Governor Bullock Vetos Two Buffalo Bills

By Kayla Sargent

Two bills further regulating wild bison management in Montana recently came to a halt at Governor Steve Bullock’s desk.  The Governor vetoed House Bill 132 that would have clarified the definition of wild bison, as well as House Bill 332 that would require county approval to relocate bison.

HB 132, introduced by Representative Kenneth Holmlund (R-Miles City), stated that a wild bison or wild buffalo was one that “has not been reduced to captivity;” “has never been subject to the per capita fee under 15-42-921;” and “has never been owned by a person.”  Proponents of this bill, including Montana Stockgrowers Association (MSGA), Montana Farm Bureau Federation (MFBF), and United Property Owners of Montana (UPOM), said the bill would have prevented bison that were once considered domestic from being reclassified as wild.  Domestic bison are to be managed by a party that is held responsible for the animal, but when they are classified as wild “they are not managed for disease and no one is responsible for the damages or harm they cause,” UPOM Founder Deanna Robbins said.

“HB 132 would have provided Montana’s ranchers and landowners certainty that domestic bison could never be reclassified as wild,” MFBF Director of State Affairs Liv Stavick said. “It would have provided uniformity in the law, clarity to the ownership provision, and prevented liquidity in the wild bison definition.”

Governor Bullock said the bill only created “more confusion than clarity”.  The current definition of wild bison is one that “has not been reduced to captivity and is not owned by a person” — a “well-settled” definition according to the Governor.  In justifying his veto decision, Governor Bullock said the bill may cause “significant and adverse consequences for bison management in Montana.”

For example, the wild bison in Yellowstone National Park are captured, handled, tested, and quarantined in order to monitor for disease, relocate, or for research purposes, Governor Bullock explained.  He also noted that some of these bison are descendants of animals that were once owned by a person and/or reduced to captivity.  Deeming these bison, “and others around the state” as domestic “would threaten the preservation of their genetics and their conservation both within the Park and beyond the Park’s boundaries.” Of other concern was jeopardizing state and tribal treaty hunting of bison as only wild bison can be hunted.

“HB 132 will create an unacceptable level of confusion and uncertainty around bison management,” he wrote. “In short, it is simply unworkable for our state.”

Several days later, Governor Bullock also vetoed HB 332, introduced by Representative Joshua Kassmier (R-Fort Benton), which was intended to provide more local input on wild bison translocation plans.  Under the proposed law, a board of county commissioners was to review any relocation proposals and could not authorize wild bison release unless “the animal is certified as brucellosis-free” and “the board finds the transplantation or relocation does not threaten the public health, safety, and the welfare of citizens of the county.”

This bill was also supported by MSGA, MFBF, and UPOM whom all advocated for more local input in bison management, especially considering potential bison reintroduction in the state.

“MFBF believes a local government should have the final input on any translocation plan; they are the most accurate authority on whether or not the translocation of bison will be a benefit or detriment to their communities and rural economies,” Stavick said.

Governor Bullock said this bill would have “set a dangerous precedent of supplanting the state’s management of fish and wildlife within county regulation.”  He said state authority over wildlife management is “a long-established principle for a good reason.”

“Montana’s wildlife is held in trust for all citizens of the state, not just those of county,” he wrote in his veto text.  “It is simply poor public policy to create the potential for 56 different competing authorities, objectives, and policies for wildlife management.”

The Governor argued that the state’s bison management already carefully and adequately addresses concerns. Relocations require a management plan for health protocols, animal identification, tracking protocols, containment measures, and other contingency measures, according to Governor Bullock. The Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks are to meet all of the management plan requirements and then consult and cooperate with the Montana Department of Livestock; provide opportunity for public comment; respond to public comment with a record of proceedings; meet requirements of the Montana Environmental Policy Act; and finally receive approval of the Fish and Wildlife Commission.

“These laws and processes provide ample opportunity for public input from all parties, and especially from county government,” he wrote.  “FWP’s longstanding practice has been to welcome input from county governments on all wildlife management issues, and it will continue to do so.”

The pair of vetos was disappointing to the state’s farm and ranch representative organizations who widely supported both bills.  Stavick said passage of HB 132 and HB 332 was “incredibly important to Montana’s ranchers.”

“Amidst attempts to transport brucellosis-positive bison and attempts to create a free-roaming wild bison herd in Montana, the common-sense measures would have given ranchers across the state additional certainty in maintaining Montana’s brucellosis-free status, with the exception of the Park,” she said.

MSGA Executive Vice President Jay Bodner said both bills would have provided for better management practices for “potential bison reintroductions in our state.”

“Both vetoes’ messages were similar to previous legislation that failed, but it is evident that ranchers who will be impacted by bison need to have their concerns addressed,” Bodner said. He said MSGA will continue working on bison management to help ensure that landowners and the state’s cattle industry are protected.

“The bison bills were passed by the duly elected legislature to help protect agriculture, Montana’s leading industry.  It’s a sad day when Governor Bullock will not do his part to put those protections in place, instead choosing to stand with the far left environmentalists,” Robbins concluded.


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