Written by Samar Fay
Farmers and ranchers in Valley and Phillips counties, the grassy prairie that some envision as an American Serengeti for free-roaming bison, have turned their opposition to this plan back on Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in a new way. To demonstrate that they do not accept FWP’s translocation of Yellowstone bison to northeast Montana, about 70 landowners have cut years-long ties with FWP’s game management programs and the hunter friends they have hosted on their land.
The decisions have been announced in newspaper advertisements in The Courier and The Phillips County News. The first to make the public move were the Stonebergs on Horse Ranch, some 40 miles south of Hinsdale on Timber Creek, the home of Ron and Rose Stoneberg, and their daughter Sierra Holt, her husband, Jason Holt, and their daughter, Zora.
Their Aug. 15 ad stated that Horse Ranch was no longer in FWP’s Block Management program, which pays landowners to open almost eight million acres of private property to public hunting.
“We are against state FWP policies that adversely affect hunters and landowners,” they said, without referring specifically to bison relocation, although all of the adult members of the family have written opinion pieces on the subject.
The ad said hunters were welcome and should come to the ranch house for permission to hunt.
Two weeks later, eight farms and ranches in north Valley County announced that they were closed to all hunting because of FWP management decisions and fire danger. That ad has been running continuously for seven weeks.
On Sept. 19, the names of 48 landowners, mostly from western Valley and Phillips counties, appeared under a statement that “since our ranch/farm operations would not survive with wild, free-ranging bison/buffalo,” they were closing their land to hunting until FWP drops its plan to release them in Montana.
The message concluded with the hope that their hunter friends would understand and assist this effort to “protect our livelihoods and communities.”
Another 15 producers from northern Valley County published their names under the same statement on Sept. 26.
The Phillips County News ran the statement on Oct. 3 with the names combined into a list of 63 landowners.
Farmers and ranchers opposed the plan to relocate quarantined wild bison from Yellowstone Park to the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Indian reservations, saying they feared the possible spread of brucellosis into their cattle herds and the damage that escaped bison would do to crops and hay yards. They watch Phillips and Valley county ranches being bought up for wild bison conservation by the American Prairie Foundation, and worry about the future of their grazing leases.
The landowners do not protest the domestic herds of bison, including tribal herds, that are scattered throughout Montana. There is legal recourse if a domestic animal causes damages, but none for a wild animal.
A group of ranchers, property rights advocates, state legislators and organizations including the Valley County Commission obtained a restraining order last spring against shipping the bison, but they arrived at Fort Peck anyway, so the group sued FWP for contempt of court. This move mostly failed in a District Court in September, but FWP did ask for a new judge to look into the remaining indirect contempt charge. The bison, now numbering nearly 80, are under a judge’s order not to be moved to Fort Belknap, as had been planned, or anywhere else.
One of the groups joined in the lawsuit against FWP is Citizens for Balanced Use, which advocates for private property rights. Montana Community Preservation Alliance hosted a fundraiser in Malta Oct. 16 with the proceeds going to help Citizens for Balanced Use block any further movement of these bison in the state.
According to the event organizers, Kerry White, founder of Citizens for Balanced Use, is planning to attend and they hope that their attorney in the lawsuit, Cory Swanson, will be there.
Citizens for Balanced Use is a 501(c)3 organization so all contributions are tax deductible. To contribute to this event, send a check payable to CBU to Box 1015, Malta, MT 59538.