Lawmakers shoot down new bison plan

Opposition to bill brings out the real issue — cattle industry’s control over the rest of us-

The cattle industry won’t even support property rights (except their own), much less wildlife. As this country runs into hard times how much abuse on the part of a small segment of population will the average Montanan put up with?

Lawmakers shoot down new bison plan. By Daniel Person. Bozeman Chronicle Staff Writer



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  1. Jim Macdonald Avatar

    We are having a fervent discussion of this failure on our listserves. People are motivated to use this as a stepping stone and not a losing end unto itself.

    I was frustrated last night when I wrote the following. It’s long, but I want to share it all here (originally posted here.

    Bison bill defeated in Montana, but what’s the strategy?

    Montana House Bill 253 – the Montana Wild Buffalo Recovery and Conservation Act of 2009 – went down to defeat 10 – 8 on Thursday in the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee.

    What I am going to say now represents my views on this and does not necessarily reflect the views of anyone else in my group, Buffalo Allies of Bozeman. In fact, I suspect my views will go beyond most of the members of the group.

    I am having a lot of trouble understanding what the strategic purpose has been in pushing a bill that most people have acknowledged was likely to be defeated. A lot of blood, sweat, and tears went into this bill, especially by members of the Gallatin Wildlife Association, much like the blood, sweat, and tears they put into a similarly defeated effort in 2005. Back in June, Rep. Mike Phillips, who drafted and shepherded the bill, said very clearly at a forum that there was almost no chance of this passing if both Gov. Schweitzer and Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) did not support the bill. And, they didn’t. Officially, they stayed silent, but they were against the bill. The Governor’s policy advisor, Hal Harper, and FWP’s Pat Flowers made their views known to activists before this ever went to committee.

    And, what do you know? It went down to defeat in committee. Imagine that; almost everyone knew it would fail, and it did.

    I believe in a diversity of strategies and tactics. If you can get a win in the state legislature, go for it. I’ll be glad to help, even if I have very little interest in pursuing these tactics. However, what’s the strategy here? Does anyone plan to hold anyone accountable? Republican representative Ted Washburn supposedly supported the bill and wound up voting against it. Is anyone going to call him out? Or, are people naive enough to think that if they are just a little more persuasive that people will change their votes?

    The problem for me always with using the legislature as a tactic is that it’s liberal and reformist. It pretends that the system can be used to correct the abuses of symptoms in our society that are wrong. And, while it may be the case that occasionally you can treat a symptom, what really ever gets changed? What’s wrong with Yellowstone, with buffalo, with everything in this region is not merely a symptomatic problem, a problem of just fixing this and adjusting that. Even if this bill had passed, we would still need to ask ourselves, what next? Like the Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP) that we decry as unworkable so too is the way the system functions.

    The fact is that Montana politics is dominated by the livestock industry, an industry that might economically be responsible for only 1% of GDP but has an outsized presence in the political power of the state. You don’t negotiate with a fundamentally irrational power or pretend that it’s just a matter of winning an argument. You have to fight a different fight. It’s like a bantamweight taking on a heavyweight. You don’t fight like that on their turf and on their grounds. And, if anywhere is their grounds in Montana, it’s in the political establishment.

    The misguided idea has been that if you got wildlife advocates, environmentalists, other property owners, and sportsmen together, maybe you can politically overwhelm the livestock interests. Nope; you can outnumber them 4 to 1 in a committee hearing, you can win in the newspapers, but you won’t win in Helena.

    HB 253 was a tame bill; it didn’t do much. The IBMP would have still held sway. All it would have done is alleviate an incoherence in Montana law where wildlife were managed by a livestock department, while allowing property owners to determine whether they wanted bison on their property. They would have been allowed to call in the Department of Livestock to deal with problems; however, all of that might have been moot anyhow under the IBMP (it might have been for a court to decide). It was worth supporting as a tactical victory toward a larger aim except we all knew it didn’t have a chance of passing no matter how many hours spent trying to get it passed.

    So, what is the strategy? I am going to find out, and I want to see what the Gallatin Wildlife Association has in mind. It’s not enough that the issue is in the public dialogue unless there’s a way to thrust that dialogue into further action.

    If there was one thing that happened was that a lot of pro bison groups that haven’t been getting along that well got behind this bill in a way they didn’t four years ago. If this is an exercise in movement building, that’s great. But, then, I have trouble understanding why anyone is pretending that action in the legislature is the best means toward that end? Is it just the culture of the groups involved? That’s what they do? I’d be fine with that answer so long as no one is pretending that the bison situation actually will be solved simply by passing a law. Because, it won’t. This is a very long struggle that depends on a lot more changing.

