Judge upholds Montana's free-roaming bison plan

2013-01-07T16:09:00Z 2013-01-07T18:42:25Z Judge upholds Montana's free-roaming bison planThe Associated Press The Associated Press
January 07, 2013 4:09 pm  • 

BILLINGS — Montana's decision to let migrating bison roam freely across 70,000 acres outside Yellowstone National Park was upheld by a court ruling Monday that dismissed a pair of lawsuits challenging the policy.

District Judge E. Wayne Phillips issued a 78-page ruling siding with state officials and conservation groups that have sought to ease restrictions on bison movements.

Thousands of bison flood out of Yellowstone during severe winters. In the past, the animals were subject to mass slaughters over fears they could spread the disease brucellosis to livestock.

The slaughters were blocked by former Gov. Brian Schweitzer two winters ago after cattle numbers declined outside Yellowstone and federal officials reduced the penalties for states that have brucellosis outbreaks.

But when hundreds of bison were allowed to return to the Gardiner Basin, local officials said they posed a threat to safety and destroyed private property.

Park County and groups representing ranchers sued the state in 2011 with a pair of lawsuits that sought to keep bison out of the basin.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs argued the animals were a threat to public safety and their presence outside the park increased the risk of disease.

In his ruling, Phillips acknowledged the plaintiffs' struggles with bison, but said those were an unavoidable consequence of living in Montana with its abundant wildlife.

State officials "do not have a statutory duty to ensure that no harm is incurred by a Montana resident by a wild animal," he said.

He added that damage done by bison to fences and other private property in the Gardiner Basin "does not rise to the level of an interference that is both substantial and unreasonable."

A lawyer representing conservationists who intervened in the case said 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. "After decades of hazing and slaughtering bison ... the state saw there was a better way forward."

Park County Attorney Brett Linneweber said the plaintiffs have 60 days to decide whether to appeal to the Montana Supreme Court.

But Linneweber said it was "nonsensical" to believe more bison in areas where people live would not pose a danger to the public. He also criticized the state for disregarding more acceptable alternatives, such as transporting bison that leave the park to American Indian reservations.

He warned that the expansion of the bison's range will continue regardless of local community concerns.

The state has advocated relocating some Yellowstone bison to reservations and public lands, and last year moved a small batch of the animals to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in eastern Montana. Those efforts have been fiercely fought by ranching groups and others.

Linneweber said he would have to confer with the county's co-plaintiffs, the Montana Farm Bureau Federation and Park County Stockgrowers Association, before deciding whether to appeal.

Farm Bureau president Bob Hanson said in a statement that his group was disappointed in the ruling. Hanson called on the state Legislature to act on the issue "to protect Montana's livestock industry."

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

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(4) Comments

  1. Ten
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    Ten - April 09, 2013 11:38 pm
    I like the judge's common sense statement that if you live in an area with wildlife (this could really be any rural area and even some suburbs) the state is not obligated to prevent any harm from it. Wildlife is part of the world just like water and the sky are. And of course the irony to consider is that bison are part of what makes Montana special. Adjustments in living might be possible such as when we all learned you have to have bear-proof trash containers.
    It seems like cattle ranchers want to have free roaming cattle over vast swaths of land without any of the dangers or competition that were historically present on that land. This is sad when we look at the historic range of bison. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_bison#Hunting).
    I would occasionally eat a free range bison burger to support farming that fosters the natural use of the land (where bison thrive many of the other native plants and animals also thrive). But I don't eat meat in general (yes i'm a vegetarian) in part because the ranching industry has taken such a hard line against nature. Maybe meat should cost a little more because ranching should have to deal more cooperatively with native species. Meat consumers would be OK. And the government shouldn't be paying to get rid of native animals nor conspiring against them.
  2. DM
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    DM - February 17, 2013 7:16 pm
    Bison are an important part of Montana's culture and bring tourists to the state. They have always existed always migrated in winter. Migration routes need to be established that permit them to move outside the boundaries of the park. There were many more bison than exist today so I would not say their are too many. Bison can be very positive to Montana if handled positively.
  3. Reader14
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    Reader14 - January 08, 2013 7:06 am
    The idea of transporting excess bison from the park to Indian reservations is just another case of "not in my backyard". Conservationists want the bison to "roam free", just so long as they aren't tearing down their fences, eating their pasture forage, mingling with their animals, trampling their yards, etc.

    Residents in and around the reservations also have fences, pasture forage, livestock and pets, and yards.

    For years, the bison issue has been contentious, but no one wants to consider the obvious solution. The park can only sustain a certain sized bison population due to forage availability and parasite/disease control.

    Once the sustainable population size is determined, round up the excess animals and have an auction, with the proceeds split to whatever agency is responsible for managing the project and to the State general fund. The animals “belong” to everyone, so the proceeds should be given to everyone.

    The auctioned animals could be used to create/expand other herds throughout the US, or slaughtered (by the buyers) for the meat, hides, heads, etc.

    The idea of slaughtering animals is repugnant to many, but unless one is a vegetarian, the meat on their plate comes from some animal, whether it is bison, elk, deer, beef, pork, poultry, lamb, etc.

    Let’s be realistic.
  4. steeline
    Report Abuse
    steeline - January 07, 2013 9:55 pm
    Here is a heads up. The Yellowstone Bison will be listed as endangered as sure as I am writing this comment. The buffalo problem from the park will just be spread over a larger area. It will cost millions to manage them and to fight with the "antis" in court. The buffalo issues are just a money tree for those organizations who fight resonable solutions that are proposed with unreasonable demands. Just mark my words. We bit the dust again.

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