A judge has ruled that wild bison do not become livestock just because they have been held in quarantine.
In a follow-up to last summer's Montana Supreme Court ruling allowing disease-free bison from Yellowstone National Park to be transported to reservations, Blaine County District Judge John C. McKeon ruled that the bison remained wild even though they'd spent years in quarantine to ensure they didn't carry brucellosis.
Therefore, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, not the Department of Livestock, retains authority over the animals.
Starting in 2011, the Citizens for Balanced Use had challenged the authority of FWP to transport bison to the Fort Peck and, later, the Fort Belknap reservations under a Montana law that required the approval of surrounding landowners before wild bison could be brought onto public or private land.
Last June, Chief Justice Mike McGrath ruled that tribes were sovereign entities, so reservations didn't count as public or private land and landowner approval was not required.
In the ruling, he also commented that the bison had been in quarantine for several years and therefore were arguably not “wild buffalo or bison.”
The attorney for Citizens for Balanced Use seized upon that comment, claiming that the Department of Livestock should have authority over quarantined bison because they are no longer wild. The Department of Livestock would probably limit or stop any shipments of Yellowstone bison.
That would have created a significant change, especially now that FWP has recently announced that it would be accepting applications from those interested in taking the remaining bison that were part of the first quarantine feasibility study. Those bison are currently on the Green Ranch belonging to Ted Turner.
A recent scientific paper dubbed the quarantine process a successful method for producing brucellosis-free Yellowstone bison, creating the potential to export more park bison in the future.
A number of tribes and organizations want to own Yellowstone bison because of their fairly direct relationship to the plains bison of the American West. The park's founding population hadn't experienced much hybridization with cattle.
Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso, who represented Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Federation in opposing the Citizens for Balanced Use argument, didn't know if CBU would appeal the ruling. But challenging the chief justice over his own comment could be difficult.
“This ruling rightly discredits what amounted to a stealth attack on future efforts to restore wild bison in Montana,” Preso said. “Wild bison are classified as wildlife under Montana law. Now it is time to restore wild bison as wildlife on the Montana landscape.”
More bison transplants worry the Citizens for Balanced Use.
CBU spokesman Chuck Denowh was surprised at McKoen's ruling but didn't know if CBU would appeal.
“They should be livestock – it's the letter of the law,” Denowh said. “There are groups out there that want to restore bison to public land. We don't want to see landowners be forced to play host to bison that they don't want. Some are restoring bison on private property and that's working. Why reinvent the wheel?”