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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.”


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?

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