The Trump administration has decided not to protect the Yellowstone bison under the Endangered Species Act, and environmental groups asking the federal government to protect the bison from extinction expect to challenge the decision in court.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Sept. 5 that not enough data exists showing that the bison—icons of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho—are sufficiently threatened to warrant protection.
The Yellowstone bison are among the last remaining genetically pure descendants of the original wild bison herd that once roamed the West, numbering in the tens of millions. Other bison found in the U.S. have cross-bred with cattle, according to the groups.
The Western Watersheds Project and the Buffalo Field Campaign, regional environmental groups, filed a petition with Fish and Wildlife in 2014 requesting that the bison be listed as endangered or threatened.
“We’re disappointed but not surprised that the Fish and Wildlife Service is taking this action and dragging out this process,” Josh Osher, Montana director for the Western Watersheds Project, said Sept. 6.
He said that the best science shows that the Yellowstone bison is genetically distinct and is at high risk of extinction, and he expects that a legal challenge the groups are likely to mount will demonstrate that in court.
By the 1880s, most bison herds in the West were gone. And by 1902, when conservation efforts began, Yellowstone’s bison herd was reduced to about two dozen animals because of poaching. The National Park Service estimates there were 4,527 Yellowstone bison as of August 2018.
Responding to Court Challenge
The Fish and Wildlife Service originally determined in 2016 that the bison don’t need protection, a decision the groups challenged in federal district court in Washington, D.C. In 2018, the court overturned the service’s decision and required the agency to revisit its finding.
The service issued its second finding Sept. 5, again determining that the bison need no additional protection.
The groups were most concerned that a regional bison management plan will reduce the bison’s winter habitat and cull the herd, contributing to a reduction of genetic diversity in the herd and spread of brucellosis, among other impacts, the Fish and Wildlife Service said in a statement Sept. 6.
Brucellosis is a bacterial infection found in bison in the region and can spread to cattle and other animals.
“The overall numbers of bison are stable despite culling and the presence of brucellosis, and are in fact approaching the carrying capacity for bison in Yellowstone National Park,” the service said in its statement.
The environmental groups, along with Friends of Animals, separately sued Interior Secretary David Bernhardt in May to try to force the Interior Department to protect the Yellowstone bison.