Not yet law: Bison ordinance needs conservation district vote

Jenny Gessaman
Bison rancher Steve Mitchell spreads feed for his animals.

Fergus County residents supported the proposed bison ordinance in this month’s primary, but the measure needs the support of one more group of voters before it can take affect. On July 13, the Fergus County Conservation District Board will vote on whether or not to adopt the ordinance.

Chair Dan Stilson viewed the primary election as the public’s comment, and is confident he can predict the vote’s outcome.

“I think the people already told us in the election when the ordinance passed,” he said. “Otherwise, there wasn’t much point in having people vote.”

Despite the conservation district’s stance, some people, including Montana Bison Association President Aaron Paulson, oppose the ordinance.

“We are concerned about this, especially if it does become a trend, because it unintentionally and unfairly includes commercial bison ranches and owners in this ordinance,” he said. “These ordinances impose a prejudicial approach to bison producers.”

Paulson went on to explain.

“It includes all bison in general, and it doesn’t differentiate privately owned, commercially raised bison and wild, or free-roaming, bison,” Paulson said.

He added his organization’s concern was growing with the number of conservation districts passing similar ordinances. McCone and Valley County conservation districts passed theirs in 2012 and 2014 respectively, and Phillips County Conservation District also had a bison ordinance on their primary ballot this year.

The Montana Bison Association is already responding, according to Paulson.

“What we’ve done is we’ve reached out to the DNRC, who provides oversight to the conservation districts, and we’re in the process of setting up a meeting and a response to inform them of our concerns in the event future conservation districts come to them with similar ordinances,” he said.

Conservation District Bureau Chief Laurie Zeller, whose department provides assistance to the state’s conservation districts, said options for opponents such as the Montana Bison Association were limited if the ordinance passed the district board.

“Once it becomes final and adopted, the only way to change it is back through the referendum process,” she said.

Zeller clarified the primary’s public vote was not binding for the Fergus County Conservation District. She explained the vote gave the authority to adopt the ordinance, but did not require them to do so.

Zeller added the ordinance’s wording could not change after public vote, and any new changes would require another referendum process.

If the ordinance is adopted, Zeller said it would have the force of law within the conservation district, although it would not have law enforcement.

“It does require a petition of the court to enforce it,” she explained.

Steve Wanderaas, McCone County Conservation District chair, said their bison ordinance has not seen any opposition since it passed in 2012. According to him, there was no public comment after the general election vote, and the conservation district meeting that voted on adoption had no attendance.

“We just have it in place, and it just hasn’t been all that contentious here,” he said.

The difficult part for Wanderaas and other district board members was creating the application and permit from scratch.

“I wouldn’t say it was really easy, but we got it done,” he said.

Stilson said the Fergus County Conservation District Board has already considered the ordinance’s next steps, and will probably set up a committee to create the forms producers will fill out. He stated, if adopted, the ordinance would go into affect on Oct. 1.



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