Wildlife groups sue Montana to overturn deal transferring Yellowstone bison to Ted Turner's ranch
BILLINGS, Mont. — A coalition of wildlife advocates on Tuesday asked a Montana judge to overturn an agreement that allowed dozens of Yellowstone National Park bison to be transferred onto billionaire Ted Turner's private ranch.
Four wildlife groups that opposed last month's transfer filed a lawsuit in Gallatin County claiming that the animals are a public resource that should be shielded from privatization.
Turner has agreed to take care of the animals for five years. In exchange, he gets 75% of their offspring, or an estimated 150 animals.
The suit's plaintiffs said the state should either move the animals onto public land or pay Turner to take care of them rather than give up their young as compensation.
"They need to remain in public hands," said plaintiff Glenn Hockett with the Gallatin Wildlife Assn. "Paying him by bartering the public's wildlife is a violation of the public trust."
The case will be heard by District Judge Holly Brown.
The state of Montana and the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks were named as defendants. Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman Ron Aasheim said Tuesday that the transfer of the bison was within the agency's authority.
In 2005 and 2006, the bison now held by Turner were spared from a government slaughter program meant to guard Montana's cattle industry against park bison infected with the disease brucellosis.
The original plan was to use the animals to repopulate public lands in the West with new bison herds. They spent most of the intervening years in a federal-state quarantine facility just outside the park.
Tens of millions of bison once roamed North America, but they were driven to near-extinction in the late 19th century. Yellowstone's 3,000 bison comprise one of the largest remaining populations in the world.
After Montana officials failed to find the quarantined animals a home, the state's Democratic governor, Brian Schweitzer, asked Turner to help.
In February, 87 bison were moved from the quarantine near the park to Turner's Flying D Ranch south of Bozeman. One of the animals, described by Turner representative Russ Miller as a sick, orphaned calf, died after the transfer.
The animals still could be moved onto public lands at some point in the future, although no proposals have been offered. They have repeatedly tested negative for brucellosis, which can cause cattle to abort.
Miller, general manager of Turner Enterprises Inc., was still reviewing the lawsuit and declined to say if Turner would intervene.
"We were in this from the beginning to help out," he said. "We'll rely on the agencies we're trying to help out to sort it out."
Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit include the Western Watersheds Project, Buffalo Field Campaign and Yellowstone Buffalo Foundation.
-- Associated Press
Photo: Bison are moved into corrals at a containment facility in Corwin Springs, Mont., on Feb. 17, in preparation for travel to Turner's ranch west of Bozeman. Credit: Sean Sperry / Associated Press