One step was taken, and another created, in the ongoing lawsuit between the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Hi-Line farmers, ranchers and politicians who oppose recent bison relocations.
The hearing in the Blaine County Courthouse Friday morning was scheduled to deal with a motion filed this spring by the rancher plaintiffs, represented by Helena-based attorney Cory Swanson, accusing FWP of contempt of court for knowingly moving bison as a temporary restraining order took effect.
Many Native American groups, including those at Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Indian Reservations, want bison on their reservations as part of their native culture and traditions, but many neighboring ranchers fear the animals will leave the reservation and eat their crops and damage their property.
By Friday morning, the ranchers’ motion included allegations of direct contempt, which would have involved knowingly violating the judge’s order.
Swanson pointed to a series of affidavits submitted by FWP as evidence that they moved the bison while knowing that they weren’t allowed to. He said that the affidavits being in official court evidence showed direct contempt.
District 17 Judge John McKeon pointed out that those affidavits had been submitted as a response to the original contempt motion. The files Swanson was trying to use in his complaint did not exist when he made the first complaint, the judge said.
McKeon decided that nothing the defendants at FWP had done was direct contempt.
The indirect contempt charge stems from the fact that FWP moved the last four bison to Fort Peck on the day the judge was signing an order barring the move.
McKeon pointed out that either party had the right to request that a new impartial judge look into the indirect contempt charges.
FWP’s attorney Rebecca Dockter made that request.
McKeon said he will let the Montana Supreme Court know, and the justices will appoint a judge who will schedule the necessary hearings.
Swanson said during the hearing that the intent of the original request was to have the bison that were sent to Fort Peck sent back to the research facility in Corwin Springs that had been raising them and testing them for brucellosis. That is apparently not an option any more, as FWP left the facility when their lease expired in May.
Now, FWP officials who were involved in the move could potentially face criminal misdemeanor charges.