FWP to appeal bison transfer injunction to MT Supreme Court

The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks has notified the state Supreme Court it will appeal a recent injunction blocking the transfer of 30 Yellowstone bison to a Montana Indian Reservation. FWP signed a memorandum of understanding with both the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Reservations regarding the transfer late last year.

The injunction comes largely from landowners bordering Ft. Belknap who do not think the tribe will manage the bison responsibly.

Kerry White serves on the board of the group Citizens for Balanced Use, one of the plaintiffs in this injunction. He wonders why FWP is appealing a 30-day injunction to the state’s highest court without letting District Court try the case first.

“This is just a simple injunction to hold them off for 30 days from putting free-roaming bison into northeastern Montana,” White said.

“There’s just more delay at the District Court,” Governor Schweitzer said, “and the consideration of law probably ought to just go all the way to the Supreme Court.”

These 60 genetically-pure bison originally wandered out of Yellowstone National Park. They have been found free of the disease brucellosis and so the state has kept them in quarantine for about 5 years—trying to figure out what to do with them. Officials penciled out the agreement to split the bison between Fort Peck and Fort Belknap last year.

Kerry White and the other plaintiffs sought the injunction because they worry about Fort Belknap. The reservation already has a commercial bison herd. White says photos from neighboring landowners show how those bison escape from poor fencing on Fort Belknap.

“Several times the tribe has been presented with damage bills, receipts from haystacks damaged, cropland damaged and the tribe has refused to respond to these requests from the landowners to be reimbursed,” White said. Landowners say sometimes these bills have run in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Fort Belknap officials did not return calls seeking comment.

But Governor Schweitzer says those problems are beside the point. Those are property battles between two private entities. The Yellowstone bison are in a separate category—a state matter. He asks the plaintiffs to look at the Memorandum of Understanding the state has signed with the tribe.

“It specifically lays out the kind of fencing that would need to be built and it lays out the fact that these bison will not be allowed to get out,” Schweitzer said.

The Yellowstone bison need to be kept separate from the tribe’s commercial herd. They need to be enclosed within electric fencing, not the barbed wire the tribe normally uses. Schweitzer says bison will not be moved to Ft. Belknap unless the reservation demonstrates they are following the agreement.

“The value of these genetics are worth way too much to allow these bison to be crossed with cattle or to be crossed with other bison that have cattle genetics in them,” Schweitzer said.

The 60 bison have already been moved to the Fort Peck Reservation, which already has the appropriate fencing and infrastructure to keep them. The plan has been to transfer the bison to Fort Belknap once that reservation installs their fences, ideally by this summer. But that move depends on the either the Supreme Court considering the injunction or sending it back to District Court for a ruling there.

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