Conservation groups asked a federal judge on Thursday to grant a stay of execution for hundreds of buffalo who strayed outside of Yellowstone National Park.
Wild bison allowed to migrate north of Yellowstone National Park for the first time in decades have strayed off their new grazing grounds, 2,500-acres of grazing grounds within the Gallatin Forest. The first bison that strayed were to be hazed back onto the Gallatin National Forest (right). If they left again, officials said, it was uncertain what would happen if they continued to enter areas where they could encounter cattle.
For years, bison trying to leave Yellowstone to graze at lower elevations in Montana were captured and slaughtered to prevent the spread of brucellosis. The first bison on the Gallatin - part of a pilot program that was years in the making - tested negative for the disease.
Those animals are part of an initiative to expand areas outside the park where bison can roam.
Hundreds of bison attempt to leave the park during harsh winters. With snow piling deep this year, 63 of them that tried to leave the park in mid-January but were captured at the park's northern boundary.
Nearly 400 of the nation's last purebred herd of buffalo, or bison, have been herded into a fenced enclosure at the park after the search for food led the animals into nearby Montana, where they are not tolerated.
The state's billion-dollar livestock industry fears Yellowstone bison will infect cattle with brucellosis, a disease that causes cows to abort.
That is the primary reason for killing herds of buffalo escaping the deep snows of Yellowstone to forage in historic winter grazing grounds in the lowlands of Montana.
Government officials this week announced that captured bison exposed to brucellosis would be shipped to slaughterhouses.
That plan came to a temporary halt on Thursday after several conservation groups sought a restraining order in federal court.
The legal motion is part of a broader federal lawsuit by sportsmen and environmentalists, who argue government land managers are violating their own regulations and the public trust by chasing, confining and killing Yellowstone's wild bison.
"These bison are incredibly important; the idea of just slaughtering some is mind-boggling to me," said Glenn Hockett, head of Gallatin Wildlife Association. The Montana-based group represents hunters and anglers and is one of the several organizations suing over the bison.
Testing of 161 captive bison revealed that 53 had been exposed to brucellosis and were candidates for slaughter. But no shipments have been scheduled, said Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash.
Nash said park attorneys had not yet responded to environmentalists' court filing to stop the slaughter. He said officials would continue to test and sort animals, which are in fenced pastures with water and hay.
Nash said an additional 47 bison were penned on Thursday, bringing to at least 368 the number of captive animals.
No bison were sent to slaughter in last year's mild winter. But this winter's higher-than-average snowfall in Yellowstone and bitter temperatures means hundreds more hungry buffalo are staging to leave the park.
"Most are several miles from the park boundary but bison can cover a lot of ground," said Nash. "They're bison, their movements are challenging to predict."
There is no documented case of wild bison infecting cows with brucellosis, but such a transmission has been produced in a laboratory, said Montana Department of Livestock spokesman Steve Merritt.
More than 3,500 Yellowstone bison have been killed since 2000, mostly by the government. The latest estimate puts the total size of the herd at 3,900.
Wildlife officials, working on the project with bison in the Gallatin National Forest, had hoped the bison would be contained by natural features including the Yellowstone River. But in one incident about a dozen animals crossed the river three times in just a few days.
John Youngberg with the Montana Farm Bureau said it could prove impossible to keep the bison contained.
"How do you control them?" Youngberg asked. "They are a large, large ungulate. Fences don't seem to make a whole lot of difference with them."
Reuters,"Groups ask judge to stay killing of Yellowstone bison", accessed February 3, 2011
Kansas City Star, "Yellowstone bison wandering off grazing grounds", accessed February 3, 2011