BILLINGS — A Montana judge granted a restraining order Thursday blocking further relocations of Yellowstone National Park bison following objections from ranchers and property rights groups.
State District Judge John McKeon's order came after Gov. Brian Schweitzer's administration transferred 62 Yellowstone bison to the Fort Peck Reservation on Monday.
Four more bison were en route to the reservation Thursday. Opponents tried to get the shipment turned around, but state officials claimed the transfer started before the restraining order was issued. Officials suggested turning the bison around could be harmful to the animals, according to court documents.
Despite the new shipment, McKeon's ruling presents a significant stumbling block in the longstanding effort by tribes and agencies to reintroduce bison to parts of their former range.
Half of the Fort Peck animals were to be transported from a holding pen in coming months to the Fort Belknap Reservation. Another group of bison was being held temporarily on the Bozeman-area ranch of billionaire Ted Turner, awaiting future relocation to an undetermined location.
The judge blocked those transfers, at least for now, and turned down a request to return the animals to the Yellowstone area while setting a hearing for April 11 at the Blaine County Courthouse in Chinook.
Ranchers and others who filed a lawsuit seeking to halt the relocation program argue that wild bison damage fences, eat hay meant for cattle, and potentially could spread animal diseases.
Members of the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap tribes have pledged to keep the bison in fenced pastures for several years and monitor them for disease.
The 62 bison shipped to Fort Peck were moved without prior public notice and during a snowstorm — a maneuver by the Schweitzer administration and tribes that was meant to get the bison to Fort Peck ahead of a possible court ruling such as the one handed down Thursday.
Opponents of the relocation complained the tactic violated requirements under state law that the transfers be part of an open and transparent process.
Cory Swanson, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said Thursday's ruling was a huge victory and freezes the state's relocation program until the case can be heard by the judge.
"There's no more stealthy movement of bison anywhere. No more secret agreements that are not fully part of the process," Swanson said. "The trust factor is really low here and the judge recognized that."
Fort Belknap Game and Fish Department Director Mark Azure said the reservation hopes to get half the bison at Fort Peck by this summer, although that could be derailed if Thursday's restraining order is not lifted.
McKeon's restraining order was issued against Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and its director, Joe Maurier. Although the tribes are not named as defendants in the case, any future agreements between the tribes and state were put on hold by the order.
The Fort Belknap Reservation is located in north-central Montana and is home to the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre Indians.
Bison once numbered in the millions on the Great Plains and played a central role in American Indian life, providing meat for food, and pelts for clothing and shelter. The animals also feature prominently in many Native American religious ceremonies.
As the Fort Belknap tribes seek to reclaim that connection, Azure said the tribal officials have been working with neighboring ranchers to address their concerns over the animals.
Bison from a commercial herd on Fort Belknap have escaped in the past, raising tensions between the tribes and livestock producers after the animals ate hay and caused other problems.
Azure said the tribes intend to repay those who suffered losses but is waiting for an insurance adjustor to determine the damages.
"We've put that olive branch out I don't know how many times to say what happened in the past, we can try to right some of that stuff," Azure said. "The frustrating part is that we've reached out to these guys and for whatever reason they don't want to grab that branch."
Two conservation groups that have worked with the tribes, the National Wildlife Federation and Defenders of Wildlife, are seeking to intervene in the lawsuit. Jonathan Proctor, with Defenders of Wildlife, said Thursday that it was wrong for opponents of the transfers to interfere with efforts to restore bison to tribal lands.
"How can anybody want to relive the mistakes of our past and take the bison away from these tribes a second time?" Proctor asked. "These are tribal lands. For others to tell the tribes they can't restore bison to their land is unbelievable."