‘Bad’ Bison Bills In Montana Set Back Conservation of America’s Official National Mammal


MARCH 29, 2021


by Jim BaileySUPPORT USGET NEWSLETTERBailey writes: “Currently, there are no public-trust wild bison, year-round, in Montana. Two bills in the Montana legislature would prevent any restoration of the species, as wildlife, in the state. While touting ‘protect public lands’ as a smokescreen, Montana lawmakers are betraying their public trust responsibilities to manage a resource for all people. They are bulldozing a whole history of bison conservation efforts into the refuse pile of the ‘once best place.'”
Opinion guest essay by Jim Bailey
Bison are the official land mammal of the United States. They are on the flag of the US Interior Department, they appear on the insignia of the National Park Service, they were featured on one side of the buffalo nickel and, in Montana, the skull of a bison, as portrayed by famous Western artist Charles M. Russell, was showcased on the Montana collectible 25-cent piece.
Bison were once the most abundant large land mammal in the world. Their great numbers, their basis for a renowned Native American horse culture on the Great Plains, and their demise are legendary parts of American and Montana histories. But, two bills moving through the Montana legislature and headed for the desk of Governor Greg Gianforte would undo years of attempts to securely recover this iconic species, widely loved by the American people, as a wildlife species.
The vast majority of plains bison are being domesticated in private herds for commercial purposes. Many tribes have bison herds, managed to fulfill important needs of Native Americans. American conservation herds in parks and refuges are mostly small, on small ranges, and most are managed with domesticating interventions, much like livestock. But, there are no public-trust, wild bison year-round in Montana. (Yellowstone bison are only seasonal visitors to Montana from most of the park encompassed by Wyoming.)
As wildlife, bison are a natural resource jointly and cooperatively managed by state and federal legislatures and administrations having trust obligations to benefit all the people, including future generations.
A long history of federal and state legislation, policy and planning, has been established to guide and constrain bison management – to benefit and protect the people. These actions, listed below, have included decisions under federal and state laws developed under agencies representing over a million Montanans and over 300 million American citizens who own Montana wildlife.
House Bill 302 would permit any county commission in Montana to veto any publicly analyzed and examined proposal for local bison restoration, even on federal land. House Bill 318, in narrowly redefining “wild bison” in Montana law, would disqualify all possible plains bison for use in restoring any population of public-trust, wild bison in the state.
Both of those bills 302 and 318 would ignore, duplicate, violate or render meaningless the following Montana history regarding bison restoration:Mandates in Article IX of the state Constitution to care for natural resources and objects of historic, cultural and recreational value; and to preserve the opportunity to harvest wild game.
Legislative guidelines in MCA 87-1-216, developed in response to the constitutional mandate, providing requirements for restoring public, wild bison in Montana.
The Montana Environmental Policy Act, MCA 75-1-103, for making difficult decisions. Abundant public effort under MEPA could simply be vetoed and wasted, with little county analysis or explanation.
Twelve years, (so far) of effort and expense by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks to develop a statewide plan for restoring at least one herd of public, wild bison in the state.
Three polls demonstrating that 70 percent of Montana voters support bison restoration on the Charles M. Russell Refuge.
For restoration of public-trust—getting wild bison established on the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge—house bills 302 and 318 would ignore, preclude or render meaningless the following federal mandates, plans and policies (again, set in bold for emphasis)The mission statement of the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
The mission statement of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s cherished National Wildlife Refuge System.
The Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997.
The U. S. Department of Interior’s recent Bison Conservation Initiative.
The National Environmental Policy Act, for use in decision-making.
The ability of the Russell Refuge to achieve its overall goal of restoring natural ecosystems on the Refuge, as stated in the Refuge Plan.
House Bill 302 would duplicate existing requirements for notifying rural counties and citizens of the details in any plan for restoring wild, public bison in Montana.
Any proposal for bison restoration must be developed under either or both the Montana and National Environmental Polcts and under MCA 87-1-216. These laws provide all citizens with detailed project analyses and abundant opportunities to comment. Rural counties are not being discriminated against in this public outreach.“Domestication is the most serious threat to the future of bison as a wild species,” Bailey writes. “The vast majority of North American plains bison exist in privately-owned commercial herds where they are being domesticated by replacing natural selection with human-determined selection, augmented by genetic effects of small population sizes.”For example, the current MEPA process to develop a state plan for restoring at least one herd of public, wild bison has been ongoing for 12 years, with abundant public outreach and input, including public hearings around the state. A preliminary review  by Adams and Dood, 2011) and the current, interim “programmatic” plan and impact statement include abundant information on diverse issues related to bison restoration. This information, developed by professional biologists and others, has been widely available.
Likewise, under the NEPA process, the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge Conservation Plan was developed with public outreach and input. Public hearings were held in 6 Montana towns and cities.
House Bill 302 would allow a local government, representing perhaps only 1000-5000 Montanans, to preclude the needs and privileges of the majority of citizens of the state and the nation, as these needs and desires are provided for under existing statutes.
In contrast to the small numbers of citizens in many rural counties, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks received over 21,000 public comments in response to the 2015 Draft Environmental Impact Statement for bison conservation and management. Also, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service received over 23,000 public comments during scoping and over 21,000 Public comments on the draft conservation plan for the CMR Refuge.
