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Monday, November 24, 2014

ESA protection sought for unique Yellowstone bison

by Traci Eatherton, WLJ Managing Editor

Two environmental activist organizations petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to protect Yellowstone bison through the Endangered Species Act (ESA), claiming that the Yellowstone bison are “unique, significant, and genetically and behaviorally distinct.”

For these reasons, Western Watersheds Project (WWP) and Buffalo Field Campaