Montana's odd silence on bison as national mammal 

Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi went before the U.S. Senate last week with a proposal that, despite its brevity, could affect one of the country's most recognizable wildlife species. Enzi wants to see the North American bison declared the national mammal of the United States. He's not alone. Lawmakers in eight other Western states are backing his National Bison Legacy Act. Montana, oddly, wasn't one of those states.

Montana has seen a number of high-profile developments around bison in the last few months. Just days after the Fort Peck Reservation welcomed a herd of 63 brucellosis-free bison from Yellowstone National Park, a district court judge blocked any additional relocation efforts in the foreseeable future. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks launched a string of public meetings on a proposed state bison management plan in early May. And federal judge Charles Lovell issued a temporary restraining order against helicopter hazing of stray Yellowstone bison just as state and federal agents began their annual task of herding the ungulates back into the park. So Montana's silence when it comes to the National Bison Legacy Act seems curious.

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Nevertheless, Senators Jon Tester and Max Baucus have yet to take any official position on Enzi's May 23 proposal. Tester's staff did not respond to a request for comment before press time. Baucus's office told the Indy that any support for the national mammal designation would be premature. "Max is focused on passing legislation that will help Montana businesses create jobs, like the farm bill and the highway bill," a Baucus spokesperson said. "Max looks forward to hearing from Montanans before taking a position on naming the bison the national mammal."

Both senators are, however, urging the federal government to relax regulatory burdens on brucellosis research. The push could benefit bison by making it easier to develop a brucellosis vaccine.

The National Bison Legacy Act—if passed—wouldn't have any direct impact on how the federal government manages bison. Rather, it would award the bison an iconic status akin to the nation's official emblem, the bald eagle. Gov. Brian Schweitzer has already declared his belief that the bison are a "symbol of pride not only for the Indian people but this entire country." Enzi's congressional affirmation of such sentiments could result in even more public recognition and support for bison conservation efforts. Schweitzer and other bison advocates have pointed to a lack of tolerance for bison among certain interests in the state as one of the chief hurdles to re-introducing wild herds to the prairie.

The act "is a way to get people to pay attention to bison," says Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association. "The fact that this is an animal that has been an integral part of the food system of people in North America for tens of thousands of years—it's part of our environment, it's part of our heritage. How do we tie all that together?"

Carter's group is pushing hard to see the National Bison Legacy Act passed. The National Bison Association, along with the Wildlife Conservation Society and the InterTribal Buffalo Council, announced a "Vote Bison!" campaign on the heels of Enzi's introduction. If Enzi's bill passes, those groups intend to push for a National Bison Day on the first Thursday of every November.

"The buffalo was once the center of life for the Native peoples, and today, as we work to restore that relationship, we would like to pause and honor the buffalo as the national mammal," Jim Stone, executive director of the InterTribal Bison Cooperative, said in a statement May 25.

For Carter, the initiative is about more than simply acknowledging the iconic nature of the continent's largest land mammal. The bill gives the National Bison Association a platform from which to highlight the part that private bison ranchers have played alongside conservation groups and tribal interests—and, by extension, what the American consumer can do. "They're a partner in this," Carter says. "The more they buy bison meat and the more we see the demand increase for bison meat, the more incentive there is for ranchers to bring these animals back on the pastures and rangelands."

Montana is a pivotal piece of the bison restoration puzzle. The Yellowstone herd is distinct from most others in the country, Carter says, for both its history and its genetic health. Ted Turner continues to play an important private-sector role in the state by protecting the species and promoting conservation. But Carter understands that bison are often controversial, too, more so in Montana, he says, than anywhere else in the country.

"The one thing we do note is that there's broad support" for the bison act, Carter says, "not only just from senators in the West, but across the country and across both parties. This is a non-partisan issue, and it should be a non-controversial issue. It's really just celebrating an animal that is so much a part of the history of this part of the world ... and something we see as a success story in saving an animal that was standing on the brink of extinction not too long ago."

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