(CN) - State and federal wildlife officials properly allow helicopters to "haze" wild bison back into Yellowstone National Park in the spring, the 9th Circuit ruled, finding little proof that the operation harms grizzly bears.
Yellowstone's bison are allowed to range outside the park's boundaries in the winter, but must be herded back in mid-May to prevent the spread of brucellosis to local cattle herds. The Montana Department of Livestock employs cowboys on horseback and off-highway vehicles, as well as in helicopters, to convince the wild bison to move out of Montana and back into the park.
Fearing that the helicopters were harming endangered Yellowstone grizzly bears, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies challenged the Interagency Bison Management Plan that authorized the herding technique.
The group sued the Montana Department of Livestock, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies, alleging that the flights were so disruptive to grizzly bears around Yellowstone that they essentially became an illegal "incidental take."
While the case was pending in Missoula, the National Park Service consulted a second time with Fish and Wildlife as to whether the flights caused injury or harm to grizzly bears, and again found no evidence that they did. U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell then granted summary judgment to the defendants, and dismissed the environmentalists' other claims for lack of standing.
A unanimous appellate panel of the 9th Circuit reversed the standing issues on Thursday, but otherwise agreed with the lower court.
"The federal defendants acknowledge that the hazing can impact grizzly bears, but assert that hazing operations 'infrequently occurred in the presence of grizzly bears' and 'would cease if there was evidence of grizzlies being active in the area,'" Judge Richard Paez wrote for the three-judge panel. "Although there was evidence in the summary judgment record that helicopters had flown over bears, there was no evidence that helicopters had continued hazing operations in areas with signs of grizzly bear presence in violation of the instructions to stop."
The panel also found the environmentalists' call for a second biological evaluation under the Endangered Species Act to be moot after the National Park Service's further work with Fish and Wildlife.
"Re-initiation of consultation is the precise relief sought by Alliance," the panel found.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.