Montana’s Reservation Bison Uproar in Review



In December, the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission voted unanimously to go forward with a proposal that would move 68 Yellowstone National Park bison to the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Reservations.  The approval to move bison to the tribal lands came after the area was evaluated in an environmental assessment (get details here) and a series of public meetings was held.  While the Commission had given the project the go-ahead, an agreement still legally needed to be signed between FWP and the tribes.  While not clearly defined, some aspect of public participation was expected as that was developed.

Monday’s “Quiet” Movement of 64 Bison

Word broke last Monday, March 19, that Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks (FWP) and the Fort Peck Tribe (FPT) had signed a “Memorandum of Understanding” (read the full MOU) that would allow for the movement of Yellowstone National Park bison from a holding pasture near the Park to the Fort Peck Reservation.  While the documents were signed on Friday, March, 16, there was nothing done to publicly announce the movement.

That actual physical transfer of the bison was already cued up and ready to go on Monday.  The Associated Press reports they were told that the date of the shipment was kept quiet until the process was underway “to avoid a court injunction.”

Where’s the Management Agreement?

With ink reportedly on paper on Friday from both FWP and FPT, interested parties were making phone calls left and right to get a copy of the signed MOU.  Northern Ag Network first obtained the document Tuesday morning after hearing from FWP that it could not be released publicly until both signatures were on the same document.  Allegations arose that, with this MOU being so protected, FWP had broken the law under Senate Bill 212.  Passed during Montana’s 2011 legislature, SB212 (read it here) requires that a management plan be present before wild bison or buffalo can be released or transplanted onto private or public land.

Lawsuit, Temporary Restraining Orders, and a Court Date

After the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission approved movement of bison to the reservations in December, a lawsuit was filed in January to stop it.  The plaintiffs, a group of landowners, property rights advocates, and county commissioners, contended that FWP should be blocked from relocating the animals until the agency crafted a statewide bison management plan and conducted further environmental reviews.

When one of the plaintiffs was alerted Monday to the bison movement by a reporter, they immediately called their lawyer.  A temporary restraining order (TRO) was filed that day to halt the in-progress movement of the bison.  Law enforcement was also lined up along one northern Montana county to stop the trucks.  However, they were not successful in tracking the trucks down and the bison were delivered to the Fort Peck Reservation on Monday evening.  It is expected that roughly half of these bison could be transferred to the Fort Belknap Reservation later this year pending an agreement with FWP.  The judge never responded to the TRO on Monday and an attorney for the plaintiffs was told later that it was denied due to “technical reasons.”

A second temporary restraining order was applied for and, on Thursday, March 22, it was granted by Judge McKeon of Blaine County.  It stated (read full order here) that the bison would stay put, not be comingled with other livestock or bison, and that FWP could not enter into any similar agreements on bison relocation in the near future.  A court hearing was scheduled for April 11 in Chinook.

Restraining Order Granted, More Bison Moved

While the temporary restraining order was granted Thursday morning, Cory Swanson, an attorney for the plaintiffs, was notified of the transfer of more bison taking place on Thursday.  A “Notice to the Court” (read it here) was filed by Swanson outlining that there were notified after noon on Thursday that four more bison had been shipped from the Corwin Springs quarantine area to the reservation.  In response to phone calls and attempts to get the truck(s) turned around, the Defense Counsel “responded that FWP was unable to do that because the truck(s) were under the control of Ft. Peck Reservation personnel and/or federal employees of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), and that FWP did not have the authority or control to turn the truck around.”

Waiting Game

With last week’s stir of activity, it appears that things will remain relatively calm on the bison relocation front until the April 11 court hearing in Chinook.  Citizens for Balanced Use, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against this bison movement, does have two public meetings scheduled on Friday, March 30 in Chinook (get details here) to discuss the current happenings and the idea of bison relocation as a whole. 


© Northern Ag Network 2012

Haylie Shipp


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