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Judge Lets Bison Slaughter Proceed

CASPER, Wyo. (CN) - The "hazing, culling and slaughter" of up to 900 of Yellowstone National Park's wild bison will carry on as scheduled, a federal judge ruled.

A reporter and park visitor sued the National Park Service on Jan. 26, asking the court to put the slaughter on hold until they could observe it, which the Park Service had prohibited.

U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl denied their request for a preliminary injunction on Feb. 5.

Journalist Christopher Ketcham and Stephany Seay asked for an injunction to allow them to observe from beginning to end the culling and slaughter of the herd and shipping to slaughterhouses, beginning Feb. 15.

Ketcham is an award-winning freelance journalist whose passion is "exposing governmental abuse of wildlife." Seay is a Montana resident who says she has been observing and documenting Yellowstone's "last population of wild, genetically pure migratory bison" for 12 years.

Only about 5,000 remain, and park policy seeks to keep the herd from overpopulating.

The park granted Ketcham and Seay two, two-day periods to observe the activities, but they said that wasn't enough and that the park owes the public "full transparency."

They claimed the time limits violated their rights under the First Amendment.

Judge Skavdahl wasn't persuaded. Irreparable harm is the most important requisite for a preliminary injunction, and Ketcham and Seay failed to establish that, he said.

"The Supreme Court has noted 'the loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury,'" Skavdahl wrote. "However ... plaintiffs fail to establish a First Amendment right to view culling activities. Therefore, no presumption of harm arises."

The judge said they were given a "reasonable" opportunity to view the culling. "Even though they prefer more frequent access, plaintiffs fail to demonstrate their interests are 'substantially' harmed," Skavdahl wrote.

Nor did Ketcham and Seay make a "strong showing of the likelihood of success on the merits."

"Furthermore, plaintiffs fail to identify a substantial, irreparable injury, and also fail to demonstrate the balance of interests and equities weigh in favor of the issuance of a preliminary injunction," Skavdahl said.

The ruling was an obvious letdown, said plaintiffs' attorney Jamie Woolsey, with Fuller Sandefer & Associates in Casper, and University of Denver law professor Alan Chen, who specializes in First Amendment issues.

"We're very disappointed in the ruling," Chen told a Wyoming radio station on Friday. "We thought we presented a strong case."

Woolsey and Chen said they will confer with their clients to discuss their next move.

But it's not all bad news for bison. In December, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock agreed to expand year-round habitat for wild bison in Montana outside Yellowstone National Park.

Environmentalists rejoiced at the announcement.

"Historically, thousands of wild bison have been hazed or slaughtered as they migrated from Yellowstone into Montana in the spring. This decision represents a significant change in bison management," the Northern Rockies Office of the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a statement.

Wild bison have been blocked from staying in Montana year-round because of concerns that brucellosis, a disease said to cause infected pregnant animals to miscarry, could affect livestock, despite evidence that there is an "incredibly small potential for infection and the management tools available to prevent such a transmission from happening," according to the NRDC.

"Giving wild bison from Yellowstone year-round habitat in Montana is a welcome holiday offering from Gov. Bullock," NRDC Northern Rockies Office Director Matt Skogland said. "While I'd certainly love to see the state go further, this decision is a big step forward for wild bison in Montana, and it will show that wild bison and people can successfully share the Montana landscape outside Yellowstone National Park. When you consider this from a science, economics, public opinion, or common sense perspective, it makes sense for Montana to give wild bison from Yellowstone year-round habitat in the state."

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