Again, three polls of citizens have shown that about 70 percent of Montana voters support restoration of public-trust, wild bison on the CMR Refuge.
House Bill 302 would duplicate existing legal requirements for protecting private property, while restricting private and public property rights for many citizens. 
Private landowners cannot be discriminated against with restoration of wild bison.  Existing law (MCA 87-1-216) does not permit Fish, Wildlife & Parks to allow wild bison on any property where the landowner does not accept them. Further, this law requires Fish, Wildlife & Parks to compensate for any damage caused by wandering bison. Among many other requirements, it minimizes possible transfer of disease from wild bison to livestock and requires a pre-restoration public hearing in any affected county.
In contrast, HB 302 could prevent any landowner who would accept wild bison from enjoying that option, limiting private property rights. Moreover, HB 302 could prevent the majority of Americans and of Montanans from restoring a native species, with its important ecological functions, on their public property.
House Bill 302 would be an imprudent precedent in negating the role of the Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission to determine policy for conserving and managing state wildlife.
House Bill 318 would disqualify all possible plains bison for any transplant to restore public, wild bison in Montana. 
Aside from redefining “wild bison”, HB318 amends MCA 15-24-921 to clearly exempt tribal bison from the per capita livestock fee. Redefining wild bison is not necessary for this purpose.
Under HB 318, a wild bison: has not been reduced to captivity; has never been owned by a person; has never been taxed as livestock; nor is the offspring of a bison once taxed as livestock. These proposed redefinitions of “wild bison” have no basis in biology. There is no reason why the past ownership of a bison, or its parents, should disqualify and animal from initiating a new, wild herd.
In particular, HB 318 at least implies that a wild bison is one that has never been in captivity. Since the vast majority of plains bison, including conservation herds in public ownership, are fenced-in, mostly small herds on small ranges, and the very few unfenced herds would have to be captured for months or years of quarantine or inspection and for transportation, HB 318 would disqualify all possible plains bison for use in restoring a public wild herd in Montana. No bison, anywhere, would clearly qualify to be used in restoring bison as wildlife in Montana.
House bills 302 and 318 would expedite gradual disorganization and domestication of the wild bison genome.The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources has concluded that large herds of bison subject to the full range of natural limiting factors must be of pre-eminent importance to the long-term conservation, global security and continued evolution of bison as wildlife. The Alternative is gradual domestication of the species (Gates et al. 2010).
As large, highly mobile grazing mammals, restoration of bison as wildlife has been difficult. In the USA, most conservation herds of bison are small, genetically inadequate, limited to small ranges, and managed much like livestock. Gradual deterioration of the wild bison genome is underway in a domesticating process including loss of genetic diversity.
It is a national goal of the US Department of Interior’s Bison Conservation Initiative to forestall this deterioration of wild bison. This will require restoring at least one large herd on a large, diverse landscape. Realistically, this will require a large area of all or mostly public land where conflicts with private interests, especially livestock production, can be minimized. For plains bison, the best option, anywhere, for such restoration of wild bison exists on the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in Montana. The CMR Refuge is the largest federal refuge within the historic range of plains bison.
Seven rural counties include some of the CMR Refuge. HB 302 would allow one county commission, representing a few thousand citizens, to prevent achievement of global and national goals for conserving bison as a wild species.Observes Bailey, “The Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in east-central Montana is the largest refuge within the historic range of plains bison. But the refuge has no bison and lacks the diverse ecological effects of this keystone species. Despite mandates in federal law and policy, the Refuge Management Plan cedes the right to restore, or not restore, wild bison to the state of Montana.”House bills 302 and 318 would prevent diversification and enhancement of rural economies with opportunities from bison-based hunting and tourism.
Thirty-three contiguous counties in eastern and north-central Montana have been losing population for many decades. Most lack a critical population necessary to support a comprehensive county government, adequate health care, emergency services, quality education, communication facilities and other infrastructure. Poverty levels are the highest in the state. Livestock production has remained the primary economic foundation for these counties, and this industry has opposed any projects that might compete with cattle production.
Under the requirements of MCA 87-1-216, a large herd of public-trust, wild bison could be restored with minimal or no negative impacts on the livestock industry, especially if bison are reestablished on the CMR National Wildlife Refuge.
Bison restoration has potential to augment and diversify local economies by enhancing tourism and with monies spent during months-long hunting seasons for lodging, meals, supplies and outfitting services (Sage, 2017). Either HB 302 or HB 318 would prevent bison restoration in these counties, perpetuating an economic strategy that has failed for decades.
House bills 302 and 318 would justify and encourage independent federal action to restore wild bison on the CMR Refuge.The Fish and Wildlife Service and its refuge system are mandated to collaborate and cooperate with the states in the management of wildlife on federal lands. However, the states’ trust responsibilities for wildlife are subordinate to the federal government’s statutory and trust obligations over federal lands and their integral resources (Nie et al. 2017). Federal agencies have often abdicated this responsibility and authority to the states. HB 302 could be an ultimate expression of Montana’s obstinacy and lack of cooperation for restoring bison, a keystone species, on the CMR Refuge. 
This may lead the Fish and Wildlife Service to fulfill its legal mandates by exercising its ultimate authority and proceeding with bison restoration without state approval.

