by Laura Lundquist, Chronicle Staff Writer
For at least the next two weeks, Montana Department of Livestock helicopters will cease to hover in the skies around Yellowstone National Park.
Monday afternoon, U.S. District Judge Charles C. Lovell agreed with the arguments of Alliance for Wild Rockies attorneys and issued a restraining order against the use of helicopters in bison hazing operations near the park. The wildlife advocates had argued hazing with helicopters could harm grizzly bears in the area.
The restraining order remains in effect for 14 days.
Lovell heard arguments Monday in Helena from both AWR and state attorneys and adjourned the hearing, saying he’d take the issue under advisement. But an hour later, attorneys learned Lovell had decided to issue the order.
AWR executive director Michael Garrity heard the arguments and was returning to Bozeman when he learned about the decision.
“The judge seemed annoyed that they had been going ahead on a case that he has yet to rule on,” Garrity said. “The case was well-argued — it was clear that they were violating the law.”
Christian Mackay, DOL executive officer, was also in the courtroom and said he didn’t sense annoyance on the judge’s part.
“I think we acted properly within his ruling,” Mackay said.
Assistant Attorney General Clyde Peterson argued against the restraining order, and rancher Bill Myers also testified. Afterward, Peterson declined to comment.
AWR attorney Rebecca K. Smith said the judge hadn’t indicated whether he would consider an extension of another 14 days or if he would hear arguments on a preliminary injunction.
“An extension might be a moot point if there is no need for hazing after 14 days,” Smith said.
If Lovell approves the preliminary injunction, the DOL would not be able to use helicopters until Lovell issues his final ruling.
Smith said more than a year probably will pass before Lovell rules on the associated lawsuit, which argues against the use of low-flying helicopters in hazing operations. Attorneys have yet to file initial documents.
If there is no injunction, Smith may have to file for another restraining order next spring. She indicated she would, if needed.
Mackay said that for now, the DOL’s plan is to continue the haze without helicopters.
“State law allows us to enter private property to remove bison,” Mackay said.
Garrity said one of the primary uses of the helicopter is to haze bison off private property to public property where riders can take over. On Wednesday, when the main hazing began, riders did not encroach on private property. Many local landowners have prominent “No Trespassing” signs.
Darrell Geist of the Buffalo Field Campaign said the Interagency Bison Management Plan does not give the DOL explicit permission to trespass.
“They claim that they have police power, but there’s nothing written (in the plan),” Geist said.
Tuesday is the last day of planned hazing as riders try to herd around 70 bison back into the park. Mackay said most of those bison have already been herded into the park once, but they moved back out over the weekend.
Peter Bogusko of the Buffalo Field Campaign said the helicopter left after Friday and only horsemen participated in Monday’s hazing, which mostly happened south of the Madison Arm of Hebgen Lake.
“They were herding females and calves that had been left behind and it seemed a little slower today because they weren’t using the helicopter,” Bogusko said.
Mackay said once the restraining order expires, the DOL will determine whether the helicopter is still needed.
“If it’s lifted and if we wouldn’t be violating his order, we’ll see where it’s at at that point,” Mackay said.
The Montana Farm Bureau issued a statement on Friday against grounding the helicopters. Upon hearing about the restraining order, the bureau’s director, John Youngberg, said he didn’t have much to say.
“I think it still puts them behind,” Youngberg said. “If they continue the restraining order, then I think something is going to have to be done.”