What was scheduled to be a four hour court hearing before District Court Judge John McKeon turned into over seven hours of testimony. After the final recess, the Blaine County Judge walked from his chambers and announced that he hoped to have his decision made in 30 days.
At hand was a court injunction by the plaintiffs, a group of landowners, county commissioners, and property rights group, hoping to keep Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks from transferring the Yellowstone National Park (YNP) bison currently at the Fort Peck Reservation to anywhere else in the state. They are also hoping to keep Montana FWP from entering into more of these types of agreements. Originally the injunction had sought to also return all of the bison that were moved at the end of March back to the facility from which they came. However, Attorney for the Plaintiffs Cory Swanson told us that they were scratching that request for all bison but four after they realized how dangerous it was to transport the animals. The four bison that could still be moved are the animals that were part of a second shipment that took place after a temporary restraining order was granted. The plaintiffs also pulled part of the original injunction request that prevented comingling with other bison under the tribe’s management.
During testimony yesterday from Ken McDonald, Bureau Chief for the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Wildlife Division, the courtroom was notified that two bison were killed in the process of getting the animals loaded and shipped. A healthy dose of questioning from Attorney Cory Swanson was focused on why the animals that died did not undergo necropsies as called for in the Environmental Assessment. McDonald stated that there was an exception taken because USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) personnel at the scene did not think it was necessary.
For folks in the cattle business looking at photos of the movement published in the press, one question instantly surfaced. Why did they move the bison with pickups and trailers rather than a semi with a stock trailer? Also during McDonald’s testimony, we learned that the Fort Peck Tribe had the larger truck in place to move the bison. However, the facility that they were being moved from couldn’t accommodate it. With the Fort Peck Tribe then in a tough spot for access to smaller, heavy duty stock trailers, APHIS brought in trailers they had used in the past and Defenders of Wildlife paid for the fees to use them.
To the surprise of the Northern Ag Network, audio from our interview with Montana Governor Schweitzer was used as testimony in the case! His audio, explaining that they would amend the Memorandum of Understanding between the Tribe and Montana FWP to change the fencing requirements, was played before the whole courtroom. When the FWP’s McDonald couldn’t verify that it was Schweitzer’s voice that he was hearing, the Northern Ag Network’s Haylie Shipp was called up to testify in order to prove that this was the audio being played!
The over seven hours of testimony included discussions about the tribe being an “indefensible party” in the case, Montana Senate Bill 212 covering or not covering the movement, private and public lands that are within the bison pastures, fencing, brucellosis, and more. In his closing statement, Attorney Cory Swanson told Judge McKeon that it was not the plaintiffs’ contention that the tribes couldn’t or shouldn’t have the bison. However, he then told McKeon, it needed to be done in a way in which agreements were being followed, analysis was complete, and liabilities were guaranteed.
Up until the decision comes from Judge Mckeon, the temporary restraining order is still in place. This will keep Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks from entering into any agreement with the Fort Belknap tribe to move those bison until a decision from the court is made.
Northern Ag Network spoke with Cory Swanson after the hearing:
© Northern Ag Network 2012