BILLINGS, Mont. - The relocation of Yellowstone National Park bison to tribal lands in Montana can resume, under a ruling today from the state's Supreme Court that revives a stalled conservation initiative for the animals.
Bison, also known as buffalo, once numbered in the tens of millions across North America, before overhunting drove them to near-extinction. Government-sponsored efforts in Montana have the potential to return the burly animals to parts of their historic range, but had been on hold since last year.
That's when a lower court sided with ranchers and property rights advocates, who sued to block further transfers of the animals after Montana wildlife officials moved more than 60 bison to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.
Critics said the move was illegal under state law. They argued wild bison damage fences, eat hay meant for cattle, and potentially could spread animal diseases to livestock.
In March of 2012, state district Judge John McKeon sided with plaintiffs and issued an order blocking future transfers of Yellowstone bison. The move effectively halted the restoration program.
In Wednesday's ruling, state high court justices came down on the side of the state, which had argued that the law in question did not apply to tribal lands.
Chief Justice Mike McGrath wrote in a 16-page opinion that the relocation program was a "reasoned and viable" alternative to past practices involving Yellowstone bison. Those have included the wholesale slaughter of thousands of bison in the name of disease control when the animals crossed into Montana during their winter migrations.
A representative of the plaintiffs said the ruling guts the Montana Legislature's attempt last session to allow public input into the bison relocation process. Chuck Denowh with United Property Owners of Montana said the group is not strictly opposed to relocating bison but wants to inject transparency into the process.
Last year's relocation, during the administration of former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, came with little prior notice.