In a decision that the uninitiated would argue is a painful exercise in stating the obvious, a Montana court last week determined that the wild bison of Yellowstone, an animal that has roamed the continent for millennia, are indeed wild animals. Wild bison have been a fixture of the North American landscape for at least 300,000 years, numbering 20-30 million strong, yet were driven to the brink of extinction in the late 1800s by overhunting and purposeful eradication to subjugate tribes who depended on them. This makes wild bison proof of what reckless human disregard can bring upon our fellow creatures, and of the fact that to many humans, creatures should be permitted to survive only if they conform to our notion of order and efficiency.
In the legal realm, the American bison is a curious outlier; privately owned and carefully tended in some cases, and publicly owned and roaming free in others. People often are unaware that bison still are considered wildlife in many states, and have populations whose numbers and health are managed by both wildlife management agencies as well as livestock managing agencies.
It is with this background that the Montana court was asked to address the question: What is a wild bison? A group called Citizens for Balanced Use led a legal challenge of the transfer of some Yellowstone bison to Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Indian reservations in the northern part of the state – a transfer that Defenders helped make happen as part of our participation in wild bison restoration programs. These bison, culled from the Yellowstone herd, had endured a long process of quarantine to ensure that they no longer carried brucellosis, a disease feared by stockmen because of its potential effects on cattle reproduction (though no case of cattle contracting this disease from bison has ever been recorded). With the goal of keeping wild bison from expanding anywhere outside of their tiny toehold on Montana soil near Yellowstone, Citizens for Balanced Use and others claimed that because the bison had been confined for a time, they were no longer under the jurisdiction of the state wildlife management agency, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and instead should fall under the state Department of Livestock, an agency that answers to the livestock industry and almost certainly would never have approved the transfer.
Defenders partnered with the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap tribal wildlife departments and the Montana wildlife department to help bring about the historic return of wild bison to tribal land in Montana, and we continue to work towards seeing bison more fully restored in their native habitat. Our groups, joined by Earthjustice and National Wildlife Federation, fought back against this legal challenge to wild bison restoration; wild bison belong on the plains of Montana, and simply confining a wild animal for a time in order to relocate it does not cause it to lose its wild nature. Last week, the court agreed with us! Wild bison will remain classified as “wildlife” under state law, regardless of their temporary confinement in quarantine. This means their reintroduction to other suitable locations in the state can continue.
What brought us to the point of needing the courts to declare wildlife as wild? We would never have reached this sad point except for the livestock interests in the Montana legislature who have been aggressively trying to legislate wild bison out of existence for the past six years. At the heart of this battle is a fundamental question: is there room in the world today for the still wild? Or will our wildlife be forced into smaller and smaller boxes in which they eventually are stripped of the roles they play in natural systems? Given the importance of this decision, the anti-wild and anti-bison forces will almost certainly be back in the Montana legislature next January, trying to confine wild bison, but for now the door remains open to recover bison as part of our natural heritage in Montana.
Steve Forrest, Rockies & Plains Senior Representative