Bison in court

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A recent decision by the Montana Supreme Court settled an objection brought by landowners and multiple-use groups against Fish, Wildlife and Park’s transfer last year of bison from a government facility to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. The court determined that the transfer was, in fact, legally done. More significantly though, the court’s decision clarified a central question in the bison issue: When bison are captured and placed into a Quarantine Feasibility Study facility, they can no longer be considered wildlife.

In the opinion supporting the court’s unanimous decision, Chief Justice Mike McGrath zeroed in on the legal definition of “wild bison,” pointing out that when wild bison have been “reduced to captivity,” they no longer fit that definition. To McGrath, this issue was fundamental to the case because the law at the center of the dispute only applied to wild bison.

It may seem like a minor distinction, but McGrath’s important clarification is very welcome news to Montana landowners concerned about proposals to establish wild, free-roaming bison herds in Montana.

The fact that Yellowstone Park bison that have been captured and placed in quarantine are no longer considered wildlife means that some entity is responsible for them. If they stray from the property they’re supposed to be on, it’s clear that property owner is responsible for bringing them back. Equally important, that property owner is liable for any damage those animals may have caused.

The opposite is true for animals classified as wildlife. Property owners who have their land damaged by wild bison would have no legal recourse to seek compensation for that damage. And it’s unclear who might be responsible for removing wild bison from property that they are not supposed to be on.

Montana law also specifically prohibits placing on public land domestic animals that have been exposed to dangerous diseases, like brucellosis. Because Yellowstone Park bison that have been placed into quarantine lose their classification as wildlife, it appears likely this same law would apply to them as well, which reduces the risk that livestock and wildlife might come into contact with brucellosis.

The court’s decision was a win for both sides. FWP may resume transfers of quarantined Yellowstone Park bison to Montana to Indian tribes or private entities that establish Quarantine Feasibility Study facilities. As long as the animals transferred are not considered wildlife, and as long as the property owner receiving those animals agrees to take responsibility for them, then Montana landowners have nothing to object about.

For landowners, the decision settles the biggest ambiguity in the bison debate, and provides important protection against the threat of wild, free-roaming bison herds.

This is likely not the last chapter in the dispute over bison—out-of-state environmental groups with very deep pockets have made it their mission to impose a wild bison herd in eastern Montana, with little care to what it would do to Montana agriculture. But the court’s decision is an important step forward for those of us in the middle who are attempting to find real solutions to protect property rights, prevent the spread of brucellosis and bring better management to Yellowstone Park’s bison herd.

Chuck Denowh

Policy Director

United Property Owners of Montana

Helena

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