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Bison Gain Ground in Court Ruling

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Bison Gain Ground in Court Ruling

From Buffalo Field Campaign
January 2013

Buffalo Field Campaign is heartened that migratory bison will have some room to roam their winter range in Gardiner Basin.

Petitioner Intervenors Buffalo Field Campaign and Western Watersheds Project Press Statement on Judge E. Wayne Phillips ruling Park County Stockgrowers Association v. Montana

"Buffalo Field Campaign is heartened that migratory bison will have some room to roam their winter range in Gardiner Basin," says Daniel Brister, Buffalo Field Campaign's executive director. "This case underscores how important local support is for migrating bison. Judge Phillips relied on that local support for bison in his ruling today - an important victory for bison wintering in Gardiner Basin."

"In this case, the plaintiffs represented a very vocal minority of livestock interests who tried to force the court to adopt their extreme position and prevent bison from occupying their native habitat in Montana," says Summer Nelson, Montana Director for Western Watersheds Project and one of the attorneys representing Western Watersheds Project and Buffalo Field Campaign who intervened in the Stockgrowers Association lawsuit. "The court saw through their arguments and wild bison finally prevailed over that narrow interest. This is an important ruling in favor of the majority of Montanans, who value native, wild bison."

Wild buffalo gained ground this week when a Montana district judge ruled in favor of allowing them room to roam in the Gardiner Basin of Montana during winter months. Judge Phillips' ruling upheld adaptive changes to the Interagency Bison Management Plan made by the state to expand the area where bison are allowed in Montana.

Buffalo Field Campaign and Western Watersheds Project intervened in a lawsuit filed against 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 during the severe winter of 2010-2011, when 1400 buffalo migrated into Gardiner Basin.

All ten counts of the complaint were thrown out by Judge E. Wayne Phillips in a major victory for wild bison.

Under the new changes, during winter and until May 1st, bison can occupy habitat in the Gardiner Basin on both sides of the Yellowstone River up to the ridge divide and Yankee Jim Canyon. This includes habitat on the Gallatin National Forest and on private lands where bison are welcome.

In his findings, Judge Phillips cited the testimony of local residents and Buffalo Field Campaign supporters Fred Baker and Scott Hoeninghausen as a factor in his decision to throw out the Stockgrowers complaint: "… many landowners and residents in the Gardiner Basin view the presence of wildlife, including bison, on and near their property as a significant factor contributing positively to their quality of life and the use and enjoyment of their property."

The testimony of Fred and Scott along with many others in the community who testified in favor of buffalo, were an important antidote to the complaints of a vocal anti-buffalo minority.

"This decision is a great one and I am honored that I got to participate," said Gardiner resident Fred Baker, "I am so happy to help the bison."

"It's a great day for buffalo," said Scott Hoeninghausen, also of Gardiner, " I absolutely love seeing buffalo in the area when they are not being harassed and are free to enjoy their life like they should."

Judge Phillips also found that the Stockgrowers "did not present evidence that any of their members faces an actual threat of brucellosis transmission to cattle due to seasonal bison occupancy of lands in the Gardiner Basin."

In his conclusion, Judge Phillips wrote "The Court emphasizes [sic] with the struggles some of the Petitioners' members have in encounters with bison, but as Rathbone (see last words, below) so eloquently stated that is "a consequence of living in Montana and with her abundant wildlife."

Incredibly, and for the first time, Buffalo Field Campaign stood with the State of Montana, including the Montana Department of Livestock (DOL), during these proceedings. The DOL, signatory to the controversial Interagency Bison Management Plan, uncharacteristically though justly advocated for more habitat for wild bison.

Buffalo Field Campaign and Western Watersheds Project were jointly represented by Western Watersheds Project attorney Summer Nelson and private attorney Ted Fellman. BFC's habitat coordinator Darrell Geist oversaw the case for BFC and persistently fought for the rights of area residents to have their voices heard. Both Nelson and Fellman have served as BFC volunteers, coordinators, and board members.

"It may be a little harder fo the State actors to marginalize us knowing that when they do the right thing, we are there to support them, just as surely as we will be to call them out when their actions harm the buffalo," Fellman said.

Judge Phillips' ruling applies to Montana's actions and not those of Yellowstone National Park. The judge's ruling has no bearing on the Park's stated intent to capture for slaughter up to 400 female bison from the Northern Range and kill up to 50 bulls this winter and spring. In addition, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture APHIS has agreed to make its Corwin Springs quarantine pens available to hold 300 test-negative female bison and their calves who would be trailered from Yellowstone National Park's Stephens Creek trap. With your support and involvement, Buffalo Field Campaign hopes to stop these plans in their tracks.

While this victory provides breathing room for bison outside of Yellowstone's boundaries, it does not mean an end to the slaughter. Nevertheless, it is a cause for celebration and very heartening to see a state judge ruling in favor of wild bison over the complaints of livestock interests. This decision strengthens the resolve of BFC. We will not rest until wild bison have true sovereignty over themselves and are allowed to access their native habitat. With persistence, resistance, and endurance we shall press on until the buffalo are truly free.

Thanks to all our supporters for allowing us to defend wild bison in such a significant way and for making this victory possible. Thanks also to Summer, Ted, and Darrell for your tireless work and strong passion for the buffalo!