SEATTLE (CN) – Federal agencies need a new management plan for a threatened population of wild bison at Yellowstone National Park, environmentalists told the 9th Circuit.
In addition to Yellowstone, the bison live in the surrounding Gallatin National Forest. Federal agencies use hunting and other lethal-removal policies to strictly manage the population, also known as American Buffalo, and prevent their interaction with cattle. The herd is currently regulated by an interagency plan adopted in 2000 that is set to expire in 2014.
But wild bison advocates, including the Western Watersheds Project, Buffalo Field Campaign, Gallatin Wildlife Association and Yellowstone Buffalo Foundation, say that the outdated management plan ignores critical new information. In a 2009 complaint against the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service, the groups pointed to revised cattle-grazing areas, genetic diversity data and brucellosis transmission studies. Brucellosis, a bacteria that infects some of the Yellowstone bison, can cause spontaneous abortions in cattle.
In February 2011, U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell refused to to prevent lethal bison removal with an injunction.
“There is an annual season for lethal removal for wild animals in most of the United States and particularly in the states surrounding Yellowstone Park,” he wrote. “Deer, antelope, elk, moose, and others are removed annually as deemed necessary in order to scientifically control populations and accomplish these same resource goals. This is called ‘hunting season,’ and the phenomenon is widely accepted by the public.”
A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit assembled last week to hear the appeal.
As an advocate for the bison groups, Summer Nelson, delivered her opening remarks on the number of bison remaining, Judge John Noonan interrupted with a word of caution.
“Don’t exaggerate,” Noonan said, via remote video feed. “There are thousands, aren’t there?”
“The Yellowstone group is special, but it’s only a fraction of the number of bison” left in the country, he added.
Nelson responded that her remarks were specific to wild bison in Yellowstone, while most other bison belong to commercial herds.
“At stake is the continuing viability of that population,” Nelson said.
Judge Susan Graber asked Nelson what would happen if the court took no action and the current bison-management plan ends in 2014.
Nelson said that it appeared the bison would continue to be managed under the same plan, with outdated modeling and lack of analysis.
In the last 12 years, however, federal agencies have recognized that there is “substantial new information” regarding actual transmission risk of brucellosis to cattle, Nelson said. She added that the plan also relied on the extraneous operations of a cattle population that has since moved.
“They don’t know what the real impacts are and that’s the purpose of NEPA,” Nelson said, abbreviating the National Environmental Policy Act.
Thekla Hansen-Young, representing the federal agencies, defended the plan, saying the “herd is doing very well.”
Graber asked when supplemental information would trigger a new environmental impact study.
Hansen-Young responded that the new information in this case was not considered “significant” under NEPA.
The agencies involved in bison management “meet several times a year” to discuss new issues involving the herd and decide whether to make new environmental analyses on an ongoing basis if new, Hansen-Young said.
Nelson countered: “I don’t doubt that the agencies will continue to have meetings, but they are not meeting the statutory or regulatory requirements of NEPA.”