Federal Judge Refuses To Block Yellowstone National Park Bison From Being Slaughtered

Holding that Yellowstone National Park bison should not be allowed to "reproduce prolifically beyond the capacity of its range," a federal judge ruled Monday that he would not stop park bison that roamed into Montana from being slaughtered.

More than 500 Yellowstone bison have been corralled in recent weeks in the park's Stephen's Creek holding facility after they roamed north of the park's boundary in search of winter range where they might escape winter's full fury. Any animals that test positive for brucellosis, a disease that can cause livestock to abort their fetuses, are being targeted for slaughter.

A handful of conservation groups and individuals -- Western Watersheds Project, the Buffalo Field Campaign, Tatanka Oyate, Gallatin Wildlife Association, Native Ecosystems Council, Yellowstone Buffalo Foundation, Meghan Gill, Charles Irestone and Daniel Brister -- sought an injunction from U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell to halt the slaughter. But in a 72-page opinion (attached below) released Monday the judge said slaughter and hunting long have been the accepted practice in the United States for managing wildlife populations.

"For those of us who admire the Yellowstone bison, it is easy to be sympathetic to an emotional appeal to 'stop the slaughter.' Yet it is clear that this population of wild bison – diseased and healthy – ought not be allowed to reproduce prolifically beyond the capacity of its range without the institution of scientific management," wrote Judge Lovell. "This has been recognized and authorized by Congress and well-implemented administratively in proper fashion. Distasteful as the lethal removal may be to some, it is clearly one of the foremost management tools – time honored – necessarily utilized to protect the species, the habitat, and the public.

"There is an annual season for lethal removal for wild animals in most of the United States and particularly in the states surrounding Yellowstone Park," he went on. "Deer, antelope, elk, moose, and others are removed annually as deemed necessary in order to scientifically control populations and accomplish these same resource goals. This is called 'hunting season,' and the phenomenon is widely accepted by the public."

In his ruling, Judge Lovell said the plaintiffs failed to show that the integrity of Yellowstone's bison herd, which numbered 3,900 last summer, would suffer from the slaughter of several hundred individuals, noting that "the herd has shown remarkable resilience following much larger culls in the winters of 2006 and 2008 (which were caused in part by the fact that the herd grew to an overabundance of more than 5,000 bison in 2005). It should emphatically be acknowledged that the Yellowstone bison is plentiful and reproductively prolific and, of course, is not a listed species under the ESA."

The judge also dismissed for lacking credibility an unpublished paper maintaining that the park's culling of bison would harm the genetic diversity of the herd. The paper, by Thomas H. Pringle, gained some recognition last week after a news service wrote a story about it.

Interior Department attorneys attacked the paper's credibility, noting that it was unpublished, had not been peer-reviewed, and was "prepared during the course of this litigation for the purpose of advancing Plaintiffs' interests in this litigation." Furthermore, Mr. Pringle was on an advisory board to the Western Watershed Project, they said.

In agreeing with the credibility issues, Judge Lovell admonished the plaintiffs for the way they presented the paper, calling it "litigation by ambush."

"The situation is further complicated by the manner in which the existence of Pringle’s study was brought into this case. It appeared as part of the last paper to be filed to submit the issue of injunctive relief to the Court. Plaintiffs first presented their motion and brief for injunctive relief. Defendants responded to that with an excellent answer brief," the judge noted. "Plaintiffs then had an opportunity to respond by reply to Defendants’ answer brief. Instead, what Plaintiffs did was to insert into the record a heretofore undisclosed secret study.

"Had Plaintiffs wanted to rely on the study, notice could have been given to the Defendants and the Court either during the administrative proceedings or after this litigation was commenced. This would not have deprived Defendants of an opportunity to respond, as occurred here," he wrote. "The Court was perplexed and disappointed by this because it indicates a failure to exercise a good faith application of the intent and spirit of the federal rules of procedure. It is litigation by ambush."

