Montana Supreme Court ruling clears way to restore bison on Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Native American lands

A buffalo grazing in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Decision has cultural and economic benefits for tribal groups at Fort Peck and Fort Belknap

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — A Montana Supreme Court ruling last week clears the way for the return of Brucellosis-free Yellowstone bison to Native American lands, where the animals are valued for their cultural, traditional and economic benefits.

The Supreme Court overturned a lower court decision following an appeal by two conservation groups, Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Federation, represented by the public-interest environmental law firm Earthjustice.

The transfer of Yellowstone bison to the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Native American lands was opposed by Citizens for Balanced Use, which voiced concerns that the bison might break free of enclosures and transmit Brucellosis to domesticated cattle.

“Today’s decision paves the way for the restoration of Montana’s wild bison to continue,” Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso said in a statement. “Wild bison are part of our history in Montana and now we can look forward to a future where they are a living, breathing part of our landscape as well.”

“This will let us pursue our goals and dreams to restore buffalo for cultural, traditional and economic benefits,” said Rob Magnan, director of the fish and game program for the Fort Peck tribes.

The Yellowstone bison are probably most closely related to the buffalo hunted ancestrally, Magnan said, explaining that the animals were absent from the tribal lands for 135 years before a restoration program began in 2000.

“Through that whole 135 years there’s been a big gap. At one time, buffalo was our one-stop shopping center,” Magnan said.

He explained that the buffalo, as a lower-fat alternative to beef, could offer a public health benefit for the Fort Peck tribes, where diabetes is a big problem. Buffalo are also an important part of the tribes’ cultural ceremonies and traditions, he added.

The Fort Peck tribe offered more detail in a submission to the Montana Supreme Court in support of the conservationists’ appeal: “The Tribes were finally successful — after a 130 year break in the historic relationship — in reuniting the descendants of the Assiniboine and Sioux people who survived the 19th Century with the descendants of wild bison who survived the bison holocaust of the same period.”

Last week’s court ruling allows a similar reunion of the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre people of the Fort Belknap Reservation with the descendants of the last wild bison.

The Yellowstone bison are part of a quarantine program that was developed by the state in response to concerns over the slaughter of Yellowstone bison that wandered outside the national park boundaries, Preso said.

The idea is to have a brucellosis-free seed stock for a more widespread restoration of bison the plains of Montana — but that program has become mired in politics, Preso said. As a result, the quarantine program is yielding bison that have no  place to go — that’s when the tribes of Fort Peck and Fort Belknap stepped up and said they would take the animals, he explained.

“This ruling will finally allow native bison to return home to new areas of Montana, including tribal lands at Fort Belknap,” said Jonathan Proctor, Rockies and Plains representative for Defenders of Wildlife.  “No one has worked harder to restore wild bison than Montana’s tribes who are paving the way for wildlife conservation across the state with their bold leadership.”

“Tribes and environmental organizations have worked together for over twenty years to restore bison to their rightful place on the landscape and within our cultural and environmental values,” said Garrit Voggesser, director of National Wildlife Federation’s Tribal Partnerships Program. “Wild bison belong on tribal and public lands, and the decision by Montana’s Supreme Court validates the public support for bison restoration to their historic range.”

More than 30 million bison roamed  the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains in the pre-settlement era, but were driven to the edge of extinction by market hunters in the late 19th Century.

Montana was one of the last strongholds, but the slaughter persisted until in 1903 only about 25 of the animals remained in the wild.  Those last wild bison were located in the Pelican Valley of Yellowstone National Park.  Since then, Yellowstone’s wild bison population has rebounded to more than 4,000 and Montana officials have developed plans to transplant some bison from the park to the species’ historic home on the plains.

To that end, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks in March 2012 released 61 bison for transfer to northeast Montana’s Fort Peck Indian Reservation.  That contingent included animals destined for further transfer to Fort Belknap, and those bison have remained in the custody of the Fort Peck Tribes during the state court proceedings.


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