HELENA — A federal appeals court denied a request to block the use of a helicopter to haze wild bison as officials in southwestern Montana wrapped up the annual drive of the animals back into Yellowstone National Park.
A three-judge panel from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday denied the injunction request by the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. The Helena-based conservation group said low-altitude helicopter hazing of bison also harasses and displaces federally protected grizzly bears in the area.
The group is appealing U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell’s ruling in March against its lawsuit to stop the practice. It asked for the emergency injunction to halt the operation that began earlier this month.
The 9th Circuit panel did not give a reason for denying the injunction request but said it would expedite hearing the alliance’s appeal.
The attempt to block this year’s hazing may be moot, anyway. Montana Department of Livestock spokesman Steve Merritt said Tuesday the annual bison-hazing operation has progressed to the point where the helicopter is likely grounded while the last bison are driven back into the park.
Some 350 bison were outside the park boundary in the Hebgen Basin on Monday, and it was unclear how many remained or had crossed the boundary again on Tuesday, he said. “We’re probably done with the helicopter for the year, but we’ve always felt the helicopter was one of the more expeditious, efficient ways to move bison back into the park,” Merritt said.
Bison migrate from the park to lower elevations in Montana in the winter, but a federal-state agreement requires their return to the park in the spring to make way for cattle to graze. Montana officials, led by the state Department of Livestock, have hazed bison from public and private land in southwestern Montana since 2000.
Lovell ruled against the alliance’s lawsuit based on conclusions by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service that the operations aren’t likely to hurt threatened grizzlies. Officials also try to avoid hazing in areas where there are grizzlies, Lovell wrote.
Alliance attorney Rebecca Smith said in the appeal that bears are in the area and there is evidence that helicopters cause grizzlies to panic and flee from their habitat.