Wyoming Federal Judge Denies Injunction Requested By Bison Watchers
A federal judge in Casper on Friday denied a request to grant a journalist and wildlife advocate reasonable open access in Yellowstone National Park to the gathering of bison destined for slaughter.
U.S. District Court Judge Scott Skavdahl declined to issue a preliminary injunction to block the hazing, culling and slaughter of up to 900 bison beginning Feb. 15 until the park allowed Christopher Ketcham and Stephany Seay the ability to observe and document the activities.
Skavdahl held the hearing a week after the Ketcham and Seay, represented by four attorneys including Jamie Woolsey of Casper, filed their lawsuit.
His decision stunned Woolsey and University of Denver law professor Alan Chen, who spoke at the hearing.
"We're very disappointed in the ruling," said Chen, who specializes in first Amendment issues.. "We thought we presented a strong case."
The attorneys will talk with their clients before deciding their next move, he said.
Their primary concern is free speech rights. “By preventing the public, including Plaintiffs, from viewing the culling activities in Yellowstone National Park, the National Park Service infringes on Plaintiffs’ continuing right of access under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution," they wrote in their lawsuit.
During the hearing Friday, Chen reviewed the concerns of Ketcham and Seay.
They didn't dispute Yellowstone National Park's authority to manage bison populations, Chen said. The culling usually happens annually except when the bison population does not warrant it, and it occurs at the Stephens Creek facility at a remote area of the park.
But it will happen in 10 days, and Ketcham and Seay want only reasonable access, he said. "We're not talking about a free-for-all."
After they filed their lawsuit, the park granted them two two-day times to observe, but Chen said that still dodged the need for full transparency.
The park and its attorneys -- Assistant U.S. Attorney Levi Martin and Devon McCune of the Department of Justice's Environment and Natural Resources Division -- urged Skavdahl to deny the request for the preliminary injunction.
The granting of a preliminary injunction requires the plaintiffs to show they will be irreparably harmed if they don't get it. The "irreparable harm" here was the potential denial of First Amendment rights, Martin wrote in his opposition and voiced again by McCune during the court hearing Friday.
But the park has granted the two viewing times, Martin wrote.
Likewise, Ketcham and Seay would not be likely to succeed in court if the case went further because the park has not violated their rights by applying reasonable limitations for watching the culling process, Martin wrote. The Stephens Creek facility is not a public forum for the exercise of free speech in the traditional sense.
The park has not traditionally allowed access to watch the bison enter the Stephens Creek facility, he wrote. "The temporary closure around the Stephens Creek facility is implemented for public, staff and bison safety and to ensure management operations are unimpeded."
In his ruling, Skavdahl agreed with Martin and McCune, and denied the request for the preliminary injunction.