"Cattle grazing on Horse Butte has provided a major excuse for the government's buffalo killing program," said Doug Honnold of Earthjustice, an attorney representing the groups filing the lawsuit. "This ruling should cause the government to re-examine whether cattle grazing on the public lands next to Yellowstone is the right call and whether slaughtering buffalo in this crucial winter range is necessary."
In a year when government killing of buffalo is again on the rise, Judge Facciola's ruling comes at a critical juncture. Judge Facciola recommended that the Horse Butte grazing allotment be voided and that any livestock grazing on the allotment be halted. The ban on grazing would likely last one season while the environmental analysis is being developed. Judge Facciola noted that "closure of the allotment to livestock grazing would significantly reduce the need for hazing and killing of bison."
"Over the years conservationists have worked to achieve solutions to this problem, including urging the Forest Service to provide an alternative grazing allotment, exploring acquisition of the permittee's lands, and offering to pay for private grazing areas for the permittee's cattle away from any potential conflict with buffalo," said Michael Scott, executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. "Aided by this ruling, common-sense solutions can now be pursued."
The lawsuit challenges the U.S. Forest Service's renewal of a 10-year permit that allows Idaho cattle to be trucked into the Yellowstone area every summer for grazing on Horse Butte, which is located in the Gallatin National Forest approximately five miles west of the park boundary near West Yellowstone, Montana.
The presence of the trucked-in cattle contributes to an annual program of buffalo hazing and slaughter that the government has claimed is unavoidable. Horse Butte provides essential winter range for Yellowstone buffalo that migrate out of the park to escape severe cold and heavy snows. Hundreds of buffalo entering these national forest lands have been killed by government agents over the past decade as part of a program aimed to protect cattle from a theoretical threat that buffalo might infect them with a livestock disease known as brucellosis. State and federal agents have killed 171 buffalo this winter in the Horse Butte area. The transmission of brucellosis between buffalo and domestic cattle in the field has never been documented.
The Yellowstone buffalo slaughter is particularly troubling for many Native Americans, for whom the buffalo always has held great meaning. The Yellowstone herd is the last remnant of the estimated 60 million buffalo that once roamed the Great Plains and the American West. Millions were slaughtered in the late-nineteenth century, and only the Yellowstone buffalo survived as a wild herd.
"The buffalo were slaughtered in the 1800s to destroy the food supply of the Native American people and to make room for European cattle. It is a tragedy that slaughtering buffalo is still government policy today," said Fred DuBray, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and president of the InterTribal Bison Cooperative.
"For the last five years, the Forest Service has promised to evaluate the impacts of cattle grazing on bison before renewing the permit on the Horse Butte grazing allotment," said attorney Tom France of the National Wildlife Federation. "By reissuing the grazing permit, the Forest Service has broken this promise. More importantly, the Forest Service has refused to take steps that could result in a win for both livestock grazing and bison. There are good options to the status quo."
"Livestock grazing on Horse Butte is bad for buffalo, but it is also bad for the American taxpayer," said Mike Leahy of Defenders of Wildlife. "The grazing fee for the Horse Butte allotment returns less than $1,200 annually to the government, but the government's system of hazing and slaughtering Yellowstone buffalo for the sake of cattle grazing is estimated to cost the taxpayer more than $1.7 million each year."
"The government has laid down a rule that the buffalo can't roam freely where cattle are grazed," said Glenn Hockett of the Gallatin Wildlife Association. "If that is the rule, then we have no choice but to object when the Forest Service allows 10 more years of cattle grazing in the middle of prime buffalo range on our national forest lands."