Good News for Montana’s Bison!

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Bison gained ground in Montana yesterday when a state district court judge ruled in favor of allowing them room to roam out of Yellowstone National Park during winter months.

Western Watersheds Project and Buffalo Field Campaign intervened in a lawsuit on behalf of the State of Montana to defend wild bison against a litany of claims raised by the Park County Stockgrowers’ Association, the Montana Farm Bureau Federation, and Park County. The livestock interests sued state agencies involved in bison management after the state allowed bison migration into the Gardiner Basin north of Yellowstone National Park in spring of 2011.  Western Watersheds Project and other bison advocates welcomed the change as an important step in bison recovery because the bison naturally attempt to access the habitat in the Gardiner Basin, and scientists have indicated it is critical to the population’s long-term survival.

I was fortunate enough to witness the bison re-inhabiting the Gardiner Basin when I visited that spring to attend a public meeting about the proposed expansion area. It was such a treat to revel in the presence of the native bison without having to also witness the animals being harassed by agents with horses, helicopters, ATVs or snowmobiles!

Shortly after the state announced it would agree to allow bison to regularly migrate to and inhabit the Gardiner Basin, the livestock interests filed lawsuits challenging Montana’s authority to allow bison to exist in the state. Their claims ran the gamut of legal imagination, and each and every one was struck down in yesterday’s ruling. The court declared the state had acted within its authority to allow bison to migrate to their native habitat, and that living with wildlife like bison is simply part of living in a state like Montana.

Western Watersheds Project and Buffalo Field Campaign were jointly represented by Western Watersheds Project attorneys, including myself, and private attorney (and long-time bison supporter) Ted Fellman. Together, we were able to present the testimony of two Gardiner Basin residents who value and support the presence of wild bison in the place they call home.  Their voices were an important antidote to the complaints of the vocal minority that was and is the Stockgrowers’ Association and Montana Farm Bureau. Conservation groups Bear Creek Council, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, and Natural Resources Defense Council were also intervenors and were represented by Earthjustice, providing a strong show of support for the state’s position.

Thanks to everyone who helped America’s wild bison have more room to roam in winter!

Summer Nelson
Montana Director

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