Bison conservation and the future of bison as wildlife are not merely a local or state issue. The state of Montana, especially the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, have a unique and important role to play in preserving a future for public-trust, wild bison. Under HBs 302 and 318, Montana will fail to fulfill an irreplaceable opportunity to conserve a wild resource that is a unique component of global biodiversity.

In conclusion, any proposal for a Montana bison restoration project must be developed by professionals and abundantly vetted under MEPA and MCA 87-1-216. HB 302 adds nothing to this comprehensive process. However, a county veto of a professionally developed and vetted bison restoration plan could be based upon a narrow sample of public goals, by commissioners having no staff to evaluate complex biological issues. 
Either house bills 302 or HB 318 would almost certainly prevent any restoration of public-trust wild bison in Montana, preempting economic opportunities in many rural counties, ignoring the desires and statutory privileges of most citizens of the state and nation, and disregarding a host of state and federal legal mandates and policies. 
Bison conservation and the future of bison as wildlife are not merely a local or state issue. The state of Montana, especially the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, have a unique and important role to play in preserving a future for public-trust, wild bison. Under HBs 302 and 318, Montana will fail to fulfill an irreplaceable opportunity to conserve a wild resource that is a unique component of global biodiversity.
In 1910, William Hornaday of the Smithsonian Institution proposed a preserve for wild bison on the south side of the Missouri River in Montana. In Congress, he was thwarted by the Montana Woolgrowers Association. Now, 111 years later, we still have no herd of public, wild bison in the state. Citizens of Montana and the nation must be heard. If Montana’s obstinacy toward bison restoration offends you, contact Governor Greg Gianforte at mt.gov, phone 406-444-3111, or write him at PO Box 200801, Helena, MT 59620-0801. 
Silence is complicity.
EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information, visit the Montana Wild Bison Restoration Coalition and the Buffalo Field Campaign.  Mountain Journal welcomes a rebuttal to Bailey’s essay provided it is based upon science and established fact.

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