In a unanimous decision last week, the Montana Supreme Court overturned a District Court ruling that prevented the movement of Yellowstone bison from the Fort Peck Reservation. This clears the way for about half of the bison to be taken to the Fort Belknap Reservation, which was the original plan when 61 bison were brought north last spring after five years’ quarantine and testing for brucellosis.
In his opinion, Chief Justice Mike McGrath clarified one of the chief objections behind the lawsuit that sought to restrict the placement of the bison. He stated that having been “reduced to captivity,” these bison were no longer wild animals.
For ranchers, this is an important distinction. Someone is responsible for a domestic animal if it strays where it doesn’t belong and causes damages to fences, crops or haystacks. The memorandum of understanding between Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has provisions for the kind of fencing the tribes were required to provide for the bison and the prompt response necessary if they escaped. What the ranchers fear is a wild, free-roaming herd of bison that no one is allowed to remove from private or leased federal land.
Both Fort Peck and Fort Belknap already have bison herds, which have not caused any controversy. The tribes have wanted to acquire Yellowstone bison because they are supposed to be genetically pure, free of any cattle genes.
The Supreme Court said that the transfer of the bison is legal and set aside Judge John McKeon’s injunction made in March of 2012. The court said the law the ruling was based on does not prohibit transfer to tribal lands.
Transferring the bison to other homes is one way to deal with the problem of a too-large Yellowstone herd that leaves the national park in search of better grazing. There was a public outcry when hundreds were slaughtered in an attempt to prevent their mingling with cattle herds. Bison and elk can both carry brucellosis, a disease that can cause pregnant bison, elk and cattle to abort their young.
FWP spokesman Ron Aasheim has said that additional transfers of bison to non-tribal lands will not be made until a long-range bison management plan is completed, due by the end of 2015.
The Valley County Commissioners were parties in the lawsuit against moving the bison, but they joined for another reason.
The commissioners were not consulted on the plans to bring in the bison, which they considered an important intrusion into the local area that they administer. State law requires “cooperation and consultation” with local governments, but it hardly ever happens. The Valley County Commissioners make this objection and assert their right to cooperation and consultation whenever they can.
In this ruling, their issue was not a factor in the Supreme Court’s decision at all.
“I am disappointed with the bison decision,” said Commission Chairman Dave Pippin.