As the Montana Board of Livestock struggles to keep the Department of Livestock out of debt, it’s asking the state attorney general to clarify the DOL’s responsibility related to bison.
During a discussion of economic affairs and long-range planning, Board of Livestock member John Scully asked the board to approve his letter asking Attorney General Tim Fox to clarify the DOL’s responsibilities related to bison.
The letter was prompted by recent Interagency Bison Management Plan meetings, concern from legislators and Gov. Steve Bullock’s recent decision allowing Yellowstone bison to remain outside of the park near West Yellowstone year-round.
Scully read parts of three laws related to Fish, Wildlife & Park’s bison duties that sometimes require DOL input. The laws deal with bison hunting, and transport, control and elimination of diseased bison.
“There’s a lack of clarity as to what it is the Department of Livestock is required to do,” Scully said. “I read those (laws) just so there’s enough of a record that you too can join me in my confusion. We’ve had this problem before when we went through the previous choices we had to make. So I suggest that we file a request for an opinion concerning what is the duty and obligation under these three statutes.”
As evidence of confusion over the laws’ intent, Scully added that a recent newspaper article said that one of the three laws, 81-2-120, needed to be repealed.
A few recent articles have highlighted some groups’ calls to repeal 81-2-120 because it mandates various ways to dispose of bison that possibly carry brucellosis, including the bison capture-and-slaughter operations in Yellowstone National Park near Gardiner.
“I don’t think it’s any of our business whether 81-2-120 is repealed or not. That’s up to the Legislature. But until then…,” Scully said.
The BOL objected to the original proposal to allow bison to wander outside the park’s western border, even though FWP completed a thorough environmental study and a majority of the 900,000 comments supported bison. But the board tabled the proposal forcing the governor’s decision.
Montana Stockgrowers Association representative Gene Curry said the BOL needs to send a letter because the AG told the Montana Stockgrowers and the Montana Farm Bureau Federation that they didn’t have standing to question how far the DOL could go related to the situation.
“If the AG’s office can give an opinion that this board can work with, that’s the far better scenario. Because our success rate of going to court on some of these issues is not very good and it’s cost us a lot of money with very limited results,” Curry said.
However, DOL state veterinarian Marty Zaluski said there shouldn’t be any confusion as to the department’s responsibilities. He said the DOL had responsibility for anything related to the transmission of disease from bison to livestock while FWP was primarily responsible for property damage and public safety.
“Our responsibility remains unquestioned,” Zaluski said. “From my narrow scope, I felt that it was pretty clear. But I would be the last to suggest that the entirety of that statute is very prescriptively defined.”
Gallatin Wildlife Association president Glenn Hockett said the intent of the letter was to thwart the establishment of bison on the west side.
When discussing the possibility of moving excess bison from the Gardiner Basin to the west side, some said the DOL would try to enforce a law limiting the transportation of bison within the state. But Hockett argued the DOL couldn’t do that because the law applied only to transport of bison outside the greater Yellowstone area.
“That was challenged in the Park County case, but Tim Preso showed the legislative intent was only for bison introduced to the (C.M Russell Wildlife Refuge),” Hockett said.
The Park County Stockgrowers Association, Park County and the Montana Farm Bureau Federation sued in 2012 to stop FWP from allowing bison to roam the Gardiner Basin in winter. The judge ruled against them saying dealing with bison is “a consequence of living in Montana and with her abundant wildlife.”
The DOL’s bison program is costing more than $954,000 this year, although a Federal Umbrella Program pays for everything.
The board went on to criticize media coverage of a Feb. 4 meeting with the long-range planning board and the BOL in general. Representatives of various livestock organizations sit on the long-range planning board created in August 2015 to advise the DOL.
In particular, board members were offended by a Feb. 18 article in the Western Ag Reporter that summarized a Jan. 15 letter from Rep. Carl Glimm, R-Kila, criticizing the BOL. Glimm chairs the legislative agriculture committee and his letter expressed dismay with the BOL and said time was running out for management changes.
The DOL and BOL have struggled since 2014 when it was revealed that the agency was about $400,000 in the hole mainly due to increasing laboratory fees and the timing of branding fees. An audit found some funds shuffling that wasn’t legal.
The department had to make budget and personnel cuts, and the resulting turmoil led to the September 2015 resignation of the department’s executive director of eight years, Christian MacKay and Brands Enforcement Division administrator John Grainger.
But board member Ed Waldner said the Western Ag Reporter story was 12 to 18 months late and implied the BOL was at odds with the long-range planning board.
“Would it behoove the board to explain to (the reporter) that articles like this aren’t helpful and explain the real facts to her so we can get the publicity that’s needed?” Waldner said.
Board member Lila Tayler said she didn’t remember the meeting having a negative tone.
“It made me furious but it surprised me also, because this industry needs to get behind this board and not the other way around,” Taylor said.