United States District Court, D. Montana, Billings Division
P. WATTERS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
the Court is the Plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary
injunction. (Doc. 4). For the following reasons, the motion
case is about the tension between local residents and several
Indian Tribes and hunters over a small patch of public land
near Gardiner, Montana, where bison roam from Yellowstone
National Park in search of food during winter. In 2005, a
convergence of federal, state, and tribal interests opened
bison hunting on the public land to Indian Tribes and Montana
hunters. Every winter since, Indian Tribes and Montana
hunters have harvested roaming bison on the public land. The
local residents (the Plaintiffs) own homes and other property
next to the public land and object to the bison hunt for
public land in question is a quarter-mile-square area at the
mouth of what is known as Beattie Gulch. (Doc. 4-11 at 2). In
recent years, the number of Tribes claiming treaty rights to
hunt bison in the area has risen to six. (Doc. 4-12 at 6).
This has led to the harvest of as many as 200-300 bison
during the hunting season from the small plot of public land.
(Doc. 4-11 at 2).
Tribes describe the bison hunt as an important cultural and
spiritual use of land which subsists their people. For
significantly longer than records were kept, the Tribes have
hunted bison in what is now Montana, sometimes traveling
hundreds of miles to do so. (Doc. 31 at 1-10). The Nez Perce,
for instance, were known to travel as far west as the Pacific
Ocean for fish and as far east as Montana for bison. (Doc. 31
at 4). Likewise, the Yakima Nation's ancestors fished the
Columbia River and hunted bison in Montana and Wyoming. (Doc.
31 at 8; see also Yakama Indian Nation v. Flores,
955 F.Supp. 1229, 1238-1240, 1263 (E. D. Wash. 1997)). All of
the Tribes recount the deeply fundamental connection their
people and history have to bison, an inherent bond between
human, land, and animal forged since time immemorial. (Doc.
31 at 1-10). The Tribes took it upon themselves to preserve
wild herds of bison after the species was nearly destroyed
for political reasons. (Doc. 31 at 9, 11-12). Because of this
sacred bond, the Tribes specifically negotiated with the
United States during Western Expansion to preserve their
sovereign hunting rights to bison:
"The exclusive right of taking fish in all the streams
.. .is further secured to said confederated tribes and bands
of Indians ... together with the privilege of hunting,
gathering roots and berries, and pasturing their horses and
cattle upon unclaimed land." Yakima Treaty 1855, 12
"The exclusive right of taking fish ... the privilege of
hunting, gathering roots and berries and pasturing their
stock on unclaimed lands in common with citizens, is also
secured to them." Walla Walla Treaty 1855, 12 Stats.,
"The exclusive right of taking fish ... is further
secured to said Indians ... together with the privilege of
hunting, gathering roots and berries, and pasturing their
horses and cattle upon open and unclaimed land."
Hellgate Treaty 1855, 12 Stats., 975.
the bison hunt is a practice of culture preservation for the
Tribes. It serves as a ceremonial activity and social
gathering, a method to connect with ancestors who walked the
very same plains for millennia. (Doc. 31 at 4). Equally
significant, the bison hunt serves the same vital purpose it
did then. Bison meat is an integral part of the Tribes'
diet; bison hides are used to make clothing and other
traditional items. (Doc. 31 at 12).
Tribes manage the bison hunt through coordination with each
other and the federal and state agencies involved. (Doc. 31
at 14). Each summer, the Tribes and agencies discuss bison
hunt objectives, dates, safety concerns, no shooting zones,
access, and law enforcement. (Doc. 4-12 at 6). Participants
in the bison hunt must attend the annual hunt orientation.
(Doc. 31 at 1-10). For Beattie Gulch in particular, the
Tribes and agencies engage in daily briefings and weekly
phone calls to coordinate activities and report harvest data.
(Doc. 4-12 at 6-7). To make the hunt safer for property
owners in the area, the Tribes and agencies established a 200
yard "clean zone" near Old Yellowstone County Road
where hunters are not allowed to shoot. (Doc. 36 at ¶ 3;
Doc. 4-1 at v).
Plaintiffs describe the bison hunt as a chaotic killing
field. On some days, 20-30 Indian hunters line up along the
land, waiting for the bison to cross the boundary. (Doc. 4-11
at 2). When the bison cross, the hunters gun down the bison
simultaneously. (Doc. 4-11 at 2). After the bison are field
dressed, unsightly gut piles are left strewn around the
field, attracting bears, wolves, and birds. (Doc. 4-27 at
so-called killing field has complicated the lives of the
Plaintiffs in several ways. The Plaintiffs are afraid a stray
bullet is going to hit them or their homes. They have trouble
renting cabins to tourists during the hunting season because
the killing field is unpleasant. The gut piles risk the
spread of Brucellosis, a disease that can cause undulant
fever in humans. Lastly, the sight of bison being shot is
traumatic and robs them of the opportunity to photograph or
otherwise enjoy the bison. (Doc. 4-1 at 36-42).
past couple of years, the Plaintiffs have voiced their
concerns about the bison hunt to the Tribes and federal and
state agencies. Due to what the Plaintiffs say has been an
insufficient response, they filed this lawsuit on October 21,
2019, in federal district court in Washington D.C. to enjoin
the bison hunt for the 2019 hunting season. (Doc. 1). On
October 23, the Plaintiffs filed a motion for a temporary
restraining order and a preliminary injunction. (Doc. 4).
Some of the Tribes' bison hunting season was already
underway. (Doc. 4-12 at 7). The state season was set to begin
November 15. (Doc. 4-12 at 7). On November ...