Slaughter of Up to 900 Wild Bison at Yellowstone Park Sparks Federal Lawsuit to Protect First Amendment Rights

The Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), Jamie M. Woolsey of the law firm Fuller, Sandefer & Associates and two constitutional law professors filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday on behalf of journalist Christopher Ketcham and wild bison advocate Stephany Seay, who are seeking access to Yellowstone Park’s controversial bison trapping operations that lead to the slaughter of hundreds of bison. The lawsuit argues that the First Amendment guarantees citizens and journalists reasonable, non-disruptive access to the publicly funded national park.

Photo credit: Yellowstone National Park
The National Park Service is scheduled to capture and facilitate the killing of up to 900 bison inside Yellowstone Park starting on Feb. 15, 2016. Photo credit: Yellowstone National Park

The National Park Service is scheduled to capture and facilitate the killing of up to 900 bison inside Yellowstone Park starting on Feb. 15. During the capture and kill operation, the park service closes parts of the park to public access.

“It’s ironic that to benefit Montana ranchers grazing their cattle—an invasive species—Yellowstone Park has agreed to facilitate the capture and killing of 900 American bison, an iconic, native species,” Law Professor and ALDF Attorney Justin Marceau said.

Past accounts of similar bison killing operations have provided evidence of brutal treatment of the animals. The centerpiece of the park’s role in the slaughter is the Stephens Creek Capture Facility, which is located entirely within the national park. The bison are driven into the facility, held in pens, tested and eventually forced into trucks and transported to slaughter. In recent years, the park service reversed its previous policy that allowed members of the public to witness and document the operation—the park service itself shot video and photographs—and now proposes to offer only three supervised tours, including one when the trap facility at Stephens Creek was not in operation.

Yellowstone’s public information office also used to offer information on how many bison were captured, shipped to slaughter or injured each day. During the past two bison kills, however, the park delayed release of that information for two weeks.

“If the First Amendment right of access is to mean anything,” Marceau went on to say, “it means that citizens and journalists should have reasonable, non-disruptive access to their publicly-funded national park to observe and memorialize one of the most controversial uses of national park land imaginable.”

“No one wants their federal tax dollars to be used by park service rangers to abuse and kill the very animals the service is responsible for protecting,” Seay said. “The park service doesn’t want the public to see these shameful activities.”

Ketcham has written about the bison controversy for VICE, Harper’s and other magazines and websites. “I want full access to the operations,” he said, “so I can effectively report on the issue. I want to be able to see the suffering of these animals up close and thus bring readers up close.”

Although there were once tens of millions of bison throughout most of North America, today wild bison are ecologically extinct throughout their native range, with fewer than 5,000 living in and around Yellowstone National Park, the last continuously wild, migratory herds left in the nation. The animals are currently managed under the controversial Interagency Bison Management Plan; thousands of bison have been abused and killed through hazing, hunting, scientific experiments and capture-for-slaughter operations.

The purported reason for the enactment of the plan is that bison threaten to infect local cattle populations with brucellosis, a non-fatal disease originally brought to North America by European cows. Wild bison, however, have never transmitted the disease to cattle. In fact, no transmission from bison to cattle has ever occurred outside of a laboratory setting.

“Denying access to the park during this controversial publicly-funded wildlife slaughter campaign is very similar to the intent of ag-gag laws,” ALDF Executive Director Stephen Wells said. “Such laws ‘gag’ would-be whistleblowers, journalists and activists by making it illegal to record and disseminate photos or footage taken in agricultural operations. ALDF has successfully proven ag-gag laws are unconstitutional under he First Amendment and we are confident we will do the same in this case.”

The coalition of law professors, non-profit lawyers and private attorneys are joined by a team of top law students at the University of Denver and they are all eager to aggressively litigate the free speech rights of journalists seeking to document the trapping of bison within national park lands.

2 thoughts on “Slaughter of Up to 900 Wild Bison at Yellowstone Park Sparks Federal Lawsuit to Protect First Amendment Rights

  1. Of course they don’t want anyone to have access to the bison traps. They would see wild animals hazed and, some already hurt, herded into metal cages where they are terrified and injure themselves more trying to escape. They would see bison with their heads locked tight by side clamps, with metal rings through their noses to immobilize them. Finally, they would see these magnificent wild animals crammed into trucks and headed for slaughter. One can only try to imagine what this horrific capture and trip to their death is like for them. No wonder the government agencies want the whole operation hidden from view and treated like an ag-gag issue.

    Human beings are responsible for killing bison in the millions to make way for cattle (as well as to destroy Native American culture). Now the cattle men want the little land that is left to them. According to an official from the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish (who wanted to remain anonymous for obvious reasons) “If the public gets used to the idea that bison, like elk and deer, should be free to roam on federal land, then it may lead to a reduction in the amount of public lands forage allotted to livestock. That’s what the ranchers really fear.”

    From” In the Presence of Buffalo,” Daniel Brister, West Wind Press (2013), p. 13.

    However, they hide that concern behind the false fear of brucellosis, a bacterial disease that can cause abortions in cattle. The bison actually got brucellosis in the first place from cows, but the disease has never been proven transmissible from bison back to domestic animals. But that doesn’t stop the ranchers from demanding that bison die. In fact, the Montana Department of Livestock (DOL) can benefit directly from “diseased” bison death sentences. A Montana state law allows the DOL to benefit directly from the proceeds and auctions of “diseased” bison: “the department . . . may sell a wild buffalo or bison carcass to help defray expenses of the department . . the department shall deposit any revenue derived from the sale of the wild buffalo or bison carcass to the state special revenue fund to the credit of the department.”

    From “In the Presence of Buffalo,” Daniel Brister, West Wind Press (2013), p. 22.

    What a deal–the more bison they kill under the guise of disease or the more deer, elk, and wolves they kill by selling hunting licenses, the more money the state departments can make.

    The sad story of the bison is just one of the many atrocities visited by human beings upon our nonhuman brothers and sisters. If the shame were just in the past, it would be shocking enough. But torture and killing continue with the same greed and justification by the perpetrators and the same lack of action and compassion by the rest of society.

    By the way, the bison have advocates working hard for them at the Buffalo Field Campaign (one of my favorite groups!).

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