Unpopularity contest 

Public frustration steers bison management bill

By the time testimony began on House Bill 253—a legislative effort to shift wild bison management away from state livestock authorities—the actors in the long-standing debate became apparent. The point of the Jan. 29 hearing, however, did not.

“We’ve had armed agents on snowmobiles, ATVs and horseback, scouting in our backyards. We’re fed up with the harassment, the trespassing and the trampling of private property rights,” said landowner Kerrie Taggart, who protested Department of Livestock (DOL) bison hazing operations on the Horse Butte peninsula. “The bison are much better neighbors than the Department of Livestock,” added Liz Kearney, another Horse Butte resident.

Taggert and many of her neighbors attempted to create a bison sanctuary on the peninsula in 2003, but were reportedly besieged by DOL agents when the buffalo arrived that winter. (The agency refutes these accounts). Horse Butte residents are among a host of folks livid over bison management in Montana and aiming to strip the DOL of its authority over buffalo, a position it’s held since a 1995 legislative action. Lawmakers handed bison off to the DOL to control cattle transmission of the bovine-ungulate infection brucellosis, which the animals carry in substantial percentages. Yet, since that decision, bison have not been responsible for any of the reported transmissions to cattle around Yellowstone National Park.

Nine months after a particularly bad winter on the plateau led to the slaughter of more than 1,600 Yellowstone bison, legislators and activists are calling for some kind of change. HB 253 would reverse the 1995 legislative action and hand the buffalo reins back to the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP).

Naturally, a large segment of the livestock industry wants to stick with the status quo of keeping wild bison off Montana turf.

“We are very much opposed to this because it doesn’t mention the eradication of brucella,” said Madison Valley seedstock producer Ted Williams, who, like many bill opponents, criticized FWP for failing to stop the elk-to-cow brucellosis transmission that occurred last year. “Fish, Wildlife and Parks hasn’t done a very good job with the elk situation.”

The back-and-forth during the hearing prompted House Agriculture Committee Chair Kendall Van Dyk, D-Billings, to ask the public to stick to the point of the legislation and restrain from bashing the two state agencies. Nonetheless, after roughly 150 minutes of public testimony, Ken McDonald, FWP’s wildlife division director, got up, thanked the bison advocates for their vote of confidence and said in veiled terms the agency wasn’t interested in the responsibility.

“Ultimately, bison in and around the park are managed under the auspices of the Interagency Bison Management Plan, or IBMP,” McDonald said, referring to a highly controversial document signed in 2000 by the DOL, FWP and three federal agencies. “Even if management authority were removed from the Department of Livestock, the agency would still have a significant say on what would or would not happen with bison management.”

McDonald further lamented his department’s lack of resources to outright assume hazing responsibilities under the IBMP, a sum estimated at $660,000 per year. But he did suggest that FWP would have to find a way to pay for it if HB 253 passes.

The agency’s unwillingness to take over management of bison aroused disappointment and potent frustration among bill advocates.

“This is coming from the governor’s office, in my opinion. FWP has been emasculated and we don’t know what to do,” hunter-activist Glenn Hockett told the Independent following the hearing. “It’s very disappointing to hear, ‘Well, we’ll just put the FWP sticker over the DOL sticker on the helicopters.’ Go and read your manuals—you’re the wildlife agency.”

When contacted about Hockett’s claim, Mike Volesky, Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s natural resources policy advisor, responded directly. “The frustration you see in that committee hearing room is a microcosm of the entire issue,” he said. “The governor has taken no official position.”

Top livestock officials retort the new law wouldn’t do anything for private property rights—one of its major selling points. Although HB 253 would strip the DOL of its authority under the current brucellosis management statute, the deadlines for when bison would have to be off Montana soil, in accordance with the IBMP, would remain in place. As a result, DOL Executive Director Christian Mackay argued IBMP partners would still have the authority to haze or capture bison on private property without permission.

“The principles in the IBMP and the deadlines would still have to be met—by May 15 on the west side and by April 15 on the north side, bison would have to be back in the park,” Mackay said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a guy in a blue shirt doing it or a guy in a green shirt doing it.”

John Mundinger, a biologist who helped draft the IBMP, suggested during the committee hearing that switching lead agency status between two parties of the same agreement would just shuffle deck chairs on the same failed management policy. He argued that the goals of eradicating brucellosis and seeding a renaissance of bison on the American plains share one common trait—that both seem extremely unrealistic.

“We have two dominant world views on bison, neither one of which, in my opinion, is entirely rational,” Mundinger said. “Most of the testimony [today] was to the plan, not the legislation. You need to fix the plan.”
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