Under pressure from Gov. Stan Stephens' administration and a ranchers' group, the state House Tuesday reversed itself and voted to end Montana's controversial bison hunt.
The bill, which would remove bison from the list of game animals, received preliminary approval 56-42 and faces one more vote before it is passed on to the Senate.The bill was defeated 46-53 last Saturday, but Rep. Bob Ream, D-Missoula, convinced representatives to debate his proposal a second time. On Tuesday, seven Republicans and three Democrats switched their votes after heavy lobbying efforts by the Montana Stockgrowers' Association and the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
House Bill 390 still would allow state game wardens to shoot bison migrating from Yellowstone National Park. Many park bison are infected with brucellosis, and state officials want to be able to kill the animals to prevent spreading the disease to domestic cattle. Brucellosis can cause cattle to abort their calves.
About 700 bison have been shot since the 1985 Legislature designated them game animals, resulting in a national outcry by animal-rights activists.
Opponents of Ream's bill, led by Rep. William "Red" Menahan, again argued that passing the measure amounts to a surrender to the demands of anti-hunting and animal-rights groups.
"If they win this battle, they'll want more," Menahan said. "We're not solving one problem; we're just running from it."
He said lawmakers should allow hunters to continue shooting bison as a way of maintaining pressure on the National Park Service to come up with a plan to manage Yellowstone's buffalo.
Rep. Gary Forrester, D-Billings, warned that anti-hunting forces will target elk hunting next, because the Legislature will be seen as a group easily swayed by national public opinion.
"We can be pushed, we can be shoved and we can be manipulated," he said. "That's what we're telling these national animal-rights activists. They can do it, they can do it easily if we pass this bill today. From now on it's open season on Montanans."
But Ream said the Legislature isn't giving in. Animal-rights groups want the shooting of bison stopped and his bill won't do that, he said.
The present method of controlling bison victimizes hunters and doesn't encourage the park service to act. Ending the hunt will send a message to the federal agency that "we stand ready to help you find a solution, but we're not going to do it for you," he said.
"This is not an anti-hunting issue in Montana," said Rep. Bob Raney, D-Livingston. "This is a bison-management issue in Montana and brucellosis-managing issue in Montana."
He said the bison hunt in Montana has provided animal-rights advocates with a major money-raising issue that the Legislature can remove with passage of HB390.
Afterward, several of those who opposed the bill Saturday said they changed their votes after being lobbied by ranchers and state wildlife officials.
Rep. Linda Nelson, D-Medicine Lake, said she supported the bill after fish and game officials assured her none of the bison shot by wardens would be wasted. Rep. Marian Hanson, R-Ashland, said she was convinced to give the state time to work out a bison management plan with the park service.
Republicans Vernon Keller of Fishtail and Steve Benedict of Hamilton said they backed the measure after the stockgrowers' association voiced its support.
In a later interview, Fish, Wildlife and Parks Director K.L. Cool praised the House vote as "an important contribution to the future of sport hunting."
Continuing the bison hunt may fuel the cause of anti-hunting efforts, but lawmakers are not caving in to those interests in ending the hunt, he said: "They're merely standing up for hunters and the future of sport hunting."