September 21, 2014

Montana, Park County discussing bison settlement

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) – The state of Montana is negotiating a potential settlement with Park County officials who sued to block the migration of wild bison out of Yellowstone National Park, attorneys for the two sides said Wednesday.

The county's lawsuit alleges residents were put at risk when hundreds of bison were allowed into the 75,000-acre Gardiner Basin north of Yellowstone last winter. In prior years, the state had killed or herded back into the park most bison entering the basin.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks legal chief Robert Lane said Wednesday the settlement talks have centered on whether the state can manage bison that leave the park in a way that protects public safety. Lane says the animals would not be excluded from the Gardiner Basin.

“In certain years they are going to be there no matter what we do,” Lane said. “If conditions occur like they did last year, is there management we could do in terms of providing for public safety that would be satisfactory to the county?”

The settlement talks were first reported by The Livingston Enterprise.

During Wednesday arguments, the Enterprise reported, the state sought to disqualify an attorney for a stockgrowers group that also has sued the state.

The chief legal counsel for the governor's office, Ann Brodsky, said attorney John Bloomquist helped Montana craft its bison management plan and so shouldn't be allowed to lead a lawsuit against the state.

Bloomquist acknowledged being privy to confidential state documents but said they were not related to the current case.

State District Judge Wayne Phillips did not immediately rule on the bid to oust Bloomquist and set a tentative date of late February for hearings on the merits of the case.

Park County Attorney Brett Linneweber said that could give the parties time to work through their differences.

Linneweber said he was focused on three issues: Fencing to protect private property from bison, hazing of the animals to keep them out of inhabited areas on the east side of the basin and an aggressive program to capture and relocate “excess” bison to Indian tribes across the country.

He said the state had been receptive to a settlement but added that a deal was not imminent. Work in line with some of the county's proposal already is underway.

An estimated 1,500 feet of fencing has been installed in recent months around private property in the Gardiner Basin under a partnership between the state and conservation groups.

Also, state and federal agencies for several years have pursued a modest capture and relocation program for some Yellowstone bison that migrate out of the park in search of food at lower elevations.

Those animals were held in quarantine for several years to make sure they could not transmit an animal disease to cattle. But a recent proposal to relocate the animals onto state wildlife management areas or tribal lands met stiff resistance from cattle ranchers and some lawmakers.

Linneweber said future relocation efforts should concentrate on tribal lands to avoid a political fight with the cattle industry.

“I'm going to push hard on this relocation. I want it to happen,” he said. “The alternative is a slaughter, which seems counterintuitive to what all the other groups want.”

Lane said no talks were underway with the other group that has sued the state over bison, the Park County Stockgrowers Association.

Like the county, the ranchers' group wants to block an agreement signed last fall between federal and state agencies and tribal groups that allowed bison into the Gardiner Basin for the first time in decades.

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