(CN) – The U.S. Park Service will be allowed to slaughter hundreds of wild bison that migrated outside the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park, a federal judge in Missoula, Mont., ruled Monday. Conservation groups had filed an emergency motion last week to prevent the agency from killing bison following their annual winter migration.
“Plaintiffs’ proposed injunction to save the lives of individual Yellowstone Bison would not serve the best interests of the Yellowstone Bison herd,” Judge Charles Lovell wrote. “Distasteful as the lethal removal may be to some, it is clearly one of the foremost management tools – time honored – necessarily utilized to protect the species, the habitat, and the public.”
The bison migrate to lower altitude grasslands in Montana to feed when snowpack inside the park makes foraging impossible. So far this year, in a particularly harsh winter, nearly 400 wild bison have been caught outside the boundary of the park.
The cattle industry in Montana is afraid that domestic cattle will be infected by brucellosis, a bacteria that causes domestic cows to abort their calves, which is carried by some bison. Brucellosis can be transmitted to humans through milk from infected cows.
In their motion, the conservation groups asked the court to over turn the bison management plan because they say the agencies executing the plan violated its rules by harassing, confining and killing the animals when less extreme measures, such as allowing them to graze in buffer zones adjacent to the park, are available.
Lovell rejected this claim.
“The capture, test and slaughter program has been undertaken following full National Environmental Protection Act analysis that has been carefully reviewed by this court,” the judge wrote.
The Park Service slaughters bison caught off the park that carry brucellosis and return non-carriers to the park in the spring unless overcrowding in the park requires their destruction. The agency argued that this process is preferable to the alternative where the state of Montana would kill any bison found outside the park’s boundaries – which the courts have previously determined the state has the right to do.
Lovell was sensitive to the conservation groups’ plight but ultimately firm on the issue. “For those who admire the Yellowstone bison, it is easy to be sympathetic to an emotional appeal to ‘stop the slaughter,'” the ruling states. “Yet it is clear that this population of wild bison – diseased and healthy – ought not be allowed to reproduce prolifically beyond the capacity of its range without the institution of scientific management.”