Montana court says bison are not livestock
By Summit Voice
FRISCO — A Montana district court judge this month rejected yet another attempt by ranchers to block the restoration of bison in the northern plains. The ranchers sought to have wild bison classified as livestock rather than wildlife, but Montana District Judge John McKeon ruled last week that wild bison are wildlife under state law — regardless of their confinement in quarantine.
A legal classification as livestock would have transferred jurisdiction over quarantined bison from the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks to the Montana Department of Livestock—a move that threatened to impede any future efforts to restore native bison as a wildlife species in appropriate portions of their historic habitat.
“This ruling rightly discredits what amounted to a stealth attack on future efforts to restore wild bison in Montana,” said Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso, who represented Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Federation in opposing Citizens for Balanced Use’s argument. “Wild bison are classified as wildlife under Montana law. Now it is time to restore wild bison as wildlife on the Montana landscape.”
“Judge McKeon has now validated the obvious,” said Defenders of Wildlife program director Jonathan Proctor. “Just because wild Yellowstone bison were moved to a different location doesn’t make them any less wild. These bison were moved specifically to start a new wild herd and are managed as wildlife. This victory will enable wild bison recovery to continue on willing locations in Montana – such as the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Reservations.”
“For decades, the National Wildlife Federation has worked with tribes and conservation partners to restore wild bison to tribal and public lands,” said Garrit Voggesser, NWF’s tribal partnerships director. Yesterday’s ruling confirms NWF’s longstanding commitment to bring wild Yellowstone bison back to their rightful home on the Northern Plains.”
At issue is a long-running effort to restore bison as part of Montana’s natural and cultural landscape, where the great shaggy beasts long played a central role in the life of Native Americans. Under a Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks plan, genetically pure and disease-free bison are being transferred from Yellowstone National Park to Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Native American lands.
The Yellowstone bison are probably most closely related to the buffalo hunted ancestrally, said Rob Magnan, director of the fish and game program for the Fort Peck tribes.
“Through that whole 135 years there’s been a big gap. At one time, buffalo was our one-stop shopping center,” Magnan said, explaining that the restoration offers cultural, traditional and economic benefits for Native Americans.
Huge bison herds wandered the Great Plains and Rockies for ages, numbering at least 30 million, but they were hunted to near extinction in the late 1800s. Montana was among their last strongholds, but the slaughter persisted. By 1903 only about 25 animals remained in the wild, in the Pelican Valley of Yellowstone National Park.Since then, Yellowstone’s wild bison population has rebounded to approximately 4,000 animals, and Montana wildlife officials continue to consider plans to transplant some of these wild bison to the species’ historic plains habitat.
Yellowstone is the only place in the United States where bison have lived continuously since prehistoric times. Yellowstone bison are exceptional because they comprise the nation’s largest bison population on public land and are among the few bison herds that have not been hybridized through interbreeding with cattle.