Skip to main content

Scofflaw Bison Occupy Private Grazing Lands Near Yellowstone

A group of 27 bison occupying privately owned grazing lands outside of Yellowstone National Park’s western border were detained by authorities on May 24. The group of animals included 12 newborn calves, 12 mothers, and three juveniles.

The Montana Department of Livestock led the raid with support from the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks; the National Park Service; the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service; and the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office. The bison were rounded up into a trap, placed on livestock trailers, and transported back inside park boundaries. They were released on their own recognizance into the Fountain Flats area. The raid was conducted following six weeks of surveillance and hazing that had been unsuccessful in persuading the bison to peaceably disperse and acknowledge the private property rights of landowners in the Yellowstone region.

All joking aside, whatever happened to wild animals being, you know, wild? And, for that matter, when did being a wild animal become illegal?

This week’s capture and relocation of 27 bison in the Yellowstone area is an unfortunate reminder that all too often private property rights, the concerns of industry, and myriad other human abstractions all supersede nature. In this scenario, wild bison are no longer wild; they are forced to respect arbitrary boundary lines drawn on maps.

While the 27 bison on the western edge of Yellowstone were being rounded up, some of the last remaining purebred bison in the United States were enjoying roaming about their new home in northeastern Montana on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. In many areas, bison that leave Yellowstone in search of food after long winters are met with a brutal onslaught of helicopters and four-wheelers, violently corralled, and sent to slaughter. Since 2007, however, about 60 bison were spared from slaughter, quarantined, and then recently relocated to Fort Peck.

But as soon as Montana moved the bison to Fort Peck, interests allied with the livestock industry filed a lawsuit to block the transfer. Earthjustice has intervened in the suit to defend the right of the state to transfer these animals back to their original stewards, the region’s Native American people. The judge in the case has issued a preliminary injunction telling the state and the tribe to not move any more bison until the case can be decided. Earthjustice has appealed that order to the Montana Supreme Court on behalf of its clients, the National Wildlife Federation and Defenders of Wildlife.

Additionally, on May 14, Earthjustice’s legal team won protections for bison that cross the Yellowstone boundary into the Horse Butte area of Montana. A Montana court ruled that bison in Horse Butte can no longer be hazed, harassed or slaughtered by the Montana Department of Livestock. The ruling rejected an attempt by the Montana Stockgrowers Association and two ranchers to force the department to unnecessarily assault any Yellowstone bison that migrate outside of the park. Earthjustice will continue to oppose the ranchers’ efforts to reinstate unnecessary hazing of bison.

The Horse Butte victory and the recent relocation of bison to Fort Peck are both very encouraging developments, however, much work remains to be done to ensure lasting protections for this iconic species of the American West.