BILLINGS, Mont. – A Montana judge granted a restraining order Thursday blocking further relocation of Yellowstone National Park bison following objections from ranchers and property rights groups.
The order came after Gov. Brian Schweitzer's administration transferred 62 Yellowstone bison to the Fort Peck Reservation earlier this week.
The ruling presents another stumbling block in efforts by tribes and agencies to reintroduce bison to parts of their former range.
Half of the Fort Peck animals were to be transported from a holding pen in coming months to the Fort Belknap Reservation.
Another group of bison was being held temporarily on the Bozeman-area ranch of billionaire Ted Turner, awaiting future relocation to an undetermined location.
The judge blocked those transfers, at least for now, and turned down a request to return the animals to the Yellowstone area while setting a hearing for April 11.
Ranchers and others who filed a lawsuit seeking to halt the relocation program argued that wild bison damage fences, eat hay meant for cattle, and potentially spread disease. Members of the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap tribes have pledged to keep the bison in fenced pastures for several years to monitor them for disease.
The 62 bison shipped to Fort Peck were moved with no prior public notice and during a snow storm -- a maneuver by the Schweitzer administration and tribes that was meant to get the bison moved ahead of a possible court ruling such as the one handed down Thursday.
Opponents of the relocation complained the tactic violated requirements under state law that the transfers be part of an open and transparent process.
Cory Swanson, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said Thursday's ruling was a huge victory and freezes the state's relocation program until the case can be heard by the judge.
"There's no more stealthy movement of bison anywhere. No more secret agreements that are not fully part of the process," he said. "The trust factor is really low here and the judge recognized that."'
Fort Belknap Game and Fish Department Director Mark Azure said the reservation hopes to get 31 of the bison at Fort Peck by this summer, although that could be derailed if Thursday's restraining order is not lifted. Azure said the Fort Belknap tribe has been working with neighboring ranchers to address their concerns over the animals.
Bison from a commercial herd on Fort Belknap have escaped in the past, raising tensions between the tribe and livestock producers after the animals ate hay and caused other problems.
Azure said the tribes intend to repay those who suffered losses but is waiting for an insurance adjustor to determine the damages.
"We've put that olive branch out I don't know how many times to say what happened in the past, we can try to right some of that stuff," Azure said. "The frustrating part is that we've out to these guys and for whatever reason they don't want to grab that branch."