Judge to hear arguments on bison relocation


?AP Photo/Janie Osborne, file

Bison roam outside Yellowstone National Park in Gardiner on March 17.

A skirmish in the fight for Hi-Line grazing is set to take up most of the day in Chinook's Blaine County Courthouse on Wednesday.

Starting at 10 a. m., and lasting an anticipated four hours, both sides of the debate over moving bison herds to Fort Peck Indian Reservation will offer their arguments in front of state District Judge John McKeon, who ordered the hearing last month.

The hearing is the result of a restraining order filed by several Hi-Line ranchers, Valley County commissioners and state Sen. Rick Ripley, R-Wolf Creek, all represented by Helena attorney Cory Swanson, who are worried about property damage they say they have suffered from bison that already live on neighboring reservation land.

Many of the ranchers live closer to the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, which is not involved directly in the transfer, but would eventually take on some of the bison headed for Fort Peck.

Now they want to stop the state government from shipping any more bison to the Hi-Line from Yellowstone National Park, or at least for the government to be less secretive about the moves that they claim violate transparency rules.

The restraining order was filed against Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and its director Joe Maurier.

Although the Indian reservations, Fort Belknap and Fort Peck, are not named as defendants in the order, the bison moves are as much about their cultural preservation as the strengthening of the bison population, as both are so linked.

According to John Doran from the Attorney General's office, FWP will be represented in Chinook on Wednesday by its chief counsel Rebecca Jakes-Dockter.

In the response brief filed earlier this week, Jakes-Dockter wrote that the basis of the complaint was invalid because the process has been plenty documented.

"The public, including the counties bordering both Fort Peck and Fort Belknap reservations, has had numerous and ample opportunity to be involved in the quarantine study since its inception, " Jakes-Dockter's brief says. "In addition, the Commission … conducted a public comment period to discuss the very issue that is the subject of this suit, " followed by an Internet address where people can find a recording of the discussion.

At Wednesday's hearing, McKeon will decide whether or not to grant a preliminary injunction, preventing FWP from moving any more bison until the full case is heard in court later this year.

(The Associated Press contributed to this story.)


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