A bison crosses the Firehole River at sunset in Yellowstone National Park. (Photo courtesy National Park Service) Credit: National Park Service

HELENA — Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton said Wednesday that Gov. Steve Bullock’s veto of a bill tightening the state’s legal definition of “wild bison” was invalid over a paperwork error that kept the veto paperwork from reaching the secretary’s office for weeks.

The office of Bullock, a Democrat, called Stapleton, a Republican, “confused” and insisted a gubernatorial veto becomes effective at signing regardless of the subsequent administrative process. That leaves the status of the would-be law unclear.

“Governor Steve Bullock vetoed HB132 (a bill clarifying the definition of ‘bison’) on April 29th after the Legislature had adjourned, but failed to deliver the bill to me within 10 days. Therefore, HB132 has become Montana law,” Stapleton tweeted Wednesday.

Secretary of State Office Manager Susan Ames said Stapleton’s office didn’t receive the HB 132 veto until May 22 — nearly a month after legislative records indicate it arrived at the governor’s desk.

“The governor is required to make presentment to the official record keeper (SOS) within 10 days,” she wrote in an email. “A veto becomes effective upon receipt by our office.”

Raph Graybill, Bullock’s Chief Legal Counsel disputed that interpretation. “The Constitution is clear — the veto is effective when the governor’s pen touches the paper,” he said.

According to the governor’s office, the HB 132 veto document was transmitted to the House clerk’s office with a bundle of other veto letters April 29, four days after the Legislature adjourned. The other veto letters were delivered to the secretary of state’s office without incident, but Bullock’s staff say the HB 132 document wasn’t transmitted until after secretary of state staff discovered it was missing from their files in May.

“Governor Bullock received the bill on April 25 and vetoed it on April 29, within the ten day deadline he has to act on a bill. The legislature was notified on the same day and posted the veto letter on their legislative website,” Bullock spokeswoman Marissa Perry said via email. “The only person who seems to be confused that HB 132 was vetoed is Secretary Stapleton.”

Montana’s State Constitution specifies that bills passed by the Legislature become law without the Governor’s signature if he hasn’t signed or vetoed them within ten days of receipt. His office is required to return vetoed bills to the Legislature with official explanation or, after the Legislature has adjourned, send materials for bills that require a veto override to the secretary of state who then polls lawmakers by mail.

Section 10. Veto power. (1) Each bill passed by the legislature, except bills proposing amendments to the Montana constitution, bills ratifying proposed amendments to the United States constitution, resolutions, and initiative and referendum measures, shall be submitted to the governor for his signature. If he does not sign or veto the bill within 10 days after its delivery to him, it shall become law. The governor shall return a vetoed bill to the legislature with a statement of his reasons therefor.


(4) (a) If the legislature is not in session when the governor vetoes a bill approved by two-thirds of the members present, he shall return the bill with his reasons therefor to the secretary of state. The secretary of state shall poll the members of the legislature by mail and shall send each member a copy of the governor’s veto message. If two-thirds or more of the members of each house vote to override the veto, the bill shall become law.


The Republican-sponsored HB 132, which passed on party lines, tightens Montana’s legal definition of wild bison in a way that could change how herds are managed around, among other places, Yellowstone National Park. Montana ranchers have worried for years that free-roaming bison could spread the disease brucellosis to their stock.

Bullock’s April 29 veto memo, posted to the Legislative website, argues that the bill could jeopardize conservation efforts and hunting programs by reclassifying Yellowstone bison as domestic livestock.

“If it becomes law in its current form, HB 132 will create an unacceptable level of confusion and uncertainty around bison management,” Bullock wrote.

Bullock is seeking the 2020 Democratic nomination for U.S. President and Stapleton has announced a candidacy for Governor. Additionally, Graybill is running for Attorney General.

UPDATE, May 31: The governor’s office said in a press release that it had filed suit in state district court in Helena against the secretary of state’s office, arguing Secretary Stapleton overstepped his constitutional authority in ignoring the HB 132 veto.

According to documents provided by the governor’s office, Gov. Bullock received a temporary restraining order preventing the secretary of state from including the bill in the collection of laws passed by the 2019 Legislature while the litigation moves forward.

Eric came to journalism in a roundabout way after studying engineering at Montana State University in Bozeman (credit, or blame, for his career direction rests with the campus's student newspaper, the Exponent). He has worked as a professional journalist in Montana since 2013, with stints at the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network before joining the Montana Free Press newsroom in Helena full time in 2019.