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Guest column

Online-only opinion: Governor's bison decision a signal of things to come

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For decades, Montanans of all stripes have worked to create a responsible and commonsense pathway for the restoration of wild bison outside the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park.

But Gov. Greg Gianforte just sunk those efforts. In doing so, he has allied himself with a fringe wing of political operatives who are highly motivated to privatize Montana’s wildlife and limit our access to land and water.

This is a very dangerous signal of things to come. All Montana hunters and anglers who remain proud of our wildlife heritage should pay attention to who the governor is doing business with.

Let’s start with the basics. Bison restoration in Montana has been a long and complicated journey because it needs to be done correctly. In a place like Montana, that means engaging locally impacted communities and landowners to create common ground. That was the basis of the state’s 2020 bison restoration blueprint released by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

This plan was a decade in the making because it was detailed and inclusive. It created clear guidelines and a transparent public process to advance bison restoration. It required Montana citizens to submit thoughtful proposals that could demonstrate public engagement and support from local and regional communities.

So why did Governor Gianforte just kill it off? Unfortunately, he was influenced by a group of property activists called the United Property of Owners of Montana.

If you like to hunt or fish, the United Property Owners of Montana, or UPOM, is one of the most dangerous groups in Montana. They take a hard line, so much so that moderate Republicans have given them a wide berth. They represent the same historic forces of greed that decimated our wildlife populations in the 19th century. This small group of operatives have had an oversized impact in turning public lands into private hunting refuges for the rich. And they have never been honest about their motivations or the funds they receive from out-of-state.

We can’t let UPOM call the tune we dance to or distort the facts of bison restoration in Montana. The 2020 bison rule was intended to be a meeting ground for folks of different backgrounds to problem-solve. It was intended to create common ground, include landowners in these discussions, and eventually strengthen our wildlife legacy through thoughtful citizen-initiated proposals.

With our state’s natural conservation ethic, I believe Montanans will inevitably one day give wild bison a home outside Yellowstone National Park. But first, we need to ask our state government to get back into the business of facilitating the thoughtful and collaborative discussions that will get us there.

If the state does not get its act together on bison, the federal government may make the decision for us. The Department of Interior is advancing their own process to help coordinate wild bison restoration through the Bison Conservation Initiative, approved by the Trump administration.

It would be wonderful if Montana was the leader on this issue. As it stands right now, our state government is doing a disservice by colluding with one of the most extreme and self-serving property groups in the state.

Chris Marchion, of Anaconda, was inducted into the Montana Outdoor Hall of Fame in 2014.

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