CHEYENNE, Wyo. " A federal judge has cleared the way for state of Wyoming to hold a bison hunt at the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole and state officials say hunting could begin as soon as next month.
Doug Brimeyer, Jackson wildlife biologist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said Friday that the state plans to allow hunters to kill about 300 bison this fall. He said hunters had to apply early this year to be eligible for bison permits.
Brimeyer said the state ultimately plans to reduce the bison herd from its present size of more than 1,200 animals down to 400 or 500 over the next five to seven years.
Gov. Dave Freudenthal earlier this month had called on Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne to resolve a federal lawsuit that had been lingering since the 1990s so hunting at the refuge could proceed.
The Fund for Animals filed the lawsuit in 1998 claiming federal agencies had failed to conduct adequate environmental analysis of hunting. U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina in Washington agreed with the Fund for Animals' argument.
Brimeyer said there had been limited bison hunting allowed on the refuge before the lawsuit was filed.
As a result of the lawsuit, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was forced to conduct an environmental study addressing management of the refuge. The study was recently completed. Relying on the study, the federal agency recently asked the state to hold a bison hunt on the refuge.
However, wrapping up the lawsuit required resolving a dispute over legal expenses between the Fund for Animals and the federal government. Jonathan Lovvorn, lawyer for the Fund for Animals, said Friday that the federal government recently agreed to pay about $60,000 to the fund.
Wyoming Attorney General Pat Crank said Friday that Judge Urbina signed off on a final settlement on Monday.
"We're glad that they did that, and that we can begin to reduce some of those bison numbers up there," Crank said. "There are far too many bison up there in a very kind of fragile area."
Crank said he believes Freudenthal's request to the federal government to resolve the lawsuit spurred resolution of the issue.
Lovvorn said that although his group agreed to termination of the case, it still opposes hunting bison on the refuge. He says it's inhumane for the state to feed bison on the refuge and then allow hunters to shoot them there.
"The case was over, and there's nothing further to be done in that case," Lovvorn said. "But just because they can do it (hunt bison) doesn't mean that we support it."
The Fund for Animals reserves the right to take more legal action to try to stop the hunting, Lovvorn said. He said the group hasn't decided if it will try to take action before the hunting starts in September.