Annual Bison Killing Begins in Yellowstone

(01/12/1999) - Even as Defenders of Wildlife and four other conservation groups are fighting in court to spare Yellowstone National Park bison from slaughter, the killing has commenced in Montana. America's last truly free-roaming bison herd is in peril outside Yellowstone after Montana Department of Livestock (DOL) sent eight bison to slaughter allegedly because DOL needed to reduce the risk of brucellosis transmission to cattle. Brucellosis is a disease that causes spontaneous abortion in cattle, but its transmission from bison to cattle has never been proved. Ironically, no cattle are near where the bison roam in search of winter forage.

By capturing ten bison last week, the DOL abandoned its commitment to haze the migrating bison back into the park. The percentage slaughtered was high because the agency killed even bison that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) believes pose virtually no risk to livestock. Low-risk bison include bulls, calves, and yearlings, yet six of the eight bison killed were bulls.

"The DOL continues to ignore the Yellowstone bison herd's value to both the region and the nation by adhering to a near zero-tolerance policy for bison migrating outside Yellowstone National Park," says Defenders of Wildlife president Rodger Schlickeisen. "This is an American tragedy."

The bison were caught west of the park at the Duck Creek facility, where bison are tested for brucellosis. The DOL confirmed the U.S. Forest Service's opinion that no cattle are grazing in the entire Hebgen Basin, a largely public lands grazing region just west of Yellowstone. The Forest Service does not permit public land cattle grazing in this area until June.

During the past three years, more than half the 1,100 bison killed were low-risk bison. By killing these animals, the DOL has reduced the bison herd by one third.

"The DOL's decision to kill bulls in its first capture of the season sets the stage for the remainder of the winter," says Bob Ferris, director of Species Conservation for Defenders of Wildlife. "Destroying male bison, which pose virtually no disease risk to cattle, defies common sense, ignores sound science, and poignantly shows the need for the Montana legislature to return management authority to the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks."

Currently, an interim bison management plan allows Montana's Department of Livestock to kill bison freely. An injunction to prevent the killing of low-risk bison and the killing of no more than a total of 100 animals is stalled in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The injunction, filed several weeks ago on behalf of five conservation groups, is based upon a similar court order issued last year. The same groups sued to stop the interim plan, now in its third year. That case is on appeal.

When the National Park Service and Montana officials first implemented the interim plan in 1996, they anticipated that it would be in place for a single year, killing no more than 569 bison. Both assumptions have proved wrong. In the winter of 1996-97, state and federal personnel killed a total of 1,123 bison, twice as many as officials killed in any other year this century.

In a lawsuit filed in June 1997, the conservation groups responded to the lethal impacts of the interim plan. The InterTribal Bison Cooperative, Defenders of Wildlife, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, and Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund alleged that federal and state agencies must update their environmental analysis to consider the environmental impacts of continuing the plan. "The state and federal agencies have never analyzed the impacts of these horrendous killings under the Interim Bison Management Plan," says Jim Angell of the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund. "Without that analysis, the agencies are playing Russian roulette with one of our nation's most unique and cherished wildlife resources. The law forbids this, and we fully expect the court of appeals to send the agencies back to the drawing board."

Last November, Judge Charles C. Lovell ruled that such analysis was not necessary despite the plaintiffs' evidence that continued killing could endanger the bison herd and threaten the health and recovery of Yellowstone's threatened grizzly bear populations, a population that feeds in large part on bison carcasses. Judge Lovell also ruled that the National Park Service is legally entitled to kill wildlife inside Yellowstone Park.

The plaintiffs have appealed Judge Lovell's ruling to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Briefing is ongoing, with oral arguments anticipated to occur later this spring.



Cat Lazaroff, (202) 772-3270