    I believe we need to learn to embrace different tactics alongside this one. If we don’t, this sorry story will just keep repeating itself until no one cares anymore.

    By writing so harshly, I don’t mean to put down the efforts of those who pushed this bill. In fact, I admire them very much. I truly just want to know what’s next, and if that hasn’t been thought about, then we all had better start.

  2. Pronghorn Avatar

    Dear Lord, help me strive for brevity…
    Even Montana’s sacred private property rights fell victim to the MT livestock industry steamroller. Here’s another thought–Buffalo Field Campaign has been saying all along and for many years that the IBMP needs to be scrapped. If we want real change for bison, it looks like that’s STILL the case. One last thought: Why is it that the sell-out Greater Yellowstone Coalition is right there to provide the “disappointed bison advocate” quote? Snort of disgust.

  3. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    After a few years of watching this, I came to the conclusion that the whole brucellosis thing was a fraud. Then I realized it was about maintaining dominance by the cattle growers, not just of grass, but of people.

    That want Montanans to be a servile people to them.

  4. montucky Avatar

    I think you’re right, Ralph. Cattle growers, timber companies, energy companies and mining interests over the years have taken over the power inside of the political parties and run the state. Any newcomers who get into political office do so by licking the boots of the insiders.

  5. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    See my story about the new group, Yellowstone Country Guardians.

    I made it a sticky post at the top of the blog.

  6. Salle Avatar

    Indeed, many of us have decried the IBMP since it was conceived, it has never been an appropriate piece of legislation.

    Jim Mcdonald,

    Hearten up, it’s part of the process… Even when you know your proposal will hit the “nose-dive jet stream” on arrival, it is the starting point at which the dialog begins next time it comes around on the merry-go-round of democracy. Without continuing to make the wheel turn, nothing will change. The press that was generated was a component of public education that promotes wide-spread dialog about the issue that will assist in gaining support for the next go-round. It’s almost always an incremental pace, take the experience and grow from it, learn what is to be earned and be strengthened by that knowledge. You can’t always win every argument: this was one of those. Just keep arguing until the actual concerns are addressed rather than ignored. It’s what the rest of us have been and continue to do.

  7. Jim Macdonald Avatar

    I feel plenty heartened but not by continuing to follow these tactics, especially in absence of a movement building strategy. From the conversations with some of the people in and out of the GWA that are happening offline, they feel the same way. And, I look forward to joining them at their Wednesday morning meeting.

    This process, however, is not democracy. When money and influence are used to hijack a system, there is no voice for the people in that system. We did not lose the argument; we simply don’t have power in the Montana government for the force of that argument to work.

    The way to change is by building a social movement that uses a diversity of pressure points, and if we see what was done for HB 253 as a step in that, fine. However, in the future, I urged today to some of my activist friends, we should only support tactics where we are the means toward the ends (not by begging others in power to support our ends). I’m afraid too many people think you can work within the Montana political system, and that’s just folly. I’d be very discouraged to see this bill back in committee with all the effort being put into it if there isn’t a larger strategy guiding it besides (get it out there in the media and raise the discussion in the public).

    I’m more energized, actually, especially since a lot of other people are urging the same message and some diverse approaches toward doing the kinds of things I’m calling for.

    On the IBMP …

    Yes, the IBMP has to go, and that’s got to be the first prerequisite toward sound policy change. Keep tuned for an announcement of a public hearing on the IBMP that is being organized by several groups.

  8. Brian Ertz Avatar

    I am very pessimistic about the prospect of moving state & local governments to bring about necessary change of natural resource management. The Livestock culture is too entrenched, you can win a majority of the marginally enfranchised & lose the few who have control and not gain an inch. Even for the groups who tout local “buy-in” for things like WINO legislation, when the question of net-benefit to wildlife & wildplaces is asked – everything gets confused.

    No matter how one wants to avoid the federal/local control question I think the truth is that for those of us living in Livestock dominated localities & states, the fate of all of our public places & wildlife will be determined by our ability to compell decision-makers divorced from the localized/landed elite to “buy-in” and weigh in on what is as much their federal land & wildlife heritage as it is anyone else’s.

