So far, 2021 is shaping up to be a rotten year for Montana’s wildlife. The newly sworn-in state legislature is threatening to undo decades of wildlife restoration and conservation work for many of the state’s most iconic species. A range of draft bills, with committee hearings coming up, have been designed to hinder and, in many cases, prevent the ongoing recovery and survival of grizzly bears, wolves and bison. While similar legislation has been introduced in recent years, these anti-wildlife bills have been vetoed by governors Schweitzer (D) and Bullock (D) for the past 16 years. That backstop may have disappeared with newly elected Governor Greg Gianforte (R).
“This planned assault on wildlife by the new Legislature will have devastating consequences for Montana’s iconic wildlife,” said Jonathan Proctor, Rockies and Plains program director at Defenders of Wildlife. “Montana’s wildlife heritage is under attack.”
A 2015 poll found that more than 75 percent of Montanans support wild bison restoration on Montana's public and tribal lands. However, extreme anti-wildlife members in the new legislature have drafted several bills to reverse or prevent wild bison restoration. For example, LC1176 and LC0568 would change the state’s definition of bison to remove any reference to wild bison in Montana legal code. This would allow only bison managed as “livestock” to exist in the state, prohibiting bison managed as wildlife from being restored anywhere, in opposition to most Montanans' wishes.
Meanwhile, LC1109 would require county approval to restore bison, effectively usurping state wildlife authority and blocking bison restoration. LC1109 has been introduced in the past and was only stopped by a governor veto. Combined, these bills would prevent wild bison from ever returning to the Big Sky State.
“With these bison bills, it’s as though we’re driving toward a cliff without any brakes,” said Chamois Andersen, senior Rockies and Plains representative. “Bison are part of Montana’s wildlife heritage and vital to the health of the prairie grasslands and tribal cultural traditions. Creating new policies to prohibit wild bison in Montana means all the conservation efforts over the last decade will be lost.”
Wolves face a similarly daunting future. Multiple bills aimed at killing more wolves are working their way through Montana’s legislature. These include bills that would extend the wolf hunting season and allow snaring of wolves.
Grizzly bears remain listed as a threatened species in Montana, maintaining federal protections under the Endangered Species Act. That is not stopping lawmakers from attempting to reduce protections for them in the state.
“If these laws pass, one of Montana’s most iconic species will face a dismal future,” said Erin Edge, senior Rockies and Plains representative at Defenders of Wildlife. “Montana has already experienced a life without wolves in the past—I hope that we won’t make the same mistake again.”
Defenders of Wildlife is doing everything possible to try and stop these measures: working with Montanans to call their legislators and voice their opinions, coordinating with other conservation organizations, working with tribal leaders who also oppose these bills, and testifying before the legislature to ensure lawmakers are aware of the real consequences before they proceed.
“Most Montanans value our state’s wildlife, including wild bison, wolves and grizzlies,” said Edge. “We need to let our legislature and governor know that this onslaught of anti-wildlife legislation is out of touch. It’s time to act: the future of Montana’s wildlife is at stake.”