BILLINGS — Montana's newfound tolerance toward wild bison is heading to trial as cattle owners and local officials seek to prevent a repeat of last year's mass migration of hundreds of the animals out of Yellowstone National Park.
State District Judge Wayne Phillips has been asked to settle a fundamental question: Are bison in Montana free-roaming wildlife, or should they be kept out to protect private property and public safety?
Deep snows last winter prompted more than a 1,000 bison to spill out of the park into Montana. Many were captured and released in the spring, but hundreds of the animals, also known as buffalo, for a time roamed at will in the 75,000-acre Gardiner Basin.
That appeared to mark an end to the state's longstanding practice of shooting or slaughtering bison that leave the park, which claimed almost 4,000 of the animals over the last decade. But now Park County and the Park County Stockgrowers Association want to revive restrictions on bison movement.
"I'm not anti-wildlife," said Joe Sperano, a 69-year-old member of the stockgrowers' group, who runs a small number of horses and cattle on his property north of Gardiner. "The buffalo are a different deal. There was never any problem with one or two. When we've got 30 or 40 coming through my place at my time they want to go through the fences, rub on my house, destroy my irrigation pipes."
Lawsuits filed by Park County and the stockgrowers would overturn an agreement between federal and state agencies that allowed the animals into the Gardiner Basin during winter.
The suits contend free-roaming bison destroy private property, threaten the safety of county residents, and increases the chances that a disease carried by the animals could be transmitted to cattle.
An initial hearing is scheduled for Wednesday in Livingston.
Attorneys for Gov. Brian Schweitzer and two state agencies are seeking to disqualify from the case one of the stockgrowers' attorneys, John Bloomquist, because he represented the state in past lawsuits over the animals. Hearings on more substantive issues were delayed pending a decision on that issue.
Even if Phillips sides in favor of the state on the larger question of allowing bison into Montana, Park County Attorney Brett Linneweber pledged in an interview that last year's migration will not be repeated.
"The county's not going to roll over and say there's nothing we can do about it," he said. "People have a right to be safe," he said. "There are steps we can take outside the legal arena, but we would prefer not to."
Linneweber declined to offer a further explanation.
Last spring, a Park County resident who claimed his dog was being threatened by bison shot and killed at least two of the animals and wounded several others. No charges were filed.
Researchers say herds totaling tens of millions of bison once roamed most of North America. At the turn of the last century, when the species had been nearly driven to extinction by overhunting, Yellowstone offered one of the bisons' last refuges.
The park's 3,500 bison now make up one of the largest wild concentrations of the animals in the world. But while they're clearly wild in the park — where careless visitors are ocassionally gored by the animals, the stockgrowers lawsuit challenges that status for bison that step into Montana and contends they should be managed differently than other wildlife.
An attorney for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks disputed the claim and said Montana law has classified bison as wildlife at least since 1995.
"They are, in the end, wild animals," said attorney Rebecca Jakes Dockter. "Sometimes you can predict what their behavior will be and sometimes you can't ... That's what you have to take along with the privilege of living with wildlife on our landscape."
Since the April agreement allowing bison into the Gardiner Basin, Dockter's agency has agreed to further study the issue before deciding what actions to take this coming winter. That will include an opportunity for public comment — something that was not sought before the agreement was reached.
Attorneys in the case say they hope to have the lawsuits resolved before bison resume their winter exodus from the park's mountains in search of food at lower elevations.
The pushback from Park County and the local stockgrowers mirrors resistance to a related effort by wildlife officials to relocate up to 160 Yellowstone bison onto state wildlife management areas or tribal lands. The animals were kept in quarantine for several years to make sure they were not carrying the disease brucellosis, and are temporarily being held on a ranch outside Bozeman owned by media mogul and philanthropist Ted Turner.
A decision on the relocation proposal is due next month.