During Wednesday’s hearing, Cory Swanson, the lawyer representing ranchers, Valley County commissioners and state Sen. Rick Ripley, R-Wolf Creek, against Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, spent the day arguing that FWP was trying to speedily and quietly move bison onto the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Indian reservations. But FWP and its supporters say the process began more than 20 years ago.
In 2000, several agencies including FWP, the National Park Service, the U. S. Forest Service, USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the Montana Department of Livestock adopted the Interagency Bison Management Plan, “after 10 years of negotiations. More than 67,000 public comments were received and considered, ” according to the IBMP page on the FWP website.
The plan set up a multi-part pilot program to take two groups of bison from Yellowstone National Park, guarantee they are brucellosis-free and then give them to other groups that want to raise bison.
In Phase 1 of the plan, which started in 2004, 100 bison calves that would have otherwise simply been slaughtered were taken from Yellowstone. These bison were tested for brucellosis, and any that were found to have the disease were killed.
Half of the survivors that didn’t have brucellosis were killed anyway for further study and to extract tissue samples.
In phases 2 and 3, in 2005 and 2006, the remaining bison were raised and tests continued. FWP’s Wildlife Bureau Chief Ken McDonald said the female bison were all bred and during reproduction and birthing studied to see if hormone rush caused any latent brucellosis to emerge.
Phase 4 was to find where to put these bison that, according to McDonald, the FWP veterinarians are “super-confident” do not have brucellosis.
The first group was given to a private ranch called the Green Ranch, run by Turner Enterprises. The Green Ranch promised to hold the bison for five years, watching them for any new brucellosis development.
At the end of the five years, the Green Ranch will return all of the original bison and 25 percent of any new bison. The ranch will keep all of the remaining offspring.
For the other group, FWP received a few requests.
The bison were originally going to be sent to the Northern Arapahoe reservation in Wyoming, before the reservation voted to reject the transfer.
The new plan was to send the second group to Fort Peck and then transfer half of them to Fort Belknap, where they would be held in an 800-acre holding pen for three years.
In those three years, Belknap planned on selling off the commercial livestock bison they already hold and eventually releasing the Yellowstone bison to roam a larger portion of the reservation.
After last month’s temporary restraining order, that was upheld by 17th District Judge John McKeon at the end of Wednesday’s hearing, the bison that had been transferred to Fort Peck already have to stay there at least until a final decision is made in the next 30 days.
Swanson said that he and his clients do not want to stop the plan in total. They just want to make sure that neighboring farmers and ranchers have someone to hold accountable, should these bison cause any trouble.