A Helena judge has agreed to hear a Bozeman conservation group’s request to halt helicopter use during bison hazing. In the meantime, Yellowstone National Park officials await the governor’s response to their request to stop helicopter operations

On Wednesday, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies filed both a temporary restraining order and an injunction against state and federal agencies, asking that the court halt helicopter hazing in the grizzly habitat west of the park until a decision is made on an associated lawsuit.

The defendants include the Montana Department of Livestock, U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and an intervener, rancher Bill Myers.

Attorney Rebecca Smith of the Public Interest Defense Center said a judge could quickly approve a restraining order if he chooses. It stays in effect for 14 days and can be renewed once.

On Thursday, District Judge Charles C. Lovell in Helena agreed to hear Smith’s argument for the restraining order on Monday.

Lovell must consider arguments from both sides to approve the injunction. Smith said the best case would be for the judge to schedule that hearing and approve the injunction prior to the expiration of the restraining order.

The associated lawsuit contends that motor-vehicle use – in this case, the use of low-flying helicopters – causes “irreparable harm to grizzly bears,” a threatened species protected under the Endangered Species Act.

The Interagency Bison Management Plan, written in 2000, includes a clause suspending hazing operations “if there was evidence of grizzlies being active in the area.” The lawsuit claims the agencies didn’t conduct a required environmental assessment about the effect of the plan on grizzlies.

Even though FWP employees and residents in the West Yellowstone area have reported grizzlies in the area for the past few years, hazing has not ceased.

The Forest Service has documented that “grizzly bears have been noted to panic and flee areas from over-flights in nearly all cases where they have been observed.”

Such disturbance can displace and stress the animals, reducing the survival of mothers and cubs in the spring when they are under-nourished after hibernating, according to FWP documents.

Michael Garrity, AWR executive director, also filed an accompanying document, saying that his rights, and those of other AWR members, were harmed if they could not observe grizzlies in an undisturbed habitat.

Smith and co-attorney Timothy Bechtold filed the lawsuit almost a year ago and it’s slowly proceeding through the legal process.

“It could be a couple years before we get a ruling, which is why we’re asking for the injunction,” Smith said.

It’s not just conservation groups that are objecting to parts of the haze.

On Thursday, Yellowstone National Park managers sent a request to Gov. Brian Schweitzer asking that helicopter hazing operations be suspended for the remainder of the week, said park spokesman Dan Hottle.

A herd of around 50 stragglers were pushed into the park Thursday morning, said state veterinarian Martin Zaluski.

Zaluski said operations were not suspended and riders from the DOL, APHIS and FWP will monitor the area for the next few weeks.

Hottle observed the haze on Wednesday and said riders had been overly aggressive during the haze, pushing more than 320 animals two miles inside the park.

“Our goal was not to push all of them in (to the park) in one day,” Hottle said. “Our goal was to do it incrementally, not to force them.”

Hottle said park management had learned from the haze last year, which was delayed by snow until early June. Last year, the drive proceeded more slowly and was more successful as a result.

This year, park managers set a limit of 150 bison in any one group and asked that bison be allowed to graze along the way.

“We just wanted to get their heads pointed in the right direction, let them learn their surroundings and let them be bison,” Hottle said. “We need this downtime to see what they’ll do and then we’ll re-evaluate.”

Schweitzer spokesman Jayson O’Neill said the governor’s office was not yet aware of the park’s request Thursday afternoon.

Laura Lundquist can be reached at 582-2638 or llundquist@dailychronicle.com.

Correction

This article was changed on May 11, 2012, to correct the fact that Yellowstone National Park requested a halt to helicopter hazing operations, not all hazing operations, as was originally reported.

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