A wild story about buffalo ownership

Two Yukon bison farmers are taking the government to court for labour and costs related to operating their bison ranch.

Two Yukon bison farmers are taking the government to court for labour and costs related to operating their bison ranch.

In 1993, Cliff and Virginia LaPrairie agreed to care for 35 wood bison under the Yukon government’s Capture Herd Program.

The animals were becoming a nuisance along Yukon highways, and the LaPrairies took them on in exchange for the right to sell and trade them like cattle.

Over the 17 years they operated their ranch, the couple were given a string of assurances from government officials that they owned the herd.

Any bison above and beyond the 35 problem animals they took in they would own, according to a letter from the Department of Renewable Resources dated April 1993.

In September 2000, Renewable Resources Minister Dale Eftoda gave the LaPrairies additional assurance they had ownership rights to their herd. That position was echoed in an oral statement from the government in the spring of 2001 and in writing in October that same year.

The LaPrairies used the assurances of the government as justification for investing in their bison ranch. They figured whatever money they put in would eventually be recouped if they sold their business, according to a statement of claim filed this week with the Yukon Supreme Court.

Then, in 2003, Cliff was convicted under the Wildlife Act for importing four breeding bulls from Alberta’s Elk Island National Park. This despite the fact the government encouraged them to get breeding bulls in the first place.

Cliff lost his case because the bison, under the Yukon’s Wildlife Act, are considered wild and can’t be bought and sold.

As a result of the case, the LaPrairies became dubious of their ownership rights.

In November 2004, then-minister Peter Jenkins met with the LaPrairies.

“We realize you own your bison,” he said, according to court documents. “We are just trying to find a way to word it to satisfy the First Nations.”

That meeting was followed by a January 2005 letter saying Jenkins was exploring ways to give game farmers more certainty over their herd.

In April 2009, the couple received a letter from Environment’s deputy minister Kelvin Leary saying they had “exclusive property” over their captive herd.

But in February, the LaPrairies heard another story.

Leary was asked by the government to clarify what “exclusive property” meant.

“All rights, title and interest in and to wildlife are vested in the Crown,” he wrote in a new letter to the LaPrairies.

Suddenly the LaPrairies were no longer the rightful owners of a herd of bison they had been caring for on behalf of the government for 17 years.

The couple now wants to be compensated for all the money they spent housing and feeding the bison and for the 14-hour days they spent caring for them.

The LaPrairies declined to comment on the case.

Contact Vivian Belik at

vivianb@yukon-news.com

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