Activists Sue for Right to Witness the Government's Slaughter of 900 Buffalo

Government officials are about to round up and slaughter up to a fifth of the wild buffalo in Yellowstone National Park, but they have blocked access to the areas of the park where the killings will take place.


Now activists have filed a lawsuit in federal court that argues that the public has a First Amendment right to witness and document the controversial cull, which is designed to stop the spread of a disease from buffalo to cattle. 

“This winter, approximately 600 to 900, or about one in five, of these bison will be shipped to meat processing facilities for slaughter,” according to the lawsuit, which was filed against the National Park Service by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, two law professors at the University of Denver, and a private attorney in Wyoming on behalf of journalist Christopher Ketcham and wild-bison advocate Stephany Seay. “Because the culling activities take place on public land, are conducted by public officials and are paid for with public funds, [they] are matters of significant public interest.”

The park service blocked full access to the cull in 2006. The public will be allowed to attend three “organized tours” during this year’s cull, which begins on Feb. 15. But opponents say the facility will not be operational during one of the visits and that past tours only showed bison in their holding pens, not the roundup, sorting, testing, and transport of the animals to a slaughterhouse.

Such “denial of reasonable public access” violates the Constitution’s First Amendment, wrote attorney Jamie Woolsey.

Alan Chen, a University of Denver law professor who is representing the plaintiffs in the suit, said the U.S. Supreme Court and other courts “have suggested that the First Amendment doesn’t just include a right to speak. There’s also a related right of the public to have access to important government institutions.”

A park service representative said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

“Here we have an event of enormous public significance, and the park service seeks to close it off to public scrutiny,” Chen said. “The American people should be able to debate about this, but they can’t do that without access to the essential facts.”

Those facts are disturbing to wildlife advocates.

Each year since 2000, thousands of Yellowstone buffalo have been rounded up as part of the Interagency Bison Management Plan. Once captured, they are “abused and killed through hazing, hunting, scientific experiments, and capture-for-slaughter operations,” the Animal Legal Defense Fund said in a statement.  

Why are park service officials killing animals they are mandated to protect? It’s purportedly to prevent the spread of the Brucellosis abortis bacteria to cattle that graze on public and private land adjacent to Yellowstone. The bacteria can spread among cattle and cause cows to abort their calves.

Federal officials say that 40 to 60 percent of Yellowstone bison have been exposed to the bacteria. More than 40 percent of those animals show active infection.

Fifty bulls were tested in 2010–11. Only three had the virus in their semen, according to a federal study.

Seay said wild bison don’t breed with domestic cattle.

“The more that people oppose this slaughter, the more secretive Yellowstone has become,” she said. “If people saw what’s going on, they would be outraged knowing that the people who’re supposed to protect these animals are actually participating in their suffering and killing while catering to livestock interests.”

This article originally appeared on TakePart.com. Reprinted with permission.

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