Saturday, July 13, 2024

Livestock industry’s war on wildlife at Montana Legislature

by Josh Osher
| May 7, 2023 12:00 AM

At Gov. Greg Gianforte’s behest, the Montana Legislature's anti-wildlife bias was on full display this session. It’s easy to see the direct connection between a number of extreme anti-wildlife bills and a small cabal of privileged ranchers who exploit our public lands for their private profit.

These ranchers want Montana to be the last best place exclusively for their sheep and cattle, at the expense of native wildlife and their habitat, and the people who value Montana’s unique treasures.

Take, for example, Senate Bill 295, which is heading to Gov. Gianforte for his signature. It authorizes Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to issue open-ended grizzly bear kill permits for ranchers any place in Montana, including public land. The only requirement is a claim that a bear was threatening their livestock.

But the bill doesn’t define the word threatening, doesn’t require any pro-active deterrent measures by the producer, doesn’t include any time limits on the kill permit, and doesn’t include any requirement that the permit holder only kill the bear that was supposedly threatening their livestock. It’s basically a special license to kill grizzly bears — for ranchers only.

What does the public get for this? In short, nothing.

For reference, federal land management agencies charge a pittance for livestock grazing. It’s currently the mandated minimum of $1.35 per cow/calf pair or five sheep, compared to market rates which are around $30. The federal grazing program loses about $120 million every year. The government (taxpayers) also foots the much of the bill for millions of miles of wildlife-killing barbed wire fencing, water developments, and invasive weed control.

Decisions about how, where and when grazing occurs, which are supposed to be a public process that is evaluated every 10 years, are often rubber-stamped each decade without any consideration of impacts to wildlife, failing land health standards or public input.

If this sounds like a sweetheart deal for the rancher, it is. Nearly free forage for their livestock, little to no oversight by the agencies that are supposed to manage the land for the benefit of all Americans, and a whole host of taxpayer funded goodies and subsidies to keep it all going.

But it’s a bad deal for those pesky “problem” bears who will be killed by ranchers for trying to access highly suitable habitat on public lands. The ranchers dismiss the fact that each one of those bears is worth far more to Montana’s economy than the forage the ranchers get from public lands to feed their livestock. They ignore the reality that the bears are only preying upon livestock because the native wildlife has been displaced by their cows and sheep as well as the habitat degradation that results. And they completely disregard the fact that this is public land, not their private property.

If it wasn’t enough for the Legislature to go after grizzly bears, this session also targeted other native wildlife like bison, elk, mule deer and pronghorn antelope.

The Legislature has already passed SJ 14, an anti-wildlife resolution to prohibit bison reintroduction on the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, which would provide myriad benefits for the lands, other native wildlife and people.

The Legislature also killed a bi-partisan bill that would have simply required the consideration of wildlife-friendly fencing on state-owned lands that are leased for grazing in order to reduce mortality of elk, deer and antelope while enhancing migratory corridors.

This heavy-handled control over public lands by a few subsidized ranchers shows their goal – to sterilize the land of native wildlife to make room for their cattle and sheep. Montanans of all stripes won’t stand for this and need to speak out against this unprecedented assault on our valued native wildlife.

Josh Osher is the public policy director for the Western Watersheds Project.