A national environmental group's request for a court order to stop any killing of buffalo migrating into Montana from Yellowstone National Park has been set for hearing Jan. 10 in U.S. District Court.
The request was filed by the Fund for Animals, a New York-based group boasting 200,000 members.U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell of Helena scheduled arguments for 10 that morning.
On Friday, Lovell also ordered lawyers for both sides to submit written arguments by Jan. 8, and asked for any objections to the court's hiring of two Montana State University biologists to serve as experts during the hearing.
The fund's request for the temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction seeks to stop the killing of buffalo until Lovell can hear the group's lawsuit, which was filed Dec. 5.
Defendants named in the suit are U.S. Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan, Agriculture Secretary Clayton Yeutter, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and its director, K.L. Cool.
The lawsuit alleges that an interim bison management plan violates federal and state environmental protection laws. No hearing date has been set for the lawsuit itself.
The interim management plan was reached after negotiations among Montana Gov. Stan Stephens, the wildlife agency, the Montana Department of Livestock and the federal agencies, generally represented by Yellowstone Superintendent Robert Barbee.
The plan calls for hunters to kill male bison when they enter the state. State wardens and federal rangers would shoot the females. The livestock agency would capture, sterilize and eventually sell at auction any calves accompanying the adult bison.
In 1985, the Montana Legislature classified the bison as a game animal and ordered that bison coming out of the park be killed, because many of them carry the disease brucellosis, which causes domestic livestock to abort their fetuses.
Nearly 700 bison have been killed since then, including 569 animals shot by hunters in the 1988-89 winter season.
Last year, only four animals were killed, but the accompanying protests by animal-rights activists generated major controversy, prompting Stephens to seek agreement with the park service in an effort to spread the blame and blunt the criticism.
The state contends the bison problem should be solved by officials in Yellowstone. Studies are underway to determine a long-term solution.
The joint interim management plan - for this winter only - has brought criticism from all sides of the issue, including animal-rights activists, hunters and some of the state personnel who would have to implement it.
This year, hunters have killed 11 bulls near West Yellowstone.