Bison eyed for Endangered Species Act protection

CASPER — Another iconic Yellowstone species is being considered again for Endangered Species Act protections.
Threats to the park’s plains bison — including loss of habitat and migration routes as well as the spread of disease — are concerning enough that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will conduct a year-long review of the subpopulation’s conservation status, the agency announced Friday.

The decision, which was be published in the Federal Register on Monday, comes after a federal judge ruled in January that Fish and Wildlife Service failed to justify its 2019 determination that Yellowstone’s bison did not need to be added to the endangered species list. 

It’s a win for the conservation groups that have campaigned for federal protections for Yellowstone’s bison for more than a decade, arguing that animals are confined to a too-small share of their former range, vulnerable to loss of genetic diversity and killed with abandon to prevent them from spreading diseases, like brucellosis, to cattle. 

“We don’t know the future, but we’re hopeful,” said Jackson Doyel, a volunteer coordinator with the Buffalo Field Campaign, a conservation group that has been involved in the legal battle over protections since 2014. “And hoping, with our continued pressure to this, bison will be treated as the sacred wildlife they are.” 

The Fish and Wildlife Service “will fully evaluate potential threats as part of the status assessment,” the agency said Friday. 

Yellowstone’s bison population, nearly eradicated by hunters in the late 19th century, was saved in part by an 1894 law banning hunting within its borders. An esttimated 2,300 to 5,500 plains bison live in Yellowstone today. The animal numbers over 400,000 across the U.S, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service, with the vast majority managed as livestock. 

Yellowstone is the only place in the country where bison have lived continuously since prehistoric times, according to the park service.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is currently assessing the status of two other iconic Yellowstone species: gray wolves and grizzly bears. The agency said in September that it would conduct a full status review and consider relisting for gray wolves, citing environmental groups’ concerns about scaled-up wolf hunts in Montana and Idaho. And Wyoming, believing its grizzlies to be successfully recovered, asked in January for the bears to be removed from the list.

Wyoming’s U.S. Sen. John Barrasso has tried in the past to shift some Endangered Species Act authority from the federal government to state wildlife managers, a move opposed by many environmental groups.