Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in northern Montana. And it won’t even have to happen under the cover of darkness.
The Montana Supreme Court cleared that hurdle Wednesday when it ruled that a lower court misapplied the law when it prevented the transfer of Yellowstone bison from the Fort Peck Indian Reservation to Fort Belknap.
This is yet another important victory for free-roaming Yellowstone bison and efforts to relocate them to appropriate landscapes across Montana and the West.
The Fort Belknap story actually begins in quarantine pens north of Yellowstone National Park, along U.S. Highway 89. More than 60 animals had been behind the fortress-like government fencing for five years, had been tested disease-free, and were due to be relocated to the tribes — who have pined for the return of the sacred wild animal to their prairies for years.
On a snowy December night in 2011, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks moved the quarantined bison to Fort Peck. To the sound of drums and chants, the bison thundered onto a prairie on which they had been extinct for a century.
The plan was for about one-fourth of those Yellowstone bison to be moved west to Fort Belknap.
Alas, a day later a snowmobile group based a half day’s drive away in Bozeman — go figure — joined a few area landowners and others on a lawsuit aimed at keeping the bison at Fort Peck. A local judge agreed, and the Fort Belknap bison have been in limbo at Fort Belknap ever since.
Now, with the legal obstacle out of the way, these bison will be on their way again.
Meanwhile, when they depart, Fort Peck will have about as many Yellowstone bison as were initially brought: 14 healthy calves were born this year.
Next up: Clearing the way for Yellowstone bison to roam in five areas outside of the park.