Despite vociferous protest from tribes, Montana’s state legislature has processed no fewer than four bills related to bison this year.
One of them passed into law, and Montana Governor Steve Bullock vetoed the other three, the last two on May 6, as reported by the Missoulian. Together the four pieces of legislation, all introduced by Republicans, constituted “another attack on Buffalo Country,” said Indian law expert Ryan D. Dreveskracht in a recent interview with Indian Country Today Media Network.
Bullock signed HB 328, introduced by Representative Ted Washburn, which permits state officials to identify "the actual physical location" of buffalo to hunters, according to the bill’s text. He vetoed HB 396, introduced by Representative Mike Lang, which would have given county commissioners veto power over bison restoration plans within their counties, including tribal lands and federal public lands. HB 396 also allows bison to be sold by the state Department of Livestock to pay for capturing, testing, quarantining and vaccinating wild bison. Essentially the bill gives county commissioners veto power over tribal lands in relation to bison restoration.
Leaders of the Fort Peck Tribes, the Fort Belknap Tribes and the Crow Nation spoke out against the bills in March at a rally at the Montana Capitol rotunda, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported. Soon after, the Shoshone Bannock Tribes and the Montana & Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council passed resolutions opposing any bills that would restrict bisons’ range or otherwise remove or threaten the viability of the buffalo.
On May 6 Bullock vetoed SB 256 and SB 305. The former, introduced by state Senator Eric Moore, would have made Montana’s Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Department liable for any damage to private property caused by wild bison. The latter, introduced by Senator Jim Peterson, proposed changing the definition of “wild bison” or “wild buffalo” to mean “a bison that has never been reduced to captivity and has never been owned by a person.”
A fifth bill, SB 341, introduced by state Senator Jennifer Fielder, establishes criteria for transplanting bison and other wildlife but is “probably dead,” Dreveskracht said. Among other criteria, the bill would prohibit wildlife translocation if the species could have an impact on livestock grazing. Dreveskracht said the bills directly contradict tribal rights.
“Undoubtedly, the tribes that originally inhabited these lands had the right to manage, maintain, and hunt bison,” Dreveskracht said. “Congress has not clearly and unambiguously divested that right. The tribes’ exclusive authority to regulate on-reservation wildlife is thus derived [from] the retained inherent sovereignty over its tribal territory.”
He added that legally Montana is obligated to “protect [the tribes’] source of food and commerce” throughout the state, meaning both within Montana Indian country and beyond, on and off the reservation. Although the bills were touted as necessary “to protect domestic livestock from contracting brucellosis [for] the sake of public safety” in the name of conservation, Dreveskracht said, they would have in effect destroyed an entire indigenous culture and economy, nullifying rights that are engrained in treaty. These treaties, referred to in the U.S. Constitution as “the supreme Law of the Land, ” serve to “exempt the Indians’ preserved rights from like state regulation,” Dreveskracht said.
Further, he added, they impose an affirmative obligation on the state to assure that reserved resource is maintained in a manner that gives meaning to the tribes’ reserved right.
For more, see Montana’s Bison Bills: Another Attack On Buffalo Country.