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Bison Management Bills Draw Criticism From Montana Tribes

Jackie Yamanaka
Yellowstone Public Radio

Correction 3/11/2021: A previous version of this story implied that a fee was being added to domesticated bison. This fee already exists. House Bill 318 seeks to change the definition of domestic bison to include animals that have ever been subjected to a per-capita fee.

Montana’s legislature is considering four bison-related bills this session. The two bills that would have helped tribal nations expand bison herds were voted down, while tribal leaders say the surviving bills could harm long-standing bison management on reservations.

Managing bison in Montana is an enduring challenge due to the difficulty presented by domestic and wild bison, the cultural and historic significance of establishing large, free-roaming bison herds within Native American nations and concerns that brucellosis disease carried by some roaming wild bison will infect other livestock.

Bills and regulations come up every legislative session attempting to navigate these challenges and this year is no different.

Lawmakers heard testimony Tuesday on House Bill 318, which seeks to distinguish wild from domestic bison by changing the definition of domestic bison to include animals that have ever been subjected to a per-capita fee. Currently, domestic bison are defined as animals that have been reduced to captivity and are owned by a person.

“I will reiterate, the tribes do not pay per-capita now. So, this does not affect them. You will also be hearing that we've muddied the waters. We've made it a lot more difficult to understand. Just the opposite is true. We've made it so that it is more precise.” Holmlund says.

Garfield, Phillips, and Valley County officials supported the bill alongside the Montana Farm Bureau Federation and other groups because the per-capita fee helps cover Montana’s Department of Livestock testing fees and further separates domestic bison from their wild counterparts.

However, multiple tribal nation leaders and conservation groups, such as the Montana Wildlife Federation, opposed the bill, saying the bill language was unclear and could have far-reaching implications.

Arnell Abold, the executive director of the InterTribal Buffalo Council, explained how the bill could impact the efforts of tribes to expand bison herds.

“Tribal herds require new genetics to prevent inbreeding and genetic drift. This requires introducing new buffalo into the herd. If a tribe introduces a buffalo that was once subject to the per-capita fee into the tribal herd, then the tribe would have to pay the fee to the state for that buffalo. Because Native American tribes are sovereign, domestic dependent nations, they are not subject to state taxation on tribal lands. Also, the state cannot tax wildlife on the reservation because they are federally protected trust resource,” Abold says.

The bill’s sponsor did not consult with tribal nation leaders prior to presenting the bill. While tribal members are already exempted from the fee, Holmlund says he doesn’t see a need to include language exempting tribes, despite requests from tribal leaders.

The committee did not take immediate action on HB 318 after the hearing.

Earlier in the session, Democratic Rep. Marvin Weatherwax from Browning brought two bills designed to make it easier for tribes to transfer bison administratively by eliminating one of two brucellosis tests and to allow tribes to quarantine Yellowstone National Park bison to reduce the number culled each year.

“I mean they're only an advantage to our people.” Weatherwax says.

Weatherwax, a Blackfeet tribal member, says the tribe can build bison herds without the bills, but the process is slow-going and leaves Montana taxpayers on the hook to cover more of Yellowstone’s bison management costs.

“This would help us. And it would also help the bison in Yellowstone to have a longer life,” Weatherwax says.

While both of Weatherwax’s bills were voted down, House Bill 302, which would give county commissions authority to approve or deny bison transfers, was passed out of committee last month. The bill’s sponsor is Republican Rep. Joshua Kassmier, who said the bill wouldn’t apply to tribes and is intended to give local authority to those impacted by bison transfers.

Many tribal nation leaders opposed the bill because of fear the bill would ultimately make acquiring bison more difficult or even impossible for tribes.

“I know the sponsor got up and said, ‘This isn’t going to change, this is not going to impact tribes.’ But we don't see in writing that it's not going to impact us,” says Marjel Russel, legal council for the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes.

Russell sees an unfortunate pattern with bills that pass the Montana legislature and bills that don’t. She says bills that would have helped tribes with bison management are often dismissed, while other bills that tribal members say could negatively impact their work with bison are passed.

“I guess our experience has been that with any of the regulations that apply to buffalo, you know there's absolutely no leniency when it comes to tribes. And it's really infringed on the ability of tribes to restore buffalo to their Indian lands and to manage them in a meaningful way,” Russel says.

Kaitlyn Nicholas covers tribal news in Montana.