Legal Status of the American Bison (Part 2)

The only states legally classifying and managing bison as wildlife are: Alaska, Arizona, Montana, Utah and Wyoming.  In Canada, only British Columbia and Saskatchewan have such laws and management practices. Montana may have the most explicit laws regarding the classification of bison.  But protecting livestock is the laws’ primary objective.  Montana classifies bison based on habitat, including commercial farms, private conservation herds and the wild.  It further considers the perceived risk of damage to private or public land or the transfer of disease.  Based on habitat type, the bison are then classified as either domestic livestock or game animal.  Bison qualifying as a game animal are defined as free roaming and held in the public trust [5].  Furthermore, bison are also classified as a species in need of management under the authority of both the FWP and the Montana Dept. of Livestock because of concern over the potential spread of disease to domestic cattle [6].  According to this statute, wild bison and bison originating from Yellowstone National Park fall under the authority of these two agencies.  Currently all wild bison in Montana originate from Yellowstone National Park.  The concern is not with the promotion of wild, free-ranging bison, but with inhibiting free-ranging bison over the fear of the spread of disease.  Since the livestock industry in Montana carries significant political clout, the hurdle to legally define and protect wild, free-ranging bison is high.

                Wyoming gives more latitude to the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission, which has the authority to “…designate individual bison or identified herds of bison as wildlife when the action is subsequently approved by the Wyoming livestock board” [7].   Again, though, the livestock interests directly affect the classification of bison.  To date, only the herds in the national forests and parks of Teton and Park counties receive the designation as wildlife.  Throughout the rest of Wyoming the bison are designated as livestock.

                To the east of Montana and Wyoming, North Dakota classifies bison as a domestic animal under non-traditional livestock regulations [8] .  The state does not manage a public herd.  The only existing public herds, Sully’s Hill National Game Preserve and Theodore Roosevelt NP, are managed by the USFWS (US Forest and Wildlife Service) and the NPS (National Park Service), respectively.  Furthermore, North Dakota does not have any proposals for further bison restoration.

                South Dakota, similar to Montana, classifies by location which defines whether the bison will be considered as livestock or wildlife [9].  Bison are viewed and managed as wildlife only within the Badlands National Park, Wind Cave National Park, Custer State Park and Bear Butte State Park. Outside of these areas bison are considered livestock. Additionally, South Dakota Title 41-17-1.1 (Game, Fish, Parks and Forestry) does not include bison in the definition of wildlife.

To the west of Montana and Wyoming, Idaho tells a similar story.  Idaho classifies bison as unprotected wildlife and domestic livestock [10].  Though the state lists bison as a species “…critically imperiled…and (sic) at high risk because of extreme rarity,” Idaho does not have any long term conservation goals for bison [11].

Other states such as Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas and Minnesota simply classify bison as livestock.  No legal definitions seem to exist in the statutes and codes of these states allowing for bison as wildlife.

In all of the cases regarding state laws, the primary objective puts livestock as front and center.  The legal definitions and procedures regarding bison are designed to, first and foremost, protect livestock.  Also, in many of the states bison are not even perceived as wild but only as livestock.  Legal perception, then, stands as a major obstacle. (Continue to part 3)