SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - A federal judge on Monday denied a request from environmentalists to halt the execution of buffalo at Yellowstone National Park, a ruling that clears the way for hundreds of buffalo to be shipped to slaughter.
More than 500 buffalo, or bison, have been corralled in recent weeks in the park after their search for food caused them to wander from the park into Montana, where ranchers fear the bison will transmit brucellosis to cows.
The disease can cause cows to miscarry their young.
Federal and state agencies - including Yellowstone and Montana Department of Livestock - that oversee the nation's last purebred herd of wild bison had planned to kill straying bison when conservation groups sued to stop the slaughter.
Government officials have been testing the penned bison for exposure to brucellosis as they awaited the court's decision.
By Monday, testing had revealed that 217 of the 525 corralled buffalo had the antibodies for the bacterial disease. Those 217 are targeted for slaughter.
Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash said park managers will consult with attorneys and other agencies managing the bison before scheduling any shipments to slaughter.
Environmental groups said Monday they plan to appeal the ruling by U.S. District Judge Charles C. Lovell.
The request to spare the bison was part of a broader lawsuit by sportsmen, Indian tribes and environmentalists.
The groups, including Buffalo Field Campaign and Western Watersheds Project, argue government land managers were violating their own regulations and the public trust by chasing, confining and killing Yellowstone's wild bison.
Lovell rejected those claims in his decision on Monday.
"Distasteful as the lethal removal may be to some, it is clearly one of the foremost management tools - time honored - necessarily utilized to protect the species, the habitat, and the public," the judge wrote.
Dan Brister, head of Buffalo Field Campaign, said a time-honored tradition does not mean it's a good one.
"If slaughtering buffalo is time-honored, it's high time for a change," he said.
The planned slaughter has sparked debate in Montana, where ranchers and the state Livestock Department have successfully lobbied to keep the policy in place that kills straying bison.
The judge's order comes even as the Montana governor, Yellowstone and other federal agencies have been swamped with telephone calls and emails demanding the bison be spared.
Images of wild bison being prodded onto trucks destined for slaughterhouses have been a public relations nightmare for Montana before.
The heavy snowfall and bitter cold in Yellowstone in recent weeks is reminiscent of the winter of 2007-2008 when a record 1,400 buffalo were killed for roaming outside the park.
The government must adopt non-lethal measures for straying bison when the population drops to 2,100. The present herd at Yellowstone is estimated at 3,700.