Things are still moving quickly in Helena. While we’re monitoring many bills which are nearing the end of the legislative process, there’s still time for new pieces of legislation to cross the starting line. We testified on 18 bills this week, two of which were new pieces of proposed law.

HB 478, Revise laws related to transferring wild buffalo or wild bison to tribal entities

Sponsored by Rep. Tyson Runningwolf, (D), HD 16, Browning

Brucellosis in the Greater Yellowstone Area has plagued the state of Montana and the livestock industry for a number of years. Brucellosis was once a widespread disease posing serious national and international concerns to trade, animal health and human health.  So much so, that in 1954 Congress approved funding and establishment of the Cooperative State-Federal Brucellosis Eradication Program. According to USDA-APHIS data, in 1956 there were 124,000 affected herds in the U.S. By 1992, the number was down to 700 with that number declining to single digits since then. It’s estimated that brucellosis caused more than $400 million in losses to the ag industry in 1954. If brucellosis eradication and control efforts were stopped, the costs of producing milk and beef nationally would increase by an estimated $80 million annually in less than a decade.

Implemented under the Schweitzer administration, the Designated Surveillance Area (DSA) allowed Montana to maintain our brucellosis free status through the establishment of strict testing protocols and surveillance. The cost of which has largely been borne by the livestock producers within the DSA who test sexually intact animals anytime they leave the DSA.

HB 478 provides exemptions to animal health permitting requirements for bison from Yellowstone National Park traveling to a tribal entity. First, the legislation would not require an animal health permit or a brucellosis free certification by the State Veterinarian if they were traveling to a tribal entity to undergo quarantine. The second provision exempts bison that originate from a national park or preserve from the standard health certificate requirement if the bison are being transported to an Indian Reservation in the state, unless the department can show evidence the animal is a risk to public health. The bill would also require that the carcass of any bison killed by the Department of Livestock must be donated to a tribal entity or charity. 

The exemptions to the animal health permitting laws are very concerning. While we support the quarantine process and working towards controlling brucellosis, allowing brucellosis positive bison to travel anywhere outside of the DSA compromises nearly two decades of time, money and resources spent on controlling this disease and protecting Montana’s ranch families.  Passage of this bill would almost certainly result in the creation of a second DSA in Montana costing the state and the agriculture industry millions of dollars. Exempting bison from health permitting if they come from another national park is also a threat to our livestock and state wildlife. While those bison may not be infected with brucellosis, it’s critically important to mitigate and test for other disease threats. The State Veterinarian has a duty to protect the livestock industry from disease threats, including those from wildlife.

Recognizing these concerns, Farm Bureau opposed HB 478 alongside a host of other ag organizations and individuals. 

HB 31, Revise fire assessment fees

Sponsored by Rep. Willis Curdy (D), HD 98, Missoula

In response to the 2017 fire season that included fires in all 56 counties of Montana, the Environmental Quality Council (EQC) endeavored to create a more equitable funding mechanism for fire-preparedness in Montana. HB 31 is the result of their efforts during the interim.  Unfortunately, the bill falls flat.

HB 31 redefines wildland to include all land outside the boundaries of an incorporated municipality. The bill then expands what was a voluntary assessment placed on wildland in the western side of the state to a mandatory fee assessed on all landowners across the state of Montana. It places a base fee per parcel on all land outside of cities and towns, while an additional fee would be placed if the parcel contains forested land or a dwelling. If passed, these fees would amass to one-third of the wildland fire protection preparedness appropriation or $6 million, whichever is less.   

While the intent of this bill may be to make the current fire funding system more equitable, it fails to accomplish that goal. The fact a landowner who has acquired 40 acres comprised of four 10-acre parcels will pay four times as much in wildfire preparedness fees as an adjoining landowner who owns one 40-acre parcel is a very clear example of this. Even so, assessing a fee by acreage disproportionately discriminates against Eastern landowners who arguably have a lower likelihood of fire on their land.

We continue to discuss the fact fire has become a statewide problem, yet cities and towns are excluded from the funding equation proposed in HB 31. This bill essentially creates an additional property tax assessed solely on rural Montana landowners, the same individuals that are already contributing their time and money into their local fire districts. Likewise, these funds would be used strictly for fire-preparedness purposes, such as firefighter training, equipment purchases, and fire detection and prevention. They would not aid in funding fire suppression efforts.  Disputably, rural landowners are already preparing their own property for fire.

Montana Farm Bureau recognized this and the many other inequities HB 31 creates and joined the list of opponents on March 20 in the House Natural Resources Committee. There were no proponents to the bill.