The Helena-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies announced Thursday it will sue the state and federal government if they continue to use helicopters to haze bison back into Yellowstone National Park, a practice the environmental group believes is harmful to grizzly bears, and a Park County judge temporarily halted the procedure.

Grizzlies in the lower 48 states are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and Mike Garrity, the alliance’s executive director, said the hazing program violates the National Forest Management Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. The group also alleges that the helicopter flights “harm and harass” grizzly bears in violation of the Endangered Species Act.

Garrity said if the state and federal agencies don’t agree within 60 days to stop the hazing, they’ll file a lawsuit alleging those violations. 

 “The idea of the 60-day notice, which is part of the Endangered Species Act, is to give them 60 days to correct the problem before we sue,” Garrity said. “We hope they will correct the problem so we don’t have to sue.”

In a letter sent to the Montana Department of Livestock, the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies stated that in five studies by the National Park Service, helicopters were found to cause grizzly bears to panic and flee in nearly all cases.

“Grizzly bears never become tolerant of helicopters, even with frequent exposure,” the alliance stated in the letter. “Grizzlies may abandon areas in response to even infrequent overflights, and the consequences of habitat abandonment can be serious, particularly for species whose high-quality habitat is already scarce.”

The letter notes that the three agencies are planning to allow repeated low-altitude helicopter flights over occupied grizzly bear habitat within the Yellowstone Grizzly Bear Recovery Zone.

“When they haze them, the helicopters get down to 10 feet off the ground and push the bison out,” Garrity said. “The private landowners at Horse Butte Peninsula said they (those conducting hazing operations) couldn’t get on their land, so they’re using the helicopters to get around that.”

He noted that on May 12, 2010, a grizzly bear was filmed fleeing from one of the hazing helicopters, which try to push wild bison that have migrated out of Yellowstone Park back before cattle move onto the same lands — even though some of those lands don’t have active cattle leases and many of the Horse Butte landowners enjoy having the bison in the neighborhood.

“We know that private landowners in the area overwhelmingly prefer the presence of bison and grizzly bears instead of the low-level helicopters hovering over their homes and property,” Garrity said.  “That’s no surprise.  Who wants to live where you feel like your home is in a combat zone?”

But on the north side of the park, a Park County judge granted a temporary restraining order this week to halt the state agencies from allowing bison to roam into parts of Montana from Yellowstone Park at the request of landowners and livestock owners. They fear the bison will transmit brucellosis to their cattle, which can cause them to abort fetuses.

Elizabeth Sloan, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service, said they had just received the notice of intent to sue, and couldn’t comment on it because they hadn’t had time to review it in-depth. Representatives from the Montana Department of Livestock and Yellowstone National Park couldn’t be reached for comment late Thursday.

Garrity added that when the government agencies did the environmental analysis of hazing effects for the Interagency Bison Management Plan, they told him that hazing operations would cease if there was evidence of grizzlies being active in the area.

“Yet there are obviously grizzlies active in the area and the video footage undeniably shows them fleeing in terror,” Garrity said. “So why are these public agencies ignoring both science, law and their own management plans by continuing their helicopter hazing operations?

“We truly wish we didn’t have to take these government agencies to court to force them to follow the law. But enough is enough.  This has gone on for years and years.  Now it’s time to bring it to a halt and that’s just what the Alliance for the Wild Rockies intends to do.”

Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or eve.byron@helenair.com

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