Bison management may be the most complex natural resource issue for Yellowstone National Park and its neighbor states.
Disputes about preserving, containing and slaughtering bison will continue for the foreseeable future.
But last week, the Montana Supreme Court settled one significant bison controversy and injected a refreshing measure of rationality into what has become an emotional debate on all sides.
In a unanimous opinion written by Chief Justice Mike McGrath, the court threw out a district judge’s injunction that barred the Fort Peck Tribes from transferring about 60 brucellosis-free bison to the Fort Belknap Tribes.
Judge John McKeon had granted the injunction on March 22, 2013. It was sought in a lawsuit brought by Citizens for Balanced Use, a group that includes Valley County commissioners, United Property Owners of Montana, Missouri River Stewards and several individuals.
McKeon based the injunction on a Montana statute that says Yellowstone National Park bison are a species requiring disease control and that the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks “may not release, transplant or allow wild buffalo or bison on any private or public land in Montana that has not been authorized for that use by the private or public landowner.”
Ruling on tribal lands only
However, the seven Supreme Court Justices found that the law did not apply because: These disease-free bison had been quarantined in captivity for five years, were not “wild” by the statute definition, and that the law does not prohibit transfer to tribal lands.
Furthermore, although McKeon found the bison were “disease prone,” in fact, they are disease-free and will continue to be tested, McGrath wrote.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Jim Rice noted that during floor debate on the bison law, the House sponsor said the measure “would have no effect on the tribe’s ability to receive buffalo from the (FWP) department.”
These animals were transferred from quarantine pastures north of Yellowstone to Fort Peck only after FWP and the tribal government agreed on a memorandum of understanding specifying standards for appropriate fencing to contain the herd and requiring prompt response to any incidents of bison escaping the fencing.
A similar agreement and precautions will have to be in place with the Fort Belknap government before it can receive bison.
In the 2013 Legislature, several attempts were made to prevent bison from being located in Montana or to be shot when they enter the state. The anti-bison campaign has reached the ridiculous level of zero tolerance for any of these ungulates.
The bison was life for the native peoples of the Northern Plains before the species was virtually wiped out with rifle hunting in the 19th century. The Yellowstone bison survived as a wild herd with pure bison DNA — no domestic cattle genes. For that reason, they are valued by conservationists, bison ranchers and, most especially by Native American groups who want to restore traditional culture, including healthy diets, to their community members.
FWP is working on a long-range bison management strategy that could allow bison to be relocated to state wildlife management areas or other public lands. The plan is due by late 2015. Meanwhile, thanks to the Supreme Court ruling, Montana tribal governments can have the opportunity to start genetically pure bison herds. This unique, disease-free Yellowstone resource can be used for the benefit and enjoyment of many more people.