Opponents of a plan to relocate 68 wild bison filed a lawsuit Wednesday seeking to stop the transfer of the animals to two American Indian reservations in Montana.
The plaintiffs contend that Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks should be blocked from relocating the animals until the agency crafts a statewide bison management plan and conducts further environmental reviews.
The suit was filed in state District Court in Blaine County by a coalition of property owners, ranchers, public land access advocates and a state lawmaker. It alleges that bison can cause extensive property damage such as tearing down fences and eating hay intended for domestic cattle.
The bison slated for relocation to the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap reservations are being held in a government quarantine near Corwin Springs, just north of Yellowstone National park.
They were captured leaving the park during their winter migration several years ago and tested extensively to make sure they were free of brucellosis. That disease, which can cause pregnant animals to abort, was for many years the primary argument for preventing Yellowstone bison from roaming freely outside the park.
But the property owners' lawsuit puts greater emphasis on the possible damage that can be inflicted by the animals when they get onto private land.
To back up the assertion, the suit details $20,000 in alleged losses suffered by plaintiffs Dustin and Vickie Hofeldt, Blaine County ranchers whose property borders Fort Belknap. According to the suit, bison from a herd already on the reservation have escaped repeatedly onto the Hofeldts' property, trampling fences and depleting haystacks.
"The state needs to follow the laws set to protect landowners and our agriculture producers, not crowd more buffalo onto the range, which makes the problem worse," Dustin Hofeldt said in a statement released by the plaintiffs.
Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman Ron Aasheim said he had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment on it. But he said the 68 Yellowstone bison will not be moved until the state and tribes sign agreements detailing how the animals will be contained and what measures must to be taken to retrieve them if they leave.
Aasheim said there is no date for when those agreements might be completed.