The U.S. Supreme Court has decided not to hear arguments involving Montana's 2000 game farm initiative, known as I-143, effectively ending all constitutional challenges to the case.
By not considering the appeal by game farm owners, the Montana Supreme Court decision stands, in which the justices decided 4-3 that the initiative did not constitute a "taking" of property and that the ranchers weren't due any compensation.
In June, several elk farmers asked the U.S. Supreme Court to issue a "writ of certiorari" that would have brought the case before them. That request was denied in a list published on Tuesday.
I-143 has been upheld in state district courts, federal district court, the 9th Circuit of Appeals and the Montana Supreme Court.
State officials said they are pleased that the dispute has been resolved.
"This ends the saga of litigation over that initiative," Bob Lane, chief legal counsel for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks said on Thursday. "This was the last legal issue remaining."
Chris Tweeten, chief civil counsel for the Montana Department of Justice and the lead attorney for the state on the game farm cases, added that it was gratifying to have the courts vindicate the state's initiative process.
He said the three cases that remain in Montana district courts should wrap up quickly.
"The Montana Supreme Court's decision - from December of last year - should resolve the other three cases still in district court and we are taking the steps necessary to dismiss these other cases," Tweeten said.
Art Wittich, a Bozeman attorney who represented game farm owner Len Wallace, said he's disappointed with the decision to not hear the case, and that he felt they had some strong arguments to present. Wallace has since sold his ranch and moved to Idaho.
"The Montana Supreme Court had a split decision on this and it took them two years to decide it," Wittich said. "We thought there were some good constitutional questions that were raised, but obviously it didn't make the cut.
"… Suing the government is always tough, and I think we gave it a good effort, but it's over."
Kim Kafka, owner of the Diamond K Ranch in Havre and one of the plaintiffs in the case, also was unhappy with the outcome. He still feels as though he was robbed by the people who drafted the initiative and that they misled the voters.
"The people who crafted the initiative admitted to intentionally crafting it to take away people's livelihood and not pay them for it," Kafka said. "I thought honor and truth, science and the facts would prevail. Unfortunately, the people (who wrote the initiative) got me the first time, but they won't get me again."
He added that while the court's decision may wrap up this part of the issue, he's still talking with his attorney about possible other ways to address the issue of game farms. He's still in operation and sells his livestock to out-of-state entities, like restaurants or other farms.
"So I'm still in operation, but I used to be able to generate thousands of dollars for my hometown" in revenues from hunters coming to shoot elk at his ranch, Kafka said. "I'm still generating income, but it's not for my town."
The initiative, passed by 51 percent of Montana's voters in November 2000, was aimed at phasing out alternative livestock ranches - mainly, farms where elk were raised - by prohibiting all new game farms and the shooting of livestock for any type of fee. Existing game farms are allowed, but their licenses can't be transferred to anyone else.
Since the initiative, about half of Montana's 90 game farms have gone out of business.
One of the reasons for the initiative came from hunters who feared the elk raised on the farms could escape into the wild and mate with Rocky Mountain elk, producing unwanted hybrids. There also were concerns that elk in enclosed areas could be more susceptible to chronic wasting disease, and pass that to wild elk.
But Kafka said his operation, which is one of the largest in the state, was vigilant in testing the elk and fencing them.
"I put a lot of time into it," he said, noting that FWP referred to his ranch as "the ones that did it right."
Still, Craig Sharpe, executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation, was pleased to hear of the court's decision.
"We are just thrilled," Sharpe said. "The people of Montana have spoken, and the law was upheld in every case where it was challenged."
Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or firstname.lastname@example.org