Friday the Alaska Supreme Court overturned an Alaska Department of Fish and Game regulation from 2007 declaring domesticated livestock, specifically Kodiak's bison herds, were feral if they stayed outside of their designated state grazing leases for too long. As feral animals, they would be fair game, and could be hunted like any other wild animal, subject to Fish and Game regulations.
Kodiak rancher Charles Dorman appealed the Board of Game's 2007 regulation to state superior court in 2010, after a two-plus grace period to round up all his bison and getting a notice that a winter hunt was being planned on his wayward animals.
Dorman maintained that domestic livestock can not be considered feral if its owner was known. With only two herds separated by miles of mountains on the island, Dorman argued everyone knew whose bison were whose.
But Superior Court Judge Sen K. Tan ruled against Dorman and awarded the state over $8,700 in legal fees.
On Friday the Supreme Court overturned Judge Tan's decision and Fish and Game's rule, saying the state's regulatory definition of “feral” was arbitrary and conflicted with its use elsewhere in the state hunting regulations.
“It's good that the Supreme court did confirm that they are open grazing leases.”
Frank Bishop is bison rancher in Kodiak whose herd also grazes on state land, not far from where the Dorman lease is.
“The fact that the buffalo do walk on and off the leases doesn't make them feral whatsoever. They're still privately owned livestock," Bishop said. "And the people of Kodiak should know that. But no matter where the buffalo are, they're either owned by the Burtons, myself or the Dorman family.”
Larry Van Daele is the Southcentral Region Supervisor for Fish and Game. He was quick to point out that the Supreme Court ruling does not releive lease-holders from respecting the boundaries of the state land their livestock grazes on.
“It does not mean that anybody can run their domestic livestock anywhere they want in the state. I mean there's still state grazing leases, and the Department of Natural Resources still has jurisdiction on where those lease's boundaries are," Van Daele said. "And I can't speak for them, but I believe they have fines for people who go off lease and resources that they're not responsible for. It's not like where the buffalo roam and they can go anywhere in Alaska, it just means this one piece of the Department's responsibility is no longer valid.”
Bishop said bison are well-known for their wandering ways, and he tries hard to be a good neighbor, and thinks other ranchers do too.
“I don't want to destroy some body's property, private property or anything else," he said. "That's why I make a concentrated effort to go get them and put them back on the lease if they wander off.”
Though larger Wood Bison are native to Alaska, and were recently re-introduced to the Interior, Kodiak Island's Plains Bison were brought here 50 or so years ago as a hardier alternative to cattle, which ranchers were losing in large number to bears. Because they are bigger, smarter and tend to herd up closer together, Van Daele said bison were better able to fend off the always opportunistic bruins. But their size and strength also allowed them to break through barbed wire fences much easier than cattle. Which was the genesis of the wandering bison issue.
Bison owner Charles Dorman did not live to see his victory in the Alaska Supreme Court. He died five months ago at the age of 78.