A few months after District Court Judge John McKeon forbade the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks from moving bison from Yellowstone National Park to Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, the bison’s fate is again heading to the Blaine County Courthouse.
At 10 a. m. Friday, McKeon will hear arguments over whether FWP was in contempt of court in moving the bison at all.
This hearing will be the latest development in a series extending back to the 1990s, when the state set up a program to study bison populations in Yellowstone for brucellosis infection, with the eventual goal of moving bison proven to be healthy to other parts of the state, to strengthen the population of a species that once covered the state.
The first batch of healthy bison were moved to a private ranch owned by Turner Enterprises a few years ago.
The trouble began when the second cohort of 60 bison in the study was set to be moved from the research facility in Corwin Springs to Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Indian reservations.
A lawsuit was filed last winter by a group of plaintiffs, mostly ranchers surrounding the reservations and politicians, claiming that FWP failed to fulfill the requirements of a law passed during the most recent legislative session, in the spring of 2011.
The defense argued in April that the requirements to have plans and public comment both do not apply to agreements with sovereign Indian nations and requirements were fulfilled anyway through a memorandum of understanding with the tribes and a series of public meetings and comment submissions.
When the bison were moved in March, while the lawsuit was still pending, from Corwin Springs to Fort Peck, with the hope of taking half the herd from Peck to Belknap, the move was done somewhat hastily.
FWP Bureau Chief Ken McDonald spent the most time on the stand in April explaining that the bison needed to be moved quickly, or they would have been required to wait until pregnant bison gave birth and the young were a few months old, which would have meant a wait until late autumn at least.
The plaintiff ranchers felt that the sudden move had more to do with trying to move all the bison before a court injunction would have forbidden them. They felt it was dishonest and sneaky, so they filed a motion claiming the move put FWP in contempt of court.
Friday’s hearing is a “show of cause” hearing, in which both sides will argue whether or not the move was meant to get around the courts wishes or if it was for the health of the bison.
Either way, the bison herd waiting on Fort Peck are being held there by the injunction that went through shortly after they were moved. And though about half were bound for Belknap, none shall pass until the entire lawsuit is settled.
Ranchers have several concerns, aside from simply brucellosis. For one, they don’t believe that the tribal governments will be able to look after all the bison, at least not well enough to keep them from getting loose and damaging private property or stealing winter food meant for cattle.
Fort Belknap already has a commercial livestock bison herd, but the new bison would be free-roaming wildlife bison, under the supervision of FWP rather than the Department of Commerce.
Ranchers at the hearing in Chinook in April said it was that distinction that worried them. Commercial animals have more protections. If a wild roaming bison escapes onto private property, these ranchers are scared they will have no recourse, no way to protect their property or control the animal.
FWP assured these ranchers that provisions in the MOUs required upgrades to fencing and the addition of policies that would force the tribe to collect and return escapees promptly, or face the killing of trouble bison or even the confiscation of their entire herd.