A Montana judge has rejected challenges to a new state policy allowing wild bison room to roam outside the northern boundary of Yellowstone National Park. The ruling rebuffs demands by some livestock producers and their allies to require aggressive hazing and slaughtering of bison that enter the Gardiner Basin area from Yellowstone National Park in the winter and early spring in search of the forage they need to survive.
“Today’s ruling represents a victory for all those who want to see wild bison as a living part of the Montana landscape,” said Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso, who defended the bison policy in the case on behalf of the Bear Creek Council (BCC), Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC), and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “The Yellowstone region’s bison herds are the descendants of the last wild bison in the American West, and today they stand as some of the last genetically pure bison in the world. The court rejected the idea that the law requires slaughtering these magnificent animals whenever they cross the park boundary.”
Federal and state agencies responsible for cooperatively managing bison around Yellowstone National Park decided in February 2012 to allow bison seasonal access to important winter and early spring habitat outside the north boundary of the park in the Gardiner Basin area until May 1 of each year. Their decision opened up critical foraging lands during a period when higher elevations in the park still lack spring grasses for bison and other grazing animals.
However, in two lawsuits filed in May 2011, the Park County Stockgrowers Association, Montana Farm Bureau Federation, and Park County, Montana, sought to block implementation of the new policy and require state officials to adhere to outdated plans for bison hazing and slaughter. Although the plaintiffs in the cases raised concerns about the potential for bison to infect cattle with brucellosis, the only two cattle ranchers operating year-round in the Gardiner Basin did not join the legal challenge. Today’s decision rejected the challengers’ lawsuits and upheld the new policy. It follows five days of trial during which many Gardiner Basin residents voiced their support for bison tolerance in the area.
“Bison are native wildlife in Montana and are in critical need of habitat outside the Park,” says Mark Pearson, GYC’s Conservation Program Director. “Practical solutions exist to provide native bison with habitat outside the park while also ensuring they don’t commingle with livestock. We are focused on addressing concerns by some local landowners about bison coming onto their property, and we are pleased that the judge allowed the bison tolerance policy and our ongoing co-existence work to go forward.”
“Today’s decision is excellent news for native wildlife in Montana,” said Matt Skoglund, a wildlife advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Many changes in the past decade have set the table for greater tolerance of wild bison from Yellowstone in Montana, and it’s great to see this ruling uphold a good step forward by the State of Montana.”
“We are so glad this decision reaffirms the place of wild bison on the landscape here in our part of Montana,” added Julia Page of the Gardiner-based Bear Creek Council. “We are privileged to live with these animals and now we can continue the work of learning their ways and getting along with them as we have with other wildlife.”
Bison are the only native wildlife species still unnaturally confined to the political boundaries of Yellowstone National Park for any part of the year. As recently as 2008, more than 1,400 bison—about one-third of the current size of Yellowstone’s bison population—were captured and slaughtered by government agencies while leaving Yellowstone in search of food. BCC, GYC and NRDC are committed to continuing their work with government agencies and private landowners to help mitigate potential conflict areas outside of Yellowstone where bison should have more room to roam and be treated like Montana’s other wildlife.
Read the final order and judgment on the joint petition.