangerous. But HB 249, "from its narrowest perspective, it's just zero tolerance," Kropp says. And the bill could have serious repercussions beyond wild bison.

"This is extremely precedent-setting in terms of all wildlife species," Kropp says.

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