Landowners want Captured Bison Declared Livestock

October 18, 2013 07:13 AM

Landowners and others who opposed transferring Yellowstone National Park bison to Indian reservations in northern Montana have asked a state judge to declare that any bison captured outside the park should be considered livestock rather than wildlife.

The group Citizens for Balanced Use filed a brief on Sept. 16 arguing that bison captured and held in a quarantine program outside the park are no longer wild, the Great Falls Tribune reported Wednesday.

Other plaintiffs include Sen. Rick Ripley, Valley County commissioners and United Property Owners of Montana.

Their attorneys note that in a recent state Supreme Court ruling, Chief Justice Mike McGrath commented that bison being transferred to the reservations arguably are not "wild buffalo or bison" as defined in Montana law governing the Department of Livestock. They say the animals had been held in quarantine for years to ensure they did not have the disease brucellosis.

Attorneys for Earthjustice counter that if putting wildlife in captivity makes them livestock, it would be impossible to do any wildlife restoration.

Under an Interagency Bison Management Plan put in place in 2000, the departments of Livestock and Fish, Wildlife and Parks and other agencies are managing bison that wander into Montana from Yellowstone National Park.

Bison can carry the disease brucellosis, which can cause infected cattle to abort their young, so the Yellowstone bison were quarantined and repeatedly tested to ensure they did not have the disease and had not been exposed to bacteria that cause it.

In March 2012, about 60 bison were transferred from the quarantine area to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, with the plan that about half would be moved to the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation.

Citizens for Balanced Use and other groups sought to block both moves and obtained an injunction to prevent some of the Fort Peck bison from being moved to Fort Belknap. The bison are being held in fenced areas on both reservations.

The state Supreme Court overturned that injunction in June, saying a state law that applies when wild buffalo or bison are relocated to public or private land in Montana does not apply when they're being moved to tribal lands.

McGrath noted that under that law, wild buffalo or bison are defined as a bison "that has not been reduced to captivity and is not owned by a person" and argued those in quarantine might not be considered wild any more. But he noted the parties did not raise that issue and it was not considered by the District Court.

Citizens for Balanced Use attorney Chad Adams argues that under that definition, the animals being moved to the reservations are not wild bison because they have been held in captivity. He declined to say Thursday why the distinction was being sought.

Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso responded that the state law that gives the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks the authority to manage wild buffalo or bison originating from Yellowstone does not include a definition of "wild bison," and that the law would be meaningless if quarantined bison were considered livestock.

"This absurd outcome offers further reason to reject CBU's position," Preso wrote in a response filed Tuesday.

Preso notes that CBU's argument is "particularly ironic" because Ripley was the primary sponsor of the bill that requires FWP to work with the Livestock Department to manage the "wild buffalo or bison" originating from Yellowstone.

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