Lawsuit Seeks to End Government Killing of Yellowstone Bison

MISSOULA, Montana, November 13, 2009 (ENS) – A coalition of conservation groups, Native Americans, and Montana residents is suing the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service over the agencies’ role in slaughtering 3,300 wild American bison from Yellowstone National Park.

Only 3,000 bison remain in Yellowstone today because of what the plaintiffs claim is “aggressive population control” implemented under the Interagency Bison Management Plan adopted nine years ago.

In their lawsuit filed in federal district court in Missoula on Monday, the plaintiffs claim that the Park Service is violating its statutory mission to preserve wild bison and “leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

The civil action for judicial review targets the U.S. Forest Service for failing to manage the Gallatin National Forest in a way that would allow for healthy populations of bison, sage grouse, and other wildlife, and instead manages the national forest for “domestic cattle livestock industry interests.”

The plaintiff groups are: the Buffalo Field Campaign, Gallatin Wildlife Association, Native Ecosystems Council, Tatanka Oyate, Western Watersheds Project, and the Yellowstone Buffalo Foundation.

Agent on horseback hazes bison toward Yellowstone Park. (Photo by Lance Koudele courtesy Buffalo Field Campaign)

Three Montana residents also are part of the group of plaintiffs: Daniel Brister, a Buffalo Field Campaign staff member; Meghan Gill, a former Buffalo Field Campaign volunteer and staff member; and Charles Irestone, a bison advocate and cofounder of the Sustainable Business Council in Missoula.

The plaintiffs claim that the agencies’ “decision to slaughter approximately 1,434 bison in the spring of 2008, and the final decision of the agencies not to prepare a new or supplemental environmental impact statement for bison management or analysis for related actions, are arbitrary and capricious, an abuse of discretion…”

The coalition is asking the court to prevent the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service from continuing to participate in, allocate funding for, or permit the slaughter of wild bison on public lands, including trapping for transport to slaughter houses and quarantine facilities.

The suit would not affect the state of Montana’s bison hunt, scheduled to begin November 15, 2009, nor would it affect Native American tribes that retain treaty rights to hunt bison on national forest lands.

Rosebud Sioux tribal elder Rosalie Little Thunder says, “The continuing slaughter of wild buffalo by the National Park Service is an affront to indigenous peoples and an abrogation of the government’s trust responsibilities to the American people and American Tribes.” Little Thunder chairs the Seventh Generation Fund’s Tatanka Oyate Project, which is a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

The Yellowstone bison population includes America’s last continuously wild herds, and is the last bison population that still follows its migratory instincts.

A herd of bison in Montana (Photo by Jim Handcock)

The lawsuit alleges that both federal agencies have refused requests by plaintiffs and others to reconsider the bison management plan in light of new scientific information and changed circumstances related to bison. They particularly want the agencies to take into account a new independent study concluding that the actual risk of disease transmission from free-roaming bison to cattle in Montana would be zero in most years, and limited to predictable “hot spots” in others.

This point is important because the cattle industry’s complaint against bison roaming on lands outside Yellowstone National Park is the fear that bison could infect Montana cattle with the abortant disease brucellosis, threatening the state’s commercially valuable brucellosis-free status. Wild bison and elk in the Greater Yellowstone Area are the last remaining reservoir of the bacterium Brucella abortus in the United States.

“Brucellosis is a fraud being used by the cattle industry to maintain control over public lands grazing,” said Stephany Seay, speaking for the plaintiff Buffalo Field Campaign. “This issue is not about brucellosis at all. It’s a centuries-old range war being fought over who gets to eat the grass.”

Tom Woodbury, Montana director for the plaintiff Western Watersheds Project, says the Interagency Bison Management Plan is broken.

“One of the twin aims of the bison plan was ‘to ensure the wild and free-ranging nature of American bison'” said Woodbury. “While the Park Service was sending over 1,400 bison to slaughter in 2008, a Congressional investigation was concluding that the agencies are no closer to ensuring free-roaming bison today then they were in 2000.”

The plaintiffs cite a 2008 report from the Government Accountability Office, the investigative branch of Congress, which determined that the IBMP agencies, “lack accountability among themselves and to the public.”

Interagency Bison Management officials use a helicopter to haze Yellowstone bison off fenced private land established as a sanctuary. May 2009. (Photo by Lance Koudele courtesy Buffalo Field Campaign )

The American bison is recognized as a keystone species that improves the regional ecology and drives a lucrative wildlife watching industry, the plaintiffs argue.

Glenn Hockett, a range ecologist and president of the plaintiff Gallatin Wildlife Association, said, “Bison play a key role in keeping prairie grasslands healthy and are an important food source for human hunters, grizzly bears, wolves, eagles, and many other species. Our members value wild bison as a Montana big game species as well as for wildlife viewing and photography.”

The “cruelty” of bison control operations drove Meghan Gill, a doctoral student at the University of Montana, to join the lawsuit. “The cruelty to these animals that I and others have witnessed should not be part of a sanctioned government plan,” Gill said.

“I’ve watched government agents haze bison with helicopters in the dead of winter, forcing them to expend the energy they need to survive harsh conditions,” Gill said, “run them into barbed wire, over frozen lakes where the bison drowned when the ice broke, and worse.”

Gill finds it disturbing that “every spring the government agents repeatedly haze calving female bison and newborn calves miles into the park off of Horse Butte peninsula despite the protests of local residents who have attempted to create a bison sanctuary there by buying out all the ranches and removing all the cows.”

“This year they even chased a newborn calf with a broken leg,” Gill said, “but every year there are similar stories.”

Gill maintains that “the day-to-day bison management operations are a complete waste of taxpayer dollars on an inexcusable, illogical plan that most people would never condone if they witnessed it themselves.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.