Judge: Agency cherrypicked science for bison management

Amid protests, Fish & Wildlife has been ordered to reexamine protections for the iconic Yellowstone beast.

 

Before dawn on a frigid morning earlier this month, two members of the activist group Wild Buffalo Defense locked themselves to part of an enclosure at Yellowstone National Park’s Stephens Creek Capture Facility. Bison held at the facility are tested by park staff for brucellosis, and hundreds are destined for slaughter as part of the Park Service’s annual herd reductions. The demonstrators hoped to prevent the continued killing of Yellowstone bison and to protest a recent decision not to allow the transfer of bison to the Fort Peck Reservation, in Montana. As activists continue to fight the culling of Yellowstone bison, a recent court decision could help them get what they want: stronger protections for the park’s herds.

Bison numbers are reduced through slaughter and hunting each year for a couple of reasons. Park managers say they need to keep the numbers low or the bison will overgraze in the park. And some local interests want bison to stay off the range and ranches outside the park because of concerns about the spread of brucellosis, a disease that causes cattle abortions, or because bison compete with cattle for forage and can cause property damage.

A District Court judge has now ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must reevaluate its 2015 decision not to consider Yellowstone bison for a threatened or endangered species listing. That means bison could still be granted protections under the Endangered Species Act. If that happens, federal agencies would be required to protect the bison and likely have to alter their culling practices. The Jan. 31 decision directs Fish and Wildlife to redo its conservation assessment of Yellowstone’s iconic herbivore “using the proper standard” for scientific review.

Bison graze in Yellowstone National Park.

The suit against Fish and Wildlife argued the agency did not properly consider all of the available scientific literature, presented by Buffalo Field Campaign and other environmental groups, in a petition to have Yellowstone bison listed under the Endangered Species Act. Judge Christopher Cooper ordered the agency to take a second look at protections for bison, writing that it cannot “simply pick and choose between contradictory scientific studies.”

The decision found that Fish and Wildlife improperly dismissed a 2012 study led by Texas A&M researcher Natalie Halpert, that  of bison in Yellowstone. The agency’s decision preferred the conclusions of National Park Service biologists Patrick White and Rick Wallen, who said that distinctions between the central and northern herds were artificial and shouldn’t determine conservation efforts.

Current management plans for Yellowstone bison set the target herd size for the entire park at around 3,000, the baseline for a viable bison population. If the central and northern herds are genetically unique enough to merit conservation, as Halpert’s study finds, then both herds should be managed with a target population of 3,000 each —­­­­­­­­­ doubling the target population of bison in Yellowstone.

The latest report on bison populations in the park, published in September 2017, found the central herd had less than 1,000 members. Despite the low population, more than 80 bison have been killed this winter along the western boundary of Yellowstone, where most bison are from the central herd.

In response to emailed questions about the bison status review, Roya Mogadam, Fish and Wildlife’s deputy assistant director for external affairs for the Mountain Prairie Region, wrote: “We are currently determining the best course of action to address the Court’s remand.”

Bison loaded into a trailer at Yellowstone's Stephens Creek Capture Facility. Hundreds of bison are shipped for slaughter from the facility each year.

Michael Harris, the wildlife law program director for Friends of Animals, which brought the case against the agency, along with the Buffalo Field Campaign and Western Watersheds Project, said the organizations are fairly confident the case will lead to a yearlong review of the species protection status for bison, which would include opportunities for public input and a more rigorous review process. “This process could lead to better protections, and it doesn’t matter for us if it’s through an endangered species act designation or just better protections from the current managing agencies,” Harris said.

Because Endangered Species Act protections would require new management plans, the agency is experiencing political pressure not to list the species, Harris said. If the bison were listed under the act, the protections provided by federal law would override the authority of the Interagency Bison Management Plan, a coalition of state, federal and tribal stakeholders.

As Fish and Wildlife evaluates options for future protections of Yellowstone’s bison, direct action protests continue at the Stephens Creek Facility. Ten days after activists locked themselves to the squeeze chute at the facility, two more activists from Wild Buffalo Defense locked themselves to 55 gallon barrels to block traffic to the facility. Darrell Geist, the habitat coordinator for the Buffalo Field Campaign, said: “People of conscious feel compelled to act now and not wait for the government to act.”

Carl Segerstrom is an editorial intern at NewTowncarShare News. 

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • 5 acres, views, utilities to lot line includes paid water tap, great for passive solar design, covenants and NO HOA. Listed by Beckie at Keller...
  • The Native American Fish and Wildlife Society (NAFWS) is seeking qualified applicants to fill a vacant Executive Director position in Denver, CO. The position serves...
  • The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 25-year legacy of success using the power of the...
  • 383 Acres with trails, private road, trees, stream and fabulous views. Earth Sheltered, passive solar home provides 2785 sf of comfort and a "top of...
  • certified, 51 acres, small cottage, outbuildings, equipment and tools. Contact: [email protected]
  • 2bd/2bath green home on 2 acres on the Ojo Caliente River, NM. MLS #101605. Contact [email protected]
  • of mountains, 22+ acres. Close to Arroyo Seco and the Taos Ski Valley, NM. MLS #102585, [email protected]
  • 2br-2ba, acreage. Birders, writers. 1000.
  • 1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...
  • The Wilderness Society is currently recruiting for a Communications Manager for our Northwest Region. This position can be located in Seattle or Oakland. For more...
  • 1912 Orchard House completely rebuilt 2002. 4000 sq ft home and private guest cottage on .53 acres. Reclaimed maple and Doug Fir. Two garages. CathyMooney.com,...
  • with home on one acre in Pocatello, ID. For information and photos visit www.blackrockforgeproperty.com.
  • Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) seeks a new Executive Director to guide this dynamic national advocacy, watchdog, and service organization. The successful candidate requires...
  • The California Program Manager will work closely with California-based program staff and other NFF staff to provide project management and program development support. The incumbent...
  • Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
  • Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
  • Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
  • Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
  • Sierra Club is looking for a community organizer who can help us protect grizzly bears and other wildlife species in the Northern Rockies region. This...
  • Join HCN and Black Sheep Adventures on an expedition through the national parks and monuments of Utah and Southwest Colorado, September 7 - 15, 2019....