    It seems like the best way of doing that when the priorities/agenda is elsewhere is agitation. If decision-makers are unwilling to confront these questions, or put them high enough on their priority list to do anything about it via being asked to recognize what we value, then creating crisis via the judicial system, whatever media we can muster, etc. will have to replace other shortcomings of public-salience which would normally foster policy-change.

    These are federal questions, we all have a stake in the outcome. Let’s make it worth-while for the right people to pay attention -let’s make it worth their while to make the right choices.

  9. Salle Avatar

    Amen, Brian.

  10. jerry b Avatar
    jerry b

    It’s time to flood the newspapers in Montana with “letters to the editor”. If you can comment on Ralph’s website, you can write a comment to the Missoulian, Chronicle, Tribune etc. The general public is oblivious to the bison problem…they don’t read this website, but they read the newspaper and I know for a fact that the second most read page in the paper, besides the front page, is the “opinion” page.

  11. Jim Macdonald Avatar

    jerry b,

    Great idea, but even then I think the effort should be organized. We’ve had the idea of having different people sending letters every week, but it’s getting follow through on it. It would also give us a way of using the results of those letters for other purposes. We could compile the work; it would show that there’s organized resistance.

    Individual voices usually mean nothing unless those voices are organized also.

    I think this is something we could do here. We could set up a list where we share possible letters and then edit them and send them out.

  12. outsider Avatar

    Jim where did you get your 1 % number from, all I could find was around 10%

  13. JB Avatar

    Outsider: Can’t speak for Jim, but this chart suggests mining, forestry and all agriculture account for 11% of Montana’s GDP:

  14. Brian Ertz Avatar

    the silver lining is that by proposing this more than reasonable bill – and it failing – decision-makers will know that the local route won’t work – it highlights the extent to which the state is broken/corrupt – perhaps making federal players more aware of the urgency that if things are to change – it’ll be up to them.

  15. Jim Macdonald Avatar

    In all honesty, the 1% figure was part of a rant that was based on research I had done on Wyoming’s GDP, not Montana’s and assumed they would be similar. It’s dangerous to make assumptions, I know, but let’s look at it.

    When I looked at Montana’s, I have found that the maximum is 2.6% of the economy of Montana and probably actually closer to the 1% total.

    My source is where there is data for 2006 for Crop and animal production (Farms). The total was 846 million GDP. If you divide that into the total Montana GDP of 31,994 Million GDP, you get 2.6%. Now, the question is, how much of that 2.6% is actually from livestock production versus crop production? It’s not possible to say, but for a lot of reasons I suspect it’s about half. So, that would get us to about 1% and would make it similar to Wyoming. By the way, the national average for this segment of the GDP is less than 1%.

    So, let’s think about this in terms of political power. How many farmers and agriculturalists should there be in the Montana legislature. Let’s assume that 3% is the max and 1% the minimum. In the House, that should mean 1 to 3 seats.

    Of course, that’s not necessarily the best way to determine political power. I’d hardly want the mining industry determining all policy just because they represented a significant part of GDP (for instance, in Wyoming, it’s a really significant part of it). Yet, it’s so striking that livestock is considered to be such an amazing necessity to the well being of Wyoming. And, even though it is subsidized, it’s just not a big part of our economy here. It’s just not reality.

    And, considering what they are doing to animals, land, and wildlife as a result, well, you know where this is going.


  16. Jim Macdonald Avatar

    Of course, there is an old argument in American history that those who own property and therefore are the ones who make their land better are the ones who should have more political power in the state. That was the argument used in favor of giving only property owners the right to vote.

    That rationale has been a poison on American history; it was used to displace indigenous people. It was used to justify manifest destiny, to give the railroads incredibly large tracts of land, to conquer a continent.

    If people have any wonder why the political reality is distinct from the actual demographic reality, all they have to do is look back at American history and the influence that John Locke’s theories had on the settlement of the continent. And, one thing that we have to be careful about here – and we have begun succumbing to it in the HB 253 battle – is the notion of protecting the sacred cow of property rights. It’s nothing new in American history that some kind of property rights always trump those of others. That should hardly be a surprise; that is right out of John Locke.

    This is a hard fight; none of us fully realizes how much the idea that those who work the land are somehow morally superior in the American psyche. (This isn’t to say that they are morally inferior). But, the truth is that we as a people have almost a subconscious idolatry for this way of life, and so we keep electing these people, and they maintain their own power as a result. Sarah Palin’s idea that she represented “real Americans” has a little something to it, even if it’s really hard to find very many actual people who fit the profile.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan