‘Fantastic Victory’ for Yellowstone Bison as Court Rules USFWS Must Reconsider ESA Protection

(EnviroNews Wyoming) — In what wildlife and conservation organizations are calling a “fantastic victory,” on Feb. 1, 2018, Federal Judge Christopher Cooper ruled U.S. wildlife officials must reconsider their 2015 decision to deny Yellowstone bison protections under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

According to the opinion written by Judge Cooper, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) rejected a study by Natalie D. Halbert showing the number of animals in Yellowstone may be too few to sustain the park’s two genetically distinct herds. On the other hand, Cooper said the agency prioritized a study by Patrick J. White and Richard L. Wallen, which stated genetic diversity wasn’t important to maintaining the herds because it was artificially created in the first place. Hence, in his ruling, Judge Cooper said the agency couldn’t “simply pick and choose” whatever scientific studies it wanted to support its findings. Cooper also said USFWS must consider research that undermines its own position and explain why the undermining studies are “unreliable, irrelevant or otherwise unreasonable.”

“The Fish and Wildlife Service made a political decision to suppress and ignore science in order to deny the Yellowstone bison the protection they deserve,” said Josh Osher, Montana Director for Western Watersheds Project (WWP). “The Administration is clearly bowing to the influence of the livestock industry and its agenda to minimize bison populations and their natural migrations, despite their status as the national mammal.”

The Yellowstone bison (Bison bison), also known simply as “buffalo,” number about 5,000 animals, comprising two herds. While there are herds of bison scattered throughout the United States, most of them exist because they have been restocked in those areas. In many cases, these herds have also been interbred with cattle, compromising their genetic integrity. Yellowstone’s herds are the largest pure bison left in the wild, and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) is the only place in the U.S. where the creatures have lived continuously since prehistoric times.

“This is a huge victory,” said Ken Cole, Executive Director of the Buffalo Field Campaign, in a press release. “This is a long battle but we won a significant round for the buffalo today.” The Buffalo Field Campaign partnered with WWP and Friends of Animals to file the first petition in the lawsuit.

The park’s animals are routinely hunted and slaughtered to assuage the fears of nearby ranchers. Brucellosis is a bacterial infection that can wreak havoc on bison. According to the National Academy of Sciences, there has never been a documented case of the disease being transferred from Yellowstone’s wild bison herd to domestic cattle. Nevertheless, ranchers, especially in Montana, support a seasonal culling because they fear their cattle will become contaminated. These ranchers say they are also concerned about the competition for grass and the possibility of property damage. Thursday’s court ruling will not affect culling in 2018.

Bison were named the National Mammal of the United States in 2016. Much like the Bald Eagle, these animals have represented the West for years because of their iconic physicality and sheer numbers when America expanded westward.

Hunters and sportsmen, like Buffalo Bill Cody, would shoot the animals from trains and leave the carcasses to rot on the prairie. Wild herds dwindled from tens of millions of animals, reaching a dismal low of 1,091 animals by 1889. Though the creatures were nearly wiped from the face of the earth in the 1800s, there has been a modest rebound today, including those found in Yellowstone and smaller herds elsewhere. Now, the USFW will have to reconsider how it classifies American buffalo in Yellowstone and carefully ponder all of the scientific data, rather than just reports supporting its own position.

Mountain of American Bison Skulls

In light of Judge Cooper’s ruling, bison are now back in line to receive protection under the Endangered Species Act. For now, the court has ordered the Government to take a step toward protecting these last remaining pure bison in their natural habitat.

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