A contingent of American Indians from the Fort Peck, Fort Belknap and Blackfeet reservations gathered in front of the George and Jane Dennison Theatre early on April 12. A series of passionate speeches were preceded by round drumming and flute playing. The message, summarized by Andy Werk Jr. of the Fort Belknap Tribal Council, was clear: “I came up here today to support the bison.”
Inside the theater, Ed Smith, clerk of the Montana Supreme Court, gaveled in the latest hearing in a legal challenge against a 2012 district court injunction forbidding the transport of wild Yellowstone bison from a new herd on Fort Peck to Fort Belknap. Attorneys for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the National Wildlife Federation and Defenders of Wildlife questioned the use of state statute in halting the relocation effort. Chad Adams, the attorney representing Citizens for Balanced Use, argued that the relocation of bison to Fort Belknap would threaten private property and violate a 2011 state statute barring release of bison on “public or private land”—a definition he claimed included tribal lands.
The district court ruled in its injunction that neither tribe was a necessary party in the action. Neither tribe has attempted to enter the case so far.
Near the end of Adams’ oral argument, Justice Mike Wheat responded to an assertion by Adams that the tribes were adequately represented before the district court. “So it’s your position that the state of Montana and these other independent agencies are in a position to represent the best interests of the tribes?” Wheat asked. The candor of Wheat’s question prompted the only audience outburst of the morning: A single audible laugh. “That’s certainly not true,” Adams replied.
Adams seemed to steer the argument of ranchers with Citizens for Balanced Use away from the ongoing concern over the spread of brucellosis and toward a concern over potential property damage. Several justices hammered the point through questioning that the bison currently on Fort Peck and designated for relocation to Fort Belknap have been certified brucellosis-free by both state and federal agents. Adams agreed, but stressed that the animals are still under a strict disease monitoring period with FWP through 2017.
“Because of the wildness of these animals,” Adams said, “they need a seven-foot bulletproof fence because they’ll be able to jump a lesser fence.”
After the conclusion of the oral arguments, Fort Peck bison manager Robert Magnan stood alongside Fort Belknap wildlife manager Mark Azure. Fort Peck celebrated the one-year anniversary of the arrival of the Yellowstone bison on March 19, Magnan said. “They haven’t broken out once.”