HELENA, Montana — Montana's Legislature is again considering whether county officials should have a say in the relocation of wild bison.
Republican Sen. John Brenden of Scobey proposed Senate Bill 284 in the House Agriculture Committee Tuesday to require authorization from county commissioners before wild bison can be released in a county.
County commissioners from around the state testified in favor of the proposal, saying it would give local governments the same veto power tribal governments have over reintroduction of the animals.
Supporters said bison may carry transferable diseases and could trample livestock, crops and fences.
"They're like a four-legged D4 Caterpillar," Bob Gilbert, referring to a bulldozer, said on behalf of three Montana counties.
Bison, also known as buffalo, can weigh 2,000 pounds and were driven to near-extinction in the 19th century.
"Consider what a wild animal of that size could do to a white wheat field in the fall or newly started alfalfa crop or a haystack," Nicole Rolf of Montana Farm Bureau Federation said.
Opponents of Brenden's bill describe the animals as gentle giants that have not been shown to transfer the disease brucellosis as supporters purported.
Nearly 200 bison have been reintroduced to tribal lands in eastern Montana since 2011, according to a national conservation organization, Defenders of Wildlife. Spokeswoman Melanie Gade said in a statement Brenden's "anti-bison" proposal would give control of state bison management to county politicians instead of wildlife biologists and erase decades of work to restore bison to the Great Plains.
Ervin Carlson, a member of the Blackfeet tribe and Tribal Welfare Council, said the proposal would impede on tribal sovereignty as some counties overlap with reservations in Montana. In summer, he said against the bill, off-reservation cattle wander onto the Blackfeet Reservation in northern Montana more often than bison wander off.
"I guess we should look at something that would restrict those animals from coming to graze on our reservation and see how people would like that," Carlson said.
Claudia Narcisco, a volunteer with the Montana Sierra Nevada Club, said in opposition that the measure would allow counties to determine what is done with private as well as public lands.
"I want to remind everybody that just a few weeks ago we had one of the largest demonstrations out front of the Capitol when Montanans gathered in record numbers to say 'no' to state and local takeover of our public lands and national heritage," Narcisco said of a public lands rally that drew hundreds of people to Helena on Feb. 16.
Committee Chair Alan Redfield, R-Livingston, interrupted Carlson and Narcisco during their comments and asked them to "stick to the bill."
Similar proposals died in the Montana Legislature in 2013 and 2011.