BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — The relocation of Yellowstone National Park bison to tribal lands in Montana can resume, under a Wednesday ruling from the state’s Supreme Court that could revive a stalled conservation initiative for the animals.
Government-sponsored efforts to return the burly animals also known as buffalo to parts of their historic range after they were wiped out decades ago had been on hold since last year.
That’s when a lower court sided with ranchers and property rights advocates who wanted to block any transfers of the animals.
Montana wildlife officials moved more than 60 bison to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation last year. Critics said the move was illegal under state law, and argued that 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 the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed by the group Citizens for Balanced Use on behalf of northeastern Montana ranchers and property owners.
He later issued an order blocking state wildlife officials from arranging future transfers of Yellowstone bison.
But in Wednesday’s ruling, six justices on the state’s high court came down on the side of the state, which had argued that the law in question did not apply to bison moved to tribal lands.
Conservation groups that intervened on behalf of the state said the ruling will allow relocations to resume, including most immediately the transfer of several dozen bison to the Fort Belknap Reservation.
Bison once numbered in the millions on the Great Plains and played a central role in American Indian life, providing meat for food, and pelts for clothing and shelter. The animals also feature prominently in many Native American religious ceremonies.
Robert Magnan, Fish and Game director for the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, said he hoped Wednesday’s ruling will allow the tribe to increase the size of its small bison herd. The best prospect for that is to get some of the animals now being held on the state’s behalf by Ted Turner, on a private ranch near Bozeman.
Those bison spent several years in government-run quarantine, just outside the park, to make sure they were free of brucellosis. The disease can cause infected cattle to abort their young.
“We’re hoping we can start working with Yellowstone to get other (bison) out of their quarantine,” Magnan said. “It’s a good, positive way of moving buffalo, not only to tribal lands, but there are other places in Montana that would be ideal.
For the members of the tribes, Magnan added, bison meat provides a healthier source of protein than beef. That could help reduce obesity and bring down the high rate of diabetes for those on the reservation, he said.
Representatives for the plaintiffs in the case did not immediately respond to requests for comment.