BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A Montana judge on Tuesday turned down a request that he intervene in the transfer of dozens of Yellowstone National Park bison to the tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.
But the rejection from Judge John McKeon addressed only procedural issues, prompting bison opponents to resubmit their request late Tuesday and ask McKeon to order the animals back to the Yellowstone area.
Tribal officials said they plan to keep the 62 newly-arrived bison in a 2-acre holding corral for several months. Then they will be moved to a 2,100-acre pasture with an 8-foot fence.
The reservation’s Assiniboine and Sioux tribes had intended to use a larger pasture with a shorter fence. But the tribe said it decided last week to build a taller fence to address concerns bison could escape and cause property damage or mingle with cattle.
“That’s to please people,” said Robert Magnan with the Fort Peck Fish and Game Department. “They use these scare tactics about all the problems buffalo have caused but the buffalo don’t do it. They’ve got to realize there are 56 buffalo ranches in the state of Montana. There’s no problem with them.”
The state on Tuesday released the agreement under which it transferred the animals to the tribe after several requests from The Associated Press, and after the AP already obtained a copy of the document through opponents of the transfer.
The agreement states that if bison leave the Fort Peck Reservation, state officials or local landowners could be permitted to kill them. If the bison leave repeatedly and the tribe does not reimburse any damages, the agreement allows the state to take back the animals.
Also, the state will retain ownership of 25 percent of the animals’ offspring, with the option of transferring those animals elsewhere to start yet more herds in the future.
The bison will be tested periodically for five years to ensure they are not carrying the disease brucellosis. They already spent several years in quarantine near Yellowstone to protect against the disease.
The relocation of wild bison to the arid, agriculture-dominated Fort Peck Reservation along the Missouri River marks their return to the area for the first time in decades. The Great Plains once hosted millions of bison before they were driven to near-extinction in the 19th century.
Unlike most of the approximately half-million bison in the U.S., Yellowstone’s animals are considered genetically pure and have not been interbred with cattle.
But the move was fiercely contested by ranchers and ranching groups, some state lawmakers and several property rights groups that helped finance a lawsuit to stop the transfer.
Monday’s relocation of the animals took place with no prior notice and in a significant snowstorm as officials sought to avoid a possible court injunction in a lawsuit filed by opponents.
“This whole thing was a rush project start to finish,” said Cory Swanson, the opponents’ attorney. “The plan is supposed to be public. We’re supposed to have public comments. None of the public notice provisions were met.”
However, the prospects are uncertain for Swanson’s renewed request for a temporary restraining order that would return the animals to the Yellowstone area. Fort Peck Chairman Floyd Azure said the state no longer had jurisdiction over the animals and they were “here to stay” on the reservation.
The agreement between Fort Peck and the state allows for half of the 62 bison to be transferred to the tribes of the Fort Belknap Reservation. That could happen later this year, tribal officials have said.
Originally, 68 bison were slated for Fort Peck. Several died, including one that Magnan said was trampled during Monday’s shipment.
Another group of Yellowstone bison that could be transferred to public or tribal lands is being held on a ranch near Bozeman owned by billionaire Ted Turner. The animals were put into Turner’s care when state and federal officials failed to find anywhere to place them after several proposed locations ran into opposition.
Turner will get to keep most of the animal’s offspring when those animals are moved, although it is uncertain when that could happen. Sarah Elliot, a spokeswoman for Gov. Brian Schweitzer, said there were no immediate plans for the bison.