Bison one step closer to free-roam in Montana

Jan 11, 2013

The state of Montana last week came one step closer to reverting back to the ancient days of free roaming bison. While the move has some groups claiming a win for the entire state, ranchers are discouraged with the move.

District Judge E. Wayne Phillips upheld a court ruling, siding with state officials and conservation groups, last week agreeing to let migrating bison roam freely across 70,000 acres outside Yellowstone National Park.

Phillips’ 78-page ruling dismissed a pair of lawsuits challenging the policy that allows the bison more movement. The challenge came from Park County residents and ranchers, including Montana Farm Bureau Federation (MFBF), the Park County Stockgrowers Association (Stockgrowers) and Park County, hoping to keep the animals in the park.

Bison moving out of Yellowstone during the winter months is not a new phenomenon, but it´s one ranchers have been dealing with for several years. Thousands of the animals migrate out during the winter into the Gardiner Basin, causing what the plaintiffs claim is not only a livestock health concern, but also a public safety concern.

But according to Phillips’ ruling, these concerns are simply the unavoidable consequences of living in Montana with its abundant wildlife.

According to Phillips, state officials “do not have a statutory duty to ensure that no harm is incurred by a Montana resident by a wild animal.” He also added that the damage done by the animals to private property, including fencing, was not at a level he considered unreasonable.

“To impose a duty upon FWP that would require them to ‘control’ bison in a manner that prevents them from engaging in behaviors that damage property and cause harm is a legislative responsibility, not one of the Courts,” according to Phillips ruling. But ranchers in the area disagree.

In addition, the brucellosis factor was not a big concern in the ruling, despite local ranchers’ pleas.

“The state and federal governments have managed the bison outside of Park County and kept them off of private property in Montana for more than 100 years. The court’s opinion would seem at first glance to suggest it is now permissible for the state to release diseased animals onto private property,” Bob Hanson, MFBF president, said.

“The Montana Farm Bureau Federation is extremely disappointed in the Court’s determination that the state of Montana’s release of hundreds of bison, infected with a disease that is listed on the bio-terrorism agent list, onto thousands of acres of private property, does not violate state law,” he added.

“Obviously, by this ruling, bison management has again become a very important issue for the Montana Legislature to consider in order to protect Montana’s livestock industry,” Hanson said.

A lawyer representing the conservationists in the case told reporters that the ruling was crucial to efforts to make more room for the animals outside the park.

“This was a key test of the question of will Montana make room for bison,” said Tim Preso, an attorney for the group Earthjustice.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman Ron Aasheim said the ruling was a victory for the state.

Hanson disagrees. The judge’s decision pivoted on the idea that the bison are wildlife, but Hanson contends that they are a managed species, not wildlife.

Mainstream media has been quick to follow the case, with reports that the two largest ranchers in the area had chosen to stay out of the lawsuit. While their names are not directly on the lawsuit, the ranchers in question are, in fact, involved via membership with the organizations that filed the suit. Hanson points out that most ranchers don’t have the money to spend on a lawsuit of this magnitude, so they team up with organizations. “That’s why we are here,” Hanson said.

Surprised at the outcome, Hanson said MFBF will continue to pursue a bison management plan.

The controversy extends beyond the park area. Last year, on the opposite end of the state, a herd of bison was moved to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in eastern Montana.

Vicki Olson, member of the Phillips County Livestock Association, told reporters, “I am opposed to free roaming bison because of all the problems we would have with private property rights and also disease problems. Management or lack of is the real problem.”

Sighting non-profit land purchases as a major threat to a potential free-roaming bison population, Olson believes bison need to continue to be managed as livestock. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor