The question of whether to allow bison to roam freely on the Gallatin National Forest outside of Yellowstone National Park will be revisited during a federal court hearing set for Tuesday in Helena, as part of a 2009 lawsuit.

Arguments are scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. in front of U.S. District Court Senior Judge Charles Lovell on a civil lawsuit filed by a coalition of environmental and wildlife groups against federal agencies including the U.S. Forest Service, Yellowstone National Park and the departments of Interior and Agriculture.  

The plaintiffs claim that by not allowing bison on the national forest outside of Yellowstone, the federal agencies are managing the public lands for the benefit of domestic cattle, rather than for native wildlife.

“There are plenty of areas where we can make room for bison and still protect Montana’s brucellosis-free status, and the Gallatin National Forest is a perfect place for them,” said Glenn Hockett, president of the Gallatin Wildlife Association’s board of directors. “Bison are wild animals and should be managed just like elk.”

The federal agencies counter that while cattle grazing is allowed on the national forest, if it wasn’t, that doesn’t necessarily mean that bison would roam there.

“… Each allotment listed is not necessarily suitable for bison due to other factors and even if cattle grazing were terminated, bison would not necessarily occupy the allotments …” the defendants state in court documents.

In the 96-page complaint, the plaintiffs say that the U.S. Forest Service isn’t ensuring viable populations of bison and other species exist on the Gallatin National Forest, and that National Park Service decisions and actions are actually impairing native bison populations.

In the winter and spring of 2007-2008, the National Park Service “oversaw and carried out the slaughter of approximately 1,434 bison from (Yellowstone National Park), which represented approximately one third of the existing population of wild bison in the (Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem),” the group wrote in their complaint. “Such management, and ongoing commitment of NPS resources, severely restricts wild bison migrations, impacts their natural behaviors, maintains bison populations at artificially low numbers and negatively influences the evolutionary potential of bison as a wildlife species in the ecosystem.”

They note that under the current Interagency Bison Management Plan, more than 3,500 bison have been killed in the past 10 years after roaming outside the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park in the springtime, mainly due to fears about the transmission of brucellosis from bison to cattle. Ironically, the bison originally caught brucellosis — which can cause weight loss, abortion and lower milk production in cattle — from cattle sometime in the early 1900s.

“The actual threat of brucellosis transmission from bison to livestock is very low, according to the best available science,” the plaintiffs added in the lawsuit. “In fact, brucellosis-infected bison and cattle have had regular contact for decades in Wyoming, and there has never been a single reported case of transmission resulting from this contact.”

Two recent documented cases of brucellosis transmission to domestic livestock are thought to have come from contact with infected elk, but the plaintiffs said the elk are still allowed to “freely traverse the habitats bison are denied access to” under the Interagency Bison Management Plan.

In its response to the lawsuit, the defendants generally deny most of the allegations. However, they admit that the Park Service “oversaw and carried out the slaughter of bison” in the winter and spring of 2007-2008, which was about one-third of the Yellowstone bison population and that the recent finding of brucellosis in some cattle probably came from elk, not bison.

But they deny that the actions of the Forest Service or Park Service, with respect to bison management inside or outside Yellowstone Park, violate applicable federal laws.

They add that “a viable bison population exists within the (Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem), which includes use of habitat on National Forest lands and other suitable habitats outside” of Yellowstone Park, and that the management of bison outside the park is the prerogative of the states (which are not named as defendants in this case) not the federal government.

“The State of Montana has primary management responsibilities for livestock disease and wildlife on (the Gallatin National Forest) as well as private lands surrounding YNP,” the defendants state in court filings.

The plaintiffs, who include the Western Watersheds Project, Buffalo Field Campaign, Gallatin Wildlife Association, Native Ecosystems Council, Yellowstone Buffalo Foundation, and a handful of Montana residents, want the court to decide whether the federal agencies must analyze any new information or changed circumstances in recent years relating to bison management and brucellosis.

In addition, they want the judge to require the federal agencies to “take a hard look” at environmental impacts and use the best available science about wild bison to guide future management activities.

 The named defendants include Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar; Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Suzanne Lewis; Leslie Weldon, the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Regional Supervisor; the Department of Agriculture; and Mary Erickson, the Gallatin National Forest Supervisor.

Reporter Eve Byron:

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