Ranchers question legality of Montana bison move

Mar 23, 2012

Sixty-four bison from Yellowstone National Park were shipped almost 500 miles to northeast Montana’s Fort Peck Reservation last week under a controversial relocation initiative meant to repopulate parts of the West with the animals.

A recently signed agreement between the state of Montana and Fort Peck Indian Reservation prompted landowners to try and stop the movement, to no avail. District Court Judge John McKeon disregarded their request for a temporary restraining order to stop the move.

Helena, MT, attorney Cory Swanson said moving the animals without public notice following years of controversy was a “sneak attack.” Swanson said they would be asking the judge for an order to send the animals back to the Yellowstone area.

The bison slated for the move were loaded on a truck last week, just days after Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) signed a contract which outlined the protocol for transferring the bison from the Turner Ranch near Bozeman onto Fort Peck Reservation.

But missing from the plans was any type of public notice that, according to landowners and ranchers, is required. The transfer came in the middle of a snowstorm and with no prior public announcement as state and tribal officials sought to avoid a courtroom battle with ranchers worried about bison competing with cattle for grazing space.

In addition to the grazing concerns, brucellosis is also at the top of the discussions and ranchers say it is just a matter of time before the bison demolish fences and ruin pastures.

According to reports, the animals were captured leaving the park during their winter migration and tested extensively to make sure they were free of brucellosis.

State Sen. Rick Ripley, a Wolf Creek Republican and plaintiff in the landowners’ lawsuit, said the move was in defiance of a law passed last year that required officials to come up with a statewide bison management plan before moving the animals.

“They just seem to think they are above the law,” Ripley said. “They’re going to have a lot of problems with damage to private property that they could have addressed prior to translocation.”

Gov. Brian Schweitzer aide Mike Volesky said the new law requires a management plan specific to transferred bison, not a statewide plan.

To the ire of many ranchers, the move is drawing support from Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. “This transfer marks a significant step forward in our collective efforts to conserve bison and expand their range to historic tribal and public lands across the western part of America, and it fulfills the tribes’ longstanding desire to reintroduce Yellowstone bison to their reservation lands. I applaud the state of Montana and the Fort Peck Indian Tribes for reaching a solution that meets the needs of all parties and will lead to greater bison conservation for our country. Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs will continue to provide support as necessary to help the tribes manage these animals, and we remain strongly committed to working collaboratively with Gov. Schweitzer and the state of Montana to achieve successful and effective bison management moving forward,” Salazar said in a statement.

The Montana Stockgrowers Association (MSGA) disagrees. “MSGA is disappointed to learn of a deal being signed between Fort Peck and the state of Montana for the relocation of bison without any of the concerned parties having the opportunity to review the agreement before action was taken. Bison management and bison relocation is a top priority for MSGA. During the 2011 Montana Legislature, we worked hard to ensure the passage of SB 212, which requires FWP to adopt a management plan before bison are translocated anywhere in the state of Montana. MSGA members also passed policy in 2011 declaring that MSGA opposes bison relocation, but should the state decide to proceed

with a relocation proposal, it should adequately reflect the intent of SB 212. It is unfortunate that this deal was done without the opportunity for more local input and due process. We have requested a draft of the agreement signed from the state of Montana to review on behalf of the ranching community, especially to ensure that all elements of SB 212 were addressed and disease monitoring protocol are followed. MSGA leadership met with the concerned landowners involved in litigation on this issue on Feb. 29 in Chinook to discuss concerns of the Fort Belknap relocation proposal. We will remain very much engaged in this issue moving forward, especially to address private property rights concerns of our members and to evaluate the next steps in MSGA’s actions.”

Schweitzer described the move as a major step in efforts to restore Yellowstone’s genetically pure bison across a larger landscape.

“This is where we’re going to establish the beachhead of genetically pure bison that will be available as their numbers grow to go to other reservations and other public lands all across the West,” Schweitzer said.

Fort Peck Chairman Floyd Azure responded last Monday night by saying that the state has no jurisdiction now that the bison are on the reservation.

“Now that they’re here, they are here to stay,” Azure said.

Salazar has said further Yellowstone bison relocations are under consideration for public lands in Colorado, South Dakota and elsewhere. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor