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Coalition of Wildlife Groups File Suit Against USFWS Over Yellowstone Bison

A coalition of wildlife advocacy groups have filed suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over Yellowstone’s bison population.

According to the Billings Gazette, the Western Watersheds Project, Buffalo Field Campaign, and Friends of Animals filed a suit against the USFWS and Interior Department Monday in the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia. We previously reported all three groups had given the USFWS a 60-day notice of their intent to sue.

The coalition will ask a federal judge to rule whether Yellowstone bison warrant protections under the Endangered Species Act; they argue the bison population is too small and too constrained—two conditions that imperil their long-term survival. Further, the plaintiffs argue routine hunting and slaughter of Yellowstone bison further threaten the population. From the Gazette:

Bison, which Congress designated as the national mammal earlier this year, were hunted to near extinction in the late 19th century. The estimated 4,900 Yellowstone bison are one of the last remaining populations in the U.S. that don’t have cattle genes in their DNA.

The Fish and Wildlife Service earlier this year rejected two petitions seeking federal protections for Yellowstone bison that would prevent them from being hunted, rounded up for slaughter or hazed back into the park when they leave in search of food.

Federal wildlife officials said in rejecting the petitions that Yellowstone bison numbers are stable and growing, and there is no scientific information that would lead to their being considered threatened or endangered.

A consortium of federal, state and tribal officials that manage the bison aims for a population of about 3,000. The Interagency Bison Management Plan calls for decreasing the existing population through hunting outside of the park’s boundaries and capturing them for slaughter, relocation or research.

In the lawsuit, the wildlife groups say the Yellowstone bison numbers are too few, they lack genetic diversity and they are confined within a small portion of its historical range.

“It’s not a viable population,” said [Director of the Wildlife Law Program, Friends of Animals] Mike Harris. “There’s too much inbreeding and they’re subject to population collapse if disease hits the herd or there is a change in habitat due to drought or climate change.”

The wildlife groups are asking a federal judge to order the government to withdraw its rejection of the petitions seeking to list Yellowstone bison as endangered or threatened, and to issue a new finding within 60 days of the court’s order.

Yellowstone officials did not return calls from the Gazette for comment. Biologists maintain the population needs 3,000 to 5,000 members to preserve genetic diversity.

Bison once numbered in the hundreds of millions across the North American continent, but (in a very short time period) were reduced to near extinction by the end of the 19th century.

Yellowstone’s current population has grown from an estimated 500 animals in 1970.

About Sean Reichard

Sean Reichard is the editor of Yellowstone Insider and author of Yellowstone Insider For Families 2017.

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