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Tribal Nations Oppose Montana Bison Bills That They Say Trample Sovereignty

Montana's legislature debates bills that local tribes say would endanger the animals and compromise sovereignty.

One of two pieces of legislation in Montana to impact tribal nations related to bison movement passed in a hearing March 19 held before Montana’s House Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation Committee.

The bill, sponsored by Republican Rep. Alan Redfield requires a forage analysis before wild bison can be released onto private or public land in Montana. The bill drew strong opposition from state and tribal officials, according to the Fairfield Sun Times.

The tribal opponents to the bill overwhelmed its supporters, said Garrit Voggesser of the National Wildlife Federation’s Tribal Lands Program. The testimony went on so long that the vote had to be delayed.

RELATED: Montana’s Bison Bills: Another Attack on Buffalo Country

The Fort Belknap and Fort Peck tribal nations opposed both bills. Mark Azure, president of the Fort Belknap Tribal Council, said the tribe had not been consulted on the bill.

 “We feel that we’re major players in this issue,” Azure said at the hearing. “We feel like we’ve been left out of the loop.”

Fort Belknap has had bison for just over a year, “with as little fanfare as you could imagine,” Azure said, meaning there have been no reports of the animals doing any damage to people’s property.

RELATED: Pure Strain Bison Returning to Fort Peck

Advocacy group the Buffalo Field Campaign said in a statement that the bill to "revise bison laws" will increase the costs of transplanting or reintroducing bison by amending an existing law to one that would require a forage analysis. This would turn the reintroduction of a valued native species onto tribal lands into a costly, undesirable and unfeasible option, he said.

Moreover, the bill erodes the authority of the state, giving “veto power” to county commissions on bison transfers, said Mike Volesky, deputy director of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, at the hearing. The counties, he added, are already part of "a substantial public process."

The other bill, set for a March 24 vote, would give county commissioners the power to veto attempts to to release or relocate bison within the state, the Great Falls Tribune reported. Senate Bill 284, sponsored by Republican Sen. John Brenden, would require county commissioners’ approval of any plan to move bison into their county. County Commissioner Lesley Robinson said at the hearing that she wants commissioners to be treated "the same" as other entities such as tribes.

Representatives from the Blackfeet, Fort Peck, Fort Belknap, Northern Cheyenne and Crow tribal nations all objected to the bill. Brenden said the bill will not affect tribal bison programs, but “he is incorrect,” said Voggesser. Tribal bison are considered wildlife, not domestic livestock, and as such would be subject to county commissioners’ telling sovereign nations what they can and cannot do on their own land, Voggesser said.

“In over 100 years of conservation, no county government has been allowed to usurp the public trust or the public's ownership of wildlife,” Voggeser said. “No county government has had the authority to violate the basic tenet that wildlife knows no boundary and therefore should rightly be managed by the state, for the public trust.”

Brenden introduced several anti-bison bills in last year’s legislature. All were defeated. But before the Fort Belknap Nation could bring its 34 pure-strain bison to their homelands, the nation—along with conservation organizations, sportsmen and women, and other supporters—had to defeat 12 anti-bison bills in the 2013 legislature.

RELATED: Genetically Pure Bison Returned to Fort Belknap After a Century Away