A Gallatin County district judge ruled that billionaire Ted Turner can keep his Yellowstone National Park bison calves.

Three weeks ago, District Judge Holly Brown dismissed a lawsuit brought by bison advocacy groups against the Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks for the agreement FWP made with Turner to take care of some disease-free bison.

The agreement allowed Turner to keep 75 percent of the bison offspring born during the five years he agreed to care for the bison on his ranch.

Brown said the Legislature has given FWP broad decision-making authority, especially in the management of bison, and “the court cannot substitute its judgment for that of the agency by determining whether the department’s decision was correct.”

The petitioners claimed that FWP violated the public trust in giving disease-free Yellowstone bison to a private person who could use them for private gain. The petitioners include Western Watersheds Project, the Buffalo Field Campaign, the Gallatin Wildlife Association and the Yellowstone Buffalo Foundation.

Under the public trust doctrine, which applies nationwide, the state has the responsibility to manage and maintain resources like water and land for public use and future generations.

Brown wrote that the petitioners did not support their case.

FWP attorney Zach Zipfel had argued during the March 29 hearing that FWP was held to the laws written by the Legislature, and those laws incorporated the public trust to the extent that it could be codified.

He also said the public trust duty with respect to wildlife has not been recognized by the Montana Supreme Court and is not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution.

Brown cited other cases that show the courts look to statutes before common law and in this case, statutes exist.

Brown said the plaintiffs’ only supportable case would have been a challenge of FWP’s evaluation process under the Montana Environmental Policy Act. But they chose not to.

FWP had carried out a process where they requested bids from other parks and agencies and found none that could care for the bison under the specifics of the proposed agreement.

FWP changed the agreement when Turner became a possible applicant but still followed through on the process.

Brown said her decision was just a matter of law. Some of the other arguments that the petitioners presented were not hers to decide.

“The simple truth is that management of Yellowstone bison is no easy task, from either a logistical standpoint or a public relations one. Yellowstone bison arouse great passions from individuals and groups across the spectrum,” Brown wrote. “There are no simple, easily applied answers to the issues involved in the management, protection and conservation of bison located in the GYA.”

The groups haven’t indicated if they will appeal Brown’s decision.

Laura Lundquist can be reached at 582-2638 or llundquist@dailychronicle.com. Follow her on Twitter at @llundquist.

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