Bison, © Aaron Huey / National Geographic Stock

Montana Supreme Court Hears Bison Case

Jonathan Proctor, Northern Rockies Representative 

Earlier this month, the Montana Supreme Court heard arguments from Defenders of Wildlife and others in a case that will have far-reaching impacts on the future of wild bison restoration across Montana.

Herding up

Bison herds, once a familiar sight all across the Great Plains, are making a triumphant return at Fort Peck Indian Reservation.

You may recall our participation last spring in the transfer of 61 wild bison to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, as well as the community celebration that followed. This marked the end of a 130-year absence of wild bison from these tribal lands, home to the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes. It was also the first restoration of genetically pure Yellowstone bison to the Great Plains.

But on the very day the bison arrived at Fort Peck Reservation, bison opponents asked a judge to order the removal of these wild bison. Yes, you read that correctly; bison opponents wanted a forced removal of wild bison from these tribal lands, as was done in the 1880s.

They didn’t get that wish, but they did convince the judge to stop any further wild bison restorations until a full hearing of the issue could be heard in his courtroom. This effectively stopped a planned transfer of half of these genetically pure bison to the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, 180 miles to the west, where the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre Tribes also planned to start a new wild herd. That move remains on hold.

Meanwhile, Defenders of Wildlife and National Wildlife Federation intervened in support of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (who approved the move), and appealed to the Montana Supreme Court to overturn the lower court’s decision.

The Montana Supreme Court heard this case last Friday in a large theater on the University of Montana campus in Missoula so that the public could watch the proceedings. Hundreds attended. Defenders joined with our tribal allies and a drumming group from the Fort Belknap Reservation in a gathering in front of the theater before the hearing to explain to the many reporters and attendees how vital wild bison are to restoring the human cultures and natural landscapes of the Great Plains. This gathering and the court hearing made headlines in newspapers, on television and on radio across the state.

Our attorney, Tim Preso from the Bozeman office of Earthjustice, did a spectacular job during the hearing, arguing that the court should reverse the lower court’s decision and allow bison restoration to continue. His last words made quite an impression on the crowd:

“The reason this case is important and has substantial public interest and the reason this court’s decision is important is highlighted in something the Fort Peck  Tribes wrote in their amicus brief where they described their own receipt of bison and said:

‘The Tribes were finally successful after a 130 year break in the historic relationship in reuniting the descendants of the Assiniboine and Sioux people who survived the 19th century with the descendants of wild bison that survived the bison holocaust of the same period.’

That’s why this case is important… and that’s why it’s important for this court to clear the way for the Fort Belknap Tribes to be able to enjoy that same reunion.”

We await the Supreme Court’s decision.

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