While he had not had the time to fully read the judge's ruling, Matt Skoglund at the Natural Resources Defense Council's Montana office disparaged the approach being taken to manage the bison.

“Sending wild bison off to slaughter is just an incredible tragedy. The only continuously wild bison population that remains in the United States, and yet, despite thousands of acres of habitat outside the park and recent massive changes to the brucellosis rules, our taxpayer dollars are sending these animals to slaughter," he said. "It’s so wasteful, and so tragic.”

YELL-Bison Ruling 2-14-11.pdf323.94 KB


The judge held that "bison should not be allowed to '"reproduce prolifically beyond the capacity of its range.'"

Wow, I didn't realize that the Great Plains (or for that matter, the old bison range that included almost all of North America) could only sustain 3,000 wild buffalo. Oh well, I guess only hippies believe that there might be some value to a functioning ecosystem.

The bison slaughter is interesting because it touches on fundamental issues related to the extent to which industry is permitted to control our resource and economic agendas. The partnership between government and industry that makes this possible recognizes no priorities other than making money. There is no concern for the future or the actual requirements for either human or non-human life to persist (e.g., we don't need money. We need food, clean water, clean air, and shelter, all of which are provided in a functioning ecosystem). There is certainly no concern for justice and meeting the moral, ethical, and legal obligations to the colonized native populations of the plains, all of which have a stake in the Yellowstone herd.

The really terrible part of this decision is that allowing these bison to be killed will very likely permanently damage the genetic variability of this herd, and will limit the possibility that wild bison will ever roam the plains again.

This is so sad. Good thing i'm leaving tomorrow to go to the Buffalo Field Campaign camp.

If NPS is going to be in the bovine business, (yes bison are bovines) they need to conduct proper herd and range management practices. The range available (that land which is within this park boundary) should be evaluated by experts from the Natural Resource Conservation Service to determine its carrying capacity for large bovine species which takes in to account other grazing species such as elk and deer, and based on those recommendations NPS should keep the herd within that range. If the wolves do not kill enough on a given year then the surplus should be rounded up and sold or harvested. This is responsible rangeland management and animal science. And contrary to "spirit coyote" the NPS doed not have the entire great plains to work with, they have the boundaries of their parks.

Hi Jamie,

Its true that the NPS doesn't have the entire Great Plains to work with. They only have Yellowstone. However, the bison are jointly managed by NPS, USDA, MDOL, and DHS. The USDA has the national forests. The dispute is centered around bison migrations on national forest land.

I brought up the Great Plains because buffalo are part of a functioning Great Plains ecosystem, the Yellowstone herd (the last wild, genetically pure bison) needs to be genetically healthy and allowed to grow.

The management plan doe snot provide a means for the herd to grow, and the slaughter places a severe strain on the herds genetic health.

Great comment that I fully agree with. Management of the herd is the only sensible alternative to too many bison for the land to hold. Wolves have made very little impact on the herd as the bison successfully ward the wolves off by charging them and goring them. Wolves being the oportunistic feeders that they are leave them alone for the most part for easier kills.

A topographic map is in order for those always suggesting the "Great Plains" should be large enough territory! Montana is 2/3 great plains contrary to many outsiders believing it is mostly mountains. And Yellowstone is not part of the great plains. I live on those great plains and I really don't want bison trampling around my home just as those who suggest otherwise would not want them in their backyard either.

The problem IS the National Park boundaries! Expecting an animal with strong migratory instinct to stop at the park edge is absurd. The management plan needs to include a migratory corridor. These bison need to be allowed to give birth in peace without harassment by helicopters, being pushed for miles with newborns, injured and stressed. Their long standing excuse of brucellosis has been proven to be very limited. This herd belongs to everyone, not the state of Montana. The judge seems to have made the ruling with the antiquated idea that because this is what has always been done, we will just keep doing it. The very flawed management plan, influenced by the cattle industry, needs to be revised and improved to protect this herd.

