BILLINGS – A Montana judge granted a restraining order Thursday blocking further relocations of Yellowstone National Park bison following objections from ranchers and property rights groups.
State District Judge John McKeon’s order came after Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s administration transferred 62 Yellowstone bison to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation on Monday.
Four more bison were en route to the reservation Thursday. Opponents tried to get the shipment turned around, but state officials claimed the transfer started before the restraining order was issued. Officials suggested turning the bison around could be harmful to the animals, according to court documents.
Despite the new shipment, McKeon’s ruling presents a significant stumbling block in the long-standing effort by tribes and agencies to reintroduce bison to parts of their former range.
Half of the Fort Peck animals were to be transported from a holding pen in coming months to the Fort Belknap Reservation. Another group of bison was being held temporarily on the Bozeman-area ranch of billionaire Ted Turner, awaiting future relocation to an undetermined location.
The judge blocked those transfers, at least for now, and turned down a request to return the animals to the Yellowstone area while setting a hearing for April 11 at the Blaine County Courthouse in Chinook.
Ranchers and others who filed a lawsuit seeking to halt the relocation program argue that wild bison damage fences, eat hay meant for cattle, and potentially could spread animal diseases.
Members of the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap tribes have pledged to keep the bison in fenced pastures for several years and monitor them for disease.
The 62 bison shipped to Fort Peck were moved without prior public notice and during a snowstorm – a maneuver by the Schweitzer administration and tribes that was meant to get the bison to Fort Peck ahead of a possible court ruling such as the one handed down Thursday.
Opponents of the relocation complained the tactic violated requirements under state law that the transfers be part of an open and transparent process.