Helena, MT — The Montana Supreme Court today cleared the way for the return of wild bison to their historic prairie habitat on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, reversing a lower court ruling that had blocked state plans to transfer bison to the Fort Belknap tribes for more than a year.
Today’s ruling from Montana’s highest court came in response to an appeal by two conservation groups, Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Federation, represented by the public-interest environmental law firm Earthjustice.
“Today’s decision paves the way for the restoration of Montana’s wild bison to continue,” said Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso. “Wild bison are part of our history in Montana and now we can look forward to a future where they are a living, breathing part of our landscape [sic] as well.”
The conservationists’ appeal asked the Montana Supreme Court to allow state wildlife officials to move ahead with a plan to transfer to north-central Montana’s Fort Belknap Reservation approximately 30 wild bison originally moved from Yellowstone National Park. A state court judge issued a preliminary injunction in May 2012 that blocked that bison transfer in response to a lawsuit filed by Citizens for Balanced Use. Today’s Montana Supreme Court ruling overturns that decision and voids the lower court’s injunction, allowing the Fort Belknap bison transfer to proceed.
“This ruling will finally allow native bison to return home to new areas of Montana, including tribal lands at Fort Belknap,” said Jonathan Proctor, Rockies and Plains representative for Defenders of Wildlife. “No one has worked harder to restore wild bison than Montana’s tribes who are paving the way for wildlife conservation across the state with their bold leadership.”
“Tribes and environmental organizations have worked together for over twenty years to restore bison to their rightful place on the landscape and within our cultural and environmental values,” explained Garrit Voggesser, director of National Wildlife Federation’s Tribal Partnerships Program. “Wild bison belong on tribal and public lands, and the decision by Montana’s Supreme Court validates the public support for bison restoration to their historic range.”
Once numbering approximately 30 million across the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, wild bison were almost driven to extinction by market hunters in the late 19th century. Montana was among their last strongholds, but the slaughter persisted until in 1903 only about 25 of the animals remained in the wild. Those last wild bison were located in the Pelican Valley of Yellowstone National Park. Since then, Yellowstone’s wild bison population has rebounded to more than 4,000 and Montana officials have developed plans to transplant some bison from the park to the species’ historic home on the plains.
To that end, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks in March 2012 released 61 bison for transfer to northeast Montana’s Fort Peck Indian Reservation. That contingent included animals destined for further transfer to Fort Belknap, and those bison have remained in the custody of the Fort Peck Tribes during the state court proceedings.
In addition to its importance for wildlife conservation and restoration, the return of wild bison to reservation lands has tremendous cultural significance for Native American people. As the Fort Peck Tribes explained in a submission to the Montana Supreme Court in support of the conservationists’ appeal, “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 who survived the bison holocaust of the same period.” Today’s court ruling allows a similar reunion of the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre people of the Fort Belknap Reservation with the descendants of the last wild bison.