There are many ranchers who raise bison and have no trouble keeping thier animals under control. Ted Turner's ranch managers would be happy to offer pointers on how to manage a bison herd. To suggest that lands outside the park boundary,(much of which is private land and has been converted to cropland) be requisitioned to create a bison corridor smacks of the kind of confiscitory government practices that is extremely distasteful to most americans. There is no reason these bison herds cannot be responsibly managed, and if this responsible management included brucellosis vaccinations, then there would be no worries in that department either. Bison are a bovine species and should be managed as such. Failure to do so is just plain irresponsible.

Jamie~ No one is talking about requisitioning private land outside the park. Several conservation groups have aquired acres to have more room outside the park for the bison to migrate. There is also public land that should be available to this herd. Two ranchers who are closest to the herd and other property owners do not mind the bison. If the bison had a safe corridor they would not need to be harassed most of the year. Ted Turner's management plan is treating bison as cattle NOT wildlife.

Why not vaccinate the cows from brucellosis?

The earth-shattering news from today that has us all scrambling to understand what this means is Governor Schweitzer's announcement that Montana, at least for the next 90 days, will not allow the importation of Yellowstone buffalo through Montana to slaughter facilities. Given the location of Stephens Creek, this essentially ends shipment to slaughter of all buffalo for that time. They could still be shot, they could still be hazed (and no doubt will be), but the ball is now in the Park Service's court. The reasoning the governor gave is slick as they come (using the livestock industry's own reasoning against them).

The questions I have are these:

1. Does the Governor's action today constitute pulling out of the IBMP? (there are reasons from a phone call received that this may be the case, but that's just a hint in his language)
2. Will the Park Service see this as an end to the IBMP?
3. Will the Park Service actually shoot buffalo inside the park?
4. What happens to the buffalo in captivity and the many hundreds more poised to come out of the park?
5. Does this mean that the Duck Creek Trap and any capture operations west of the park are now out of bounds?

After such a dark day for us yesterday, this is the best news I've heard in years, even if it remains unclear.

The full text of the governor's press release is at: http://governor.mt.gov/news/pr.asp?ID=878 .

Bison are a cattle species. To allow any bovine species to overpopulate their range, deplete the resources of that range, spill over into other ranges in search of food simply because we are sentimental about their "wildness" is as I said before irresposible. Once again, the carrying capacity of their range needs no be established and the herd population kept there. The perimiter fences of their range need to be kept adequate to hold the animals. The animals need vaccinated. It matters not whether we think they are wildlife or not, they are a cattle species and as such need to be managed according to modern rangeland and animal science practices.

Jamie, you open your comment by stating flatly that "Bison are a cattle species" and then go on to say "it matters not whether we think they are wildlife or not." The thing is, whereas cattle are domesticated animals by definition , bison are not. That's an important distinction. In the eyes of the law, the fact that some bison herds are maintained on private property under tightly controlled conditions confers no legal right or obligation to apply the same managerial techniques and methods to the wild bison on public lands.

There is not a lot of wiggle room in the difference between responsible rangeland and animal management and the lack of it. Bison are cattle, wild or not, that difference has no bearing on the responsibility of land managers be they government agencies or private.

One of the points, whether one accepts a rangeland view of wildlife management or not, is whether the current range is sufficient to support the species. New evidence is suggesting that the amount of actually wild bison that do not have cattle genes is much lower than previously thought and that Yellowstone may truly have one of the last reservoirs of wild bison. If the claims of genetic mitochondrial disease are true, some are arguing that it may be too late for the species no matter what we do.

For other reasons, I don't accept a rangeland wildlife management approach, but even if one does, the bison here in Yellowstone need more room (range) to roam; they need it outside of Yellowstone National Park (where public lands are abundant). The survival of the species may be at stake. Even if it is not, you cannot give the existing animals half a range. You'd basically wipe out the northern range herd and much of the central range herd. The elk in those herds roam well outside the park, so do the deer, the bighorn sheep, the pronghorn ... the bison can, too. It's not like the park boundary is teeming with cows and private landholders. In fact, they either are tolerant or are in such small numbers that they could be worked around. Most of the land is Gallatin National Forest with a fair number of friendly landowners sprinkled in.

