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Bison Return to Ancestral Lands

Bison in Yellowstone National Park.

Bison are the only native wildlife species still unnaturally confined to the political boundaries of Yellowstone National Park for any part of the year.

J. Schmidt / NPS

Case Overview

Bison are the only native wildlife species still unnaturally confined to the political boundaries of Yellowstone National Park for any part of the year. In 2008, more than 1,400 bison—about one-third of the current size of Yellowstone’s bison population—were captured and slaughtered by government agencies while leaving Yellowstone in search of food.

Federal and state agencies responsible for cooperatively managing bison around Yellowstone National Park decided in February 2012 to allow bison seasonal access to important winter and early spring habitat outside the north boundary of the park in the Gardiner Basin area until May 1 of each year. Their decision opened up critical foraging lands during a period when higher elevations in the park still lack spring grasses for bison and other grazing animals.

However, in two lawsuits filed in May 2011, the Park County Stockgrowers Association, Montana Farm Bureau Federation, and Park County, Montana, sought to block implementation of the new policy and require state officials to adhere to outdated plans for bison hazing and slaughter. Although the plaintiffs in the cases raised concerns about the potential for bison to infect cattle with brucellosis, the only two cattle ranchers operating year-round in the Gardiner Basin did not join the legal challenge.

In January of 2013, a Montana judge rejected the challengers’ lawsuits and upheld the new state policy allowing wild bison room to roam outside the northern boundary of Yellowstone National Park. It follows five days of trial during which many Gardiner Basin residents voiced their support for bison tolerance in the area.

Earthjustice defended the bison policy in the case on behalf of the Bear Creek Council, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, and Natural Resources Defense Council.

Case Updates

March 19, 2014 | In the News: The Yellowstone Gate

Montana Supreme Court Upholds Ruling to Allow Yellowstone Bison to Roam Free

The Montana Farm Bureau Federation sought to block the expansion of the bison’s winter territory into an area where they could not be hazed back into park. The Montana Supreme Court upheld a ruling which allows seasonal access for bison to forage in the north end of Yellowstone National Park.

“The ruling represents a victory in favor for all those who want to see wild bison as a living part of the Montana landscape, now we can move forward to secure room for wild bison to roam outside of Yellowstone National Park over the long term.” said Earthjustice attorney, Tim Preso.

August 23, 2013 | Blog Post

More Wild Bison Return Home To Montana

Some extra thunder rumbled into north central Montana, when wild bison finally set hooves on the ground at Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. The return was the culmination of legal efforts to restore the animals to their historic prairie habitat. Members of the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes were eager to receive them.