Opponents of a plan to relocate 68 wild bison filed a lawsuit Wednesday seeking to stop the transfer of the animals to Fort Belknap and Fort Peck Indian reservations.
The plaintiffs contend 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, state Sen. Rick Ripley, R-Wolf Creek.
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 their young, was for many years the primary argument for preventing Yellowstone bison from roaming freely outside the park.
But the property owners' lawsuit warns of the possible damage that can be inflicted by the animals when they get onto private land.
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.
On Fort Belknap, Kirby King, central services administrator, said they had heard of the lawsuit and were “working out ways diplomatically to make sure there are no issues. ”
Fort Belknap’s Community Council Gros Ventre-at-large member Mike Fox said he understood the concerns.
“In the last couple years, with the severe winter conditions they walked over the pasture over the fence and it took a while for us to get them back in, ” Fox said. “But we’re taking some steps this year to alleviate that. We’re working on the boundary fence to minimize the possibility of them getting out. ”
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 finalized.