In any event, Governor Schweitzer's order has blown open the relevancy of all these questions.

Rounding up 500 bison in a corral and sending them to slaughter does not a "hunting season" make. I don't know any hunters who will get a trophy out of that.

My step-father had a photo of the buffalo that he shot on the Arizona House Rock Valley range. He would not explain why it was leaning against a barb-wire fence. Later I found out it was part of the annual herd cull. I agree: some trophy.

Interesting comment from JS Mcdonald! So agreed, the yellowstone bison herd has been allowed to increase past what the rangeland within the park can sustain. What I advocate is managing this herd to a level that can be sustained. What you advocate is that the land around the park be made available for the bison so the the herd doesnt have to be reduced. The land around the park is either forest service, which is allotted to cattlemen for their livestock as part of the USDA's multiple use policy, or, private land. You say that these private landholders are so small that they can be "worked around". We know what that means, forced to give up their land against their will to accomidate what YOU want because of your sentimentality over the bison herd. Unacceptable!

I can relate, Jamie. What has been in vogue in these modern times is the proclivity to judge and condemn, using PC standards, somethings that are so distant and disconnected from there own lives. Private property rights, life risks (risk is required in the life experience) and the apparent goal of dumbing things down to the safest and pablum fed non-existence. I'm ready for a change in direction and won't be waiting for it to be "in vogue, or politically correct,"LOL!


You shouldn't talk about things you don't know about. Go to the Gardiner Basin or to West Yellowstone before you so conveniently make claims about the land you know nothing about. It is not true that all Forest Service lands are either forest or grazing allotments. There are plenty of grasslands mixed in. On Horse Butte Peninsula, west of the park, you won't find cattle; you'll find plenty of wintering habitat for hundreds of buffalo. This is also true north of the park.

There are only two cattle producers north of the park with very small land parcels and only a few dozen cattle total. That's it. There are three dozen cattle. West of the park, I don't know of any cattle in the winter and only a few producers in the summer, generally hobby ranches, and a couple grazing allotments. North of the park, those cattle producers themselves have said in the press that they are not opposed to free roaming bison so long as they don't interfere with their cattle. If that's all it takes, I know of dozens of people willing to create the fencing necessary for a few cattle and hundreds of buffalo.

There are also a lot of private landholders who WANT buffalo on their land. However, the state Department of Livestock does not respect them because they consider buffalo not a range animal but rather an animal in need of disease management. They fly their helicopters over land against the wishes of the landowners to force buffalo off the land.

There is a lot of open range land north of the park that could accommodate the wintering animals, just as there is now permitted for every other range animal in the northern and central range herds. In fact, elk are carriers of brucellosis and face no movement restrictions.

Brucellosis, anyhow, is a red herring. In Grand Teton National Park, where cattle raising was grandfathered in to sections of Jackson Hole added to the park, brucellosis-infected bison and cattle have used the same range for decades without any incident.

Whatever I ultimately believe about what the range of bison should be, the truth is that the protection of the species can be achieved within the existing land use system if there were only tolerance within the same winter ranges provided for other wildlife. The three dozen cows in the entire disputed area during the winter don't have to be bothered. Contrary to what's being argued here, the facts on the ground show that it's private property rights that are currently being infringed upon (not the other way around).

If you want to know the real story here in Yellowstone, you should get to know the land and what actually happens here. I am here every single day right now; I was with the buffalo this morning. It's an amazing place, and there's no reason for the nonsense that goes on or reason to believe there would be any controversy here without the livestock industry pushing this phony controversy and enforcing it into policy.

