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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Lawmakers Pan Bullock's Yellowstone Bison Plan

Many ranchers oppose more bison outside the park. They worry about the potential spread of the disease brucellosis.

“Yes Mr. Chairman, I would move that the EQC (Environmental Quality Council) send a letter to the Interagency Bison Management partners objecting to the decision that was signed by Governor Bullock."

That's Republican State Representative and Environmental Quality Council member Kerry White of Bozeman. White Thursday urged his fellow committee members to oppose a plan that would allow some wild bison from Yellowstone National Park to wander year-round outside park boundaries. White says it’s a recipe for trouble.

"It's a public safety issue. It could affect the economy. There's nothing to stop them from coming from Buck Creek all the way to the Gallatin Valley. If they're coming down to get food, they're going to come all the way down."

Last month, Governor Steve Bullock issued a decision allowing hundreds of Yellowstone bison to wander year-round in parts of Montana both north and west of the park. Bison advocates are hailing the decision as a potential breakthrough in their longstanding impasse with livestock interests over the matter. Ranchers oppose more bison outside the park. They worry about the potential spread of the disease brucellosis

There's never been a documented case of wild Yellowstone bison transmitting the disease to domestic cattle, but ranchers say that if that were to happen, the economic consequences could be devastating.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks' Chief of Staff Mike Volesky tried to ease some committee-members' concerns that the bison population would be allowed to grow unchecked inside these proposed tolerance zones. He emphasized the plan's adaptive - not uniform and inflexible - management techniques.

"It ranges from hazing - if hazing's impractical - then we can even shrink tolerance zones. If they go beyond the tolerance zones, we maintain a full array of administrative actions where we can trap them, ship to slaughter, lethal removal if they appear to be heading out of tolerance zones without other options available to us.”

But Volesky says the state's preferred management tool would be hunting.

"We want to, just like all wildlife, manage these bison through hunting - and sometimes even outside the season.  You've heard a lot about shoulder seasons and game damage season and that will apply to bison as well. We tried that out a bit last session and it worked out pretty darn well.”

The state's position was supported by representatives of the Montana Chapter of the Sierra Club and Montana Wildlife Federation, but didn't wash with the Montana Stockgrowers Association. Executive Vice President Errol Rice's concerns were many. Among them, the expense of adequately monitoring the proposed expanded bison tolerance zones.

"There are not resources available to undergo increased management actions outside of those areas. It's also evident that other states and their state veterinarians are closely monitoring disease management in Montana as it relates to the Greater Yellowstone area. We're concerned that any additional habitat  expansion will provide increased uncertainty to other states that may lead to increased import regulations on our cattle.”

Governor Bullock's decision to allow wild bison to roam outside the park isn't an executive order. It needs the approval of a consortium of state and federal wildlife managers and livestock agencies.

Rep. Kerry White (R) HD64
Credit Montana Legislature
Rep. Kerry White (R) HD64

State representative Kerry White urged his colleagues to send a message to that body that the Montana Environmental Quality Council does not support the plan.

“We'll call for a roll call," the chairman announced.

It was a close vote. 7 against, 8 for. So the motion carried.

That vote against Governor Steve Bullock's bison plan doesn't kill it, but is yet another stark reminder of just how contentious the bison management issue is in Montana.

The Interagency Bison Management Committee is reviewing the governor’s plan. There's no timeline for when it may issue its decision.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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