In an effort to prevent future conflict between buffalo and livestock and to stop the slaughter of Yellowstone National Park's buffalo, a coalition of conservationists, Native American tribes, hunters and wildlife advocates (see header) today filed suit over a Forest Service decision to permit continued cattle grazing in critical buffalo winter range just outside the Park's west boundary.
"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. "Only after meeting steady resistance to these common-sense approaches are we asking a judge to intervene."
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. The transmission of brucellosis between buffalo and domestic cattle in the field has never been documented.
"Cattle should not have priority over buffalo on public lands adjacent to our nation's first national park," said Tim Preso of the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, an attorney representing the groups filing the lawsuit. "Cattle grazing on Horse Butte has provided a major justification for the government's buffalo killing program. The Horse Butte lease renewal perpetuates the slaughter by giving cattle priority over buffalo in this crucial winter range."
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."
The lawsuit challenges the Forest Service's failure to study the environmental impacts of continued cattle grazing on the Horse Butte livestock allotment before renewing the grazing permit, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act. The Forest Service renewed the permit in December 2000 without any consideration of the impacts that cattle grazing in the area would have on buffalo, other environmental concerns, or even the federal Treasury.
"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."
The lawsuit, which is being filed in the federal district court in Washington, DC, seeks to halt further livestock grazing on Horse Butte until the Forest Service complies with the law.