OOOOOOOHHHH Mr. McDonald I will, in the kindest most loving way, say to you,,,please then keep YOUR mouth shut on things YOU know nothing about, IE rangleland science, animal science, sustainable grazing practices by bovine species in the intermountain west, bovine health, bovine reproductive disease,,If there is no opposition to the bison leaving the park then why has this court even had to intervene? I have seen yellowstone sir, it is poor yearround range for bovine species like bison.,it is not even the type of country that bison even were typically found in historic times and anyone who undestands large animals and history must wonder what they are doing there at all? Their range is horribly overgrazed, the bison are obviousely suffering the effects of mismanagement. Like most park animals they are stunted,malnourished and obviousely inbred.I am educated in rangeland and animal science sir, I have been to the area we speak of, and I dare say it is YOU sir who are the uneducated one. So far all I have heard from you is excuse after excuse for a tragic display of irresponsible land and animal stewardship for those who fancy themselves champions of environmental sensitivity. With that, my ... friend, I am done with trying to talk sense to you. Adios then sir.

Well it would seem to me that Marty has a keen understanding of rangeland management and large animal health and welfare, looks to me like a better understanding of such things than what has been demonstrated by the other comments, which appear to be emotional rather than scientific. I would say we should be very careful saying who should shut up because they don't know what they are talking about! Just sayin.......

So far all I have heard are excuses as to why the people responsible for this problem should be given a pass on ignoring sustainable rangeland conservation practices and herd management. I have seen this area, contrary to your inference, it is not good yearround grazing range for bovine species.It is not the type of country where bison were historically found. The meadows where the bison congregate is over grazed and denuded, largely because the bison cannot make use of the steeper, timbered country. I have seen the bison, which appear to be often stunted and malnourished. Macdonald, I am educated in the area of range management and animal health /science. I am willing to warrant that I have more contacts with the cattle raising community in Montana than you. And the agricultural community in Montana is not pleased. Oh and I should tell you, the reason there has no been no brucellosis conflict between cattle and elk, is because cattle and elk do not reproduce together. Cattle and bison do. Obviousely you have little knowledge of animal reproductive disease and how these diseases are spread, so please save the lecture on who should keep quiet on things they are ignorant about.

As someone who has followed this issue closely on National Parks Traveler and other websites, it would be interesting to know the qualifications of those submitting comments. To say that "it seems to me" or "I can relate to" does not lend credibility to any of the poster's comments unless we know the qualifications of both the posters and those making comments. It IS an emotional issue with people belonging to organizations that favor one position or the other - and very few who are not.
While I have made numerous trips to Yellowstone, I live in Massachusetts and find reading all of the comments interesting. However, knowing the background and qualifications of the posters would help me seperate "the emotional from the scientific".
However, I DO agree with one thing - everyone is entitled to their opinion and no one should be told to "shut up because they don't know what they are talking about." Albiet, including the experience of the poster might help the reader make that decision!

The Olde Ranger

I hold a degree in animal science. Another in rangeland science with a minor in soils. I am from a third generation ranching family and I currently am in charge of herd health and rangeland management on that ranch. I currently also work in the feild of veterinary medicine, I manage an emergency veterinary practice.

I live in Bozeman, Montana, worked in Yellowstone National Park for five seasons as a college student working at a concessionaire, and have volunteered for the past three seasons (full-time this season) with Buffalo Field Campaign. I have an M.A. in philosophy and a B.A. in philosophy and history. I kept a Yellowstone newspaper and Web site for over a dozen years, where I've followed this issue for over a dozen years.

Now, to the points raised.

One, using a degree in animal science like a bludgeon doesn't make one more knowledgeable about the land around Yellowstone. That's simply argument ad hominem. What is the actual range that the Northern Range can support? One of the guidelines of the IBMP has been this magic number of 3,000 (for both the norther and central range herds), which isn't based on range science, but a guess on the point when buffalo tend to leave the park exponentiially.) The point of the partners isn't to manage buffalo for range (despite the obvious misunderstanding of the judge that is what happens) but because they say they are trying to prevent the spread of brucellosis to cattle from bison. Anyhow, if you look over the last many years, it does seem that when the herd goes over 3,000, especially when we have heavy snows (like we do this weekend), bison leave the park for wintering range - as do every other park ungulate.

