Where the buffalo roam

An interesting land use and property rights dispute has arisen in Montana where the state began “allowing” bison to roam beyond the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park. State officials argue that bison are “free roaming animals that the state manages but cannot not control”. This is, of course, the case for other types of wildlife including deer, elk, bears and the like. The Montana Farm Bureau Federation is adamantly opposed to this new policy and has intervened in a case initially filed by Park County. The MFBF’s position is that bison are more akin to cattle than to deer or elk. They consider free roaming bison to be a threat to the property rights of their members.

Further complicating the politics of this issue is that one of the primary objectives of the new policy is to allow tribes in Montana to reestablish free roaming herds of bison on reservation land.

Traditionally wildlife in the United States is considered to be “owned” by all of us and held in trust by state and federal governments for their citizens. So what we have here is actually a collision of property rights – those of the private landowners on whose land the bison are roaming and those of the rest of us who have a collective ownership interest in the bison. Oftentimes these sorts of disputes are inaccurately described as an effort by government to regulate the exercise of private property rights.

As we have come to better understand the complexity and interrelatedness of ecosystems and the importance of them to human health and well being, these disputes are become more common. Those who support protection of public trust resources must be careful not to allow private property advocates to frame the debate as whether government has overstepped its regulatory bounds. Instead they must insist that the disputes be analyzed and resolved as conflicts between two sets of property rights.