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Greater Yellowstone Coalition v. Babbitt

ELR Citation: 27 ELR 20865
Nos. CV 96-82-H-CCL, 952 F. Supp. 1435/(D. Mont., 12/19/1996)

The court refuses to enjoin implementation of the 1996 Interim Bison Management Plan (1996 Plan) for managing bison that leave Yellowstone National Park and enter public and private lands in Montana. The court holds that plaintiffs failed to show a likelihood of success on the merits of their claims that the 1996 Plan violates the National Park Service (NPS) Organic Act, the Yellowstone Organic Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The NPS Organic Act gives park managers broad discretion in determining how best to conserve wildlife. Moreover, the NPS has statutory authority to cooperate with Montana in prohibiting the entrance of brucellosis-infected bison into the state and NPS policy calls for an ecosystem approach to managing park resources. Also, the legislative history and the history of NPS activities in Yellowstone indicate that the Yellowstone Organic Act's antipoaching statute was intended to apply to members of the public, not the NPS. If it did apply to the NPS, it would be in direct conflict with another Yellowstone Organic Act statute that gives direct authority to the Secretary of the Interior to sell or dispose of surplus bison. And under NEPA, the NPS gave each of the requisite criteria a hard look in finding that the 1996 Plan would not have a significant impact on the human environment and would not constitute an action requiring preparation of an environmental impact statement (EIS). Because it prepared a finding of no significant impact, the NPS was not bound by 40 C.F.R. §1506.1(c), which prohibits major federal action that significantly affects the quality of the human environment from being undertaken while work on a required EIS is in progress.

The court next holds that plaintiffs have not shown the likelihood of irreparable injury or that a balancing of harms tips sharply in their favor. It is unlikely that any more Yellowstone bison will be removed from the herd under the 1996 Plan than under the current plan. While plaintiffs' environmental, emotional, and aesthetic interest in experiencing Yellowstone as a wildlife sanctuary may be irreparably injured, plaintiffs have not shown that they are legally entitled to demand unmanaged wildlife. And while there may be a loss of free-ranging bison within the park, the NPS is well within its discretion to remove surplus bison from the park when they threaten neighboring landowners. Finally, the court holds that the 1996 Plan reasonably furthers the many aspects of the public interest in this case. There is an important public interest in eradicating brucellosis from the nation's livestock, in allowing joint management of the Yellowstone bison herd by the two governments that share authority over the herd, in minimizing bison removal, and in protecting adjacent landowners from property damage caused by wandering bison.

[Related litigation is published at 22 ELR 21194 and 23 ELR 20201.]

Counsel for Plaintiffs
James S. Angell
Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund
11 E. Main St., Unit C, Bozeman MT 59715
(406) 586-9699

Counsel for Defendants
Martin J. LaLonde, Geoffrey Garver
Environment and Natural Resources Division
U.S. Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 514-2000