The land outside the park that bison dominate follow corridors. There are studies now actually documenting those corridors, which we've all seen with our eyes. North of the park, they go into the Eagle Creek drainage and along the valleys of the Yellowstone River. The Gardiner basin includes these areas. West of the park, they follow the Madison out but also break off and follow along Duck and Cougar creeks. They go north and south of the Madison and even right through the middle where the Horse Butte Peninsula goes right into Hebgen Lake (the Madison River in its dammed form). In these areas are a lot of grass. Horse Butte is mostly national forest land covered in grass. The areas around the rivers are full of bluffs and islands in the river covered in grass. Even south of the Madison in heavy forest is so much burnt forest that grasses have been abundant and support hundreds of buffalo in the spring. North of the park is really wide open and with far fewer trees. The land on both sides of the Yellowstone River is a large grass system supporting a lot of buffalo in the winter months and also happens to be at an elevation more than a thousand feet lower than it is west of the park.

The area is in contention precisely because the cattle industry thinks this has sufficient habitat for at least some cattle. In the north, there is some year round habitat; in the west, at least it's good enough for cattle in the summer. However, cattle weren't built like buffalo for winters and cannot take those winters as well, nor do they graze over the land in the same way. As an example, visit a national forest grazing allotment (I have; I've seen what cattle have done nearby to places in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, where they graze in large clusters and don't graze over the land but rather impact the land heavily in small clusters of areas, often ruining riparian areas).

If, as you argue, that the range can be managed for the number of a species that can fit on it, I am simply arguing that there is range that can and should be managed that happens to extend beyond the park boundaries. It doesn't require killing off the few cows that are here. It can be done the same way that it's done for other ungulate species. Deep down, I don't believe we should stop there and yes would like to see that range ever increased. I'm not so crazy as to believe, however, that everyone is like me. So, if one must manage by range, manage over a range consistent to the policies for other migratory wildlife. That line extends at least to the Sun Ranch in the Madison Valley in the west and to the Dome Mountain area in the north (which has a wildlife preserve just past the ranch boundaries - Dome Mountain, since you insist you are so informed is a wildlife-friendly, bison friendly wildlife ranch just north of Yankee Jim Canyon, which is just north of the Gardiner Basin).

Secondly, I'm arguing we need to do at least that much because the survival of the species may be at stake without it. If it is true that the entirety of Yellowstone bison cannot survive inside the current ranges (western and central) with fewer than 3,000 animals, new papers are suggesting (one only pre-published and talked about here in the article) that it might be too late, as the herds do get inbred (as you yourself admit and that I don't deny - which is an argument for MORE range, not less). I recently heard that there may not be as many genetically pure buffalo as recently thought (a number that was only at its highest 15,000 - now, new ways of assessing these things suggest far fewer). While these things are at least in question, it is sound, even from a strict range science standpoint, to allow more bison out of the park in order to protect the species.

Adding more range will necessarily increase the numbers higher than 3,000, which give the buffalo a greater chance, even as they bump into the next management boundary. At that point, people like me will want even more range; I doubt I'll have nearly so many friends. But, at least, at this point, people who don't want to see the extinction of bison and want them to have at least as much respect as other migratory wildlife in Yellowstone, would want them managed that way. That would mean allowing them to increase their range.

But, you as an animal science and range expert, will have to tell me why more range (however paltry it is compared with the rest of their historic range) would not be a good thing. I guess, from what you are arguing, we need even more range that that. Or, perhaps, you actually do want to see the extinction of the species, since the management practice you advocate suggests even more inbreeding in a high mountain elevation range that can support fewer than 3,000 buffalo.

One's knowledge about range doesn't necessarily make one good at articulating arguments about it. It's up to you to explain to us how your knowledge about these issues translates to a sound argument on buffalo policy.

Jim Macdonald