A ruling by the Montana Supreme Court allowing continued seasonal access for bison to the Gardiner Basin north of Yellowstone Park has been hailed by environmentalists as a victory for wildlife lovers.
Justices upheld a February 2012 decision by state agencies to allow bison access to the basin to forage for food during the winter and early spring until May 1 of each year.
“The ruling represents a victory for all those who want to see wild bison as a living part of the Montana landscape,” said attorney Tim Preso of Earthjustice, a natural resources and wildlife public-interest law organization.
Preso defended the bison policy in the case on behalf of the Bear Creek Council, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, and Natural Resources Defense Council.
“Now we can move forward to secure room for wild bison to roam outside of Yellowstone National Park over the long term,” Preso said.
The case dates to 2011 when three organizations, Park County, Mont., the Park County Stockgrowers Association, and the Montana Farm Bureau Federation, sought to block the expansion of winter territory for Yellowstone bison into a region where they could not be hazed back into the park as they had for many years.
The trio of plaintiffs argued the bison threatened public safety and private property, and raised concerns about the potential for bison to infect cattle with brucellosis.
However, in January 2013, Fergus County District Judge E. Wayne Phillips ruled they had failed to show that the state had violated any laws. He concluded that dealing with wildlife “is a consequence of living in Montana.”
The Stockgrowers and the Farm Bureau eventually opted out of a formal appeal to the Montana Supreme Court. As the only remaining challenger, Park County made an effort to carry on some of the arguments that were first raised by the other two.
Park County Attorney Brett Linneweber contended that because the original suit was consolidated with the Farm Bureau and Stockgrowers, the county had essentially adopted their arguments even though it never argued them in any lower court.
In its original suit Park County claimed that bison create a public nuisance. But its appeal focused instead on a state law that restricts bison transport – an issue it had never brought up in District Court hearings.
Montana Supreme Court Justice Beth Baker wrote in the majority opinion that plaintiffs cannot adopt each other’s issues, even if cases have been consolidated, if they have not raised those issues in a lower court.
“Park County did not join in the Stockgrowers Association’s original petition or in the amended petition filed by the Stockgrowers Association and the Farm Bureau after consolidation,” Baker wrote. “Consolidation does not permit Park County to appeal an issue raised in a separate case by another party.”