Montana House Bill 253 - the Montana Wild Buffalo Recovery and Conservation Act of 2009 - went down to defeat 10 - 8 on Thursday in the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee.
What I am going to say now represents my views on this and does not necessarily reflect the views of anyone else in my group, Buffalo Allies of Bozeman. In fact, I suspect my views will go beyond most of the members of the group.
I am having a lot of trouble understanding what the strategic purpose has been in pushing a bill that most people have acknowledged was likely to be defeated. A lot of blood, sweat, and tears went into this bill, especially by members of the Gallatin Wildlife Association, much like the blood, sweat, and tears they put into a similarly defeated effort in 2005. Back in June, Rep. Mike Phillips, who drafted and shepherded the bill, said very clearly at a forum that there was almost no chance of this passing if both Gov. Schweitzer and Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) did not support the bill. And, they didn't. Officially, they stayed silent, but they were against the bill. The Governor's policy advisor, Hal Harper, and FWP's Pat Flowers made their views known to activists before this ever went to committee.
And, what do you know? It went down to defeat in committee. Imagine that; almost everyone knew it would fail, and it did.
I believe in a diversity of strategies and tactics. If you can get a win in the state legislature, go for it. I'll be glad to help, even if I have very little interest in pursuing these tactics. However, what's the strategy here? Does anyone plan to hold anyone accountable? Republican representative Ted Washburn supposedly supported the bill and wound up voting against it. Is anyone going to call him out? Or, are people naive enough to think that if they are just a little more persuasive that people will change their votes?
The problem for me always with using the legislature as a tactic is that it's liberal and reformist. It pretends that the system can be used to correct the abuses of symptoms in our society that are wrong. And, while it may be the case that occasionally you can treat a symptom, what really ever gets changed? What's wrong with Yellowstone, with buffalo, with everything in this region is not merely a symptomatic problem, a problem of just fixing this and adjusting that. Even if this bill had passed, we would still need to ask ourselves, what next? Like the Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP) that we decry as unworkable so too is the way the system functions.
The fact is that Montana politics is dominated by the livestock industry, an industry that might economically be responsible for only 1% of GDP but has an outsized presence in the political power of the state. You don't negotiate with a fundamentally irrational power or pretend that it's just a matter of winning an argument. You have to fight a different fight. It's like a bantamweight taking on a heavyweight. You don't fight like that on their turf and on their grounds. And, if anywhere is their grounds in Montana, it's in the political establishment.
The misguided idea has been that if you got wildlife advocates, environmentalists, other property owners, and sportsmen together, maybe you can politically overwhelm the livestock interests. Nope; you can outnumber them 4 to 1 in a committee hearing, you can win in the newspapers, but you won't win in Helena.
HB 253 was a tame bill; it didn't do much. The IBMP would have still held sway. All it would have done is alleviate an incoherence in Montana law where wildlife were managed by a livestock department, while allowing property owners to determine whether they wanted bison on their property. They would have been allowed to call in the Department of Livestock to deal with problems; however, all of that might have been moot anyhow under the IBMP (it might have been for a court to decide). It was worth supporting as a tactical victory toward a larger aim except we all knew it didn't have a chance of passing no matter how many hours spent trying to get it passed.
So, what is the strategy? I am going to find out, and I want to see what the Gallatin Wildlife Association has in mind. It's not enough that the issue is in the public dialogue unless there's a way to thrust that dialogue into further action.
If there was one thing that happened was that a lot of pro bison groups that haven't been getting along that well got behind this bill in a way they didn't four years ago. If this is an exercise in movement building, that's great. But, then, I have trouble understanding why anyone is pretending that action in the legislature is the best means toward that end? Is it just the culture of the groups involved? That's what they do? I'd be fine with that answer so long as no one is pretending that the bison situation actually will be solved simply by passing a law. Because, it won't. This is a very long struggle that depends on a lot more changing.
I believe we need to learn to embrace different tactics alongside this one. If we don't, this sorry story will just keep repeating itself until no one cares anymore.
By writing so harshly, I don't mean to put down the efforts of those who pushed this bill. In fact, I admire them very much. I truly just want to know what's next, and if that hasn't been thought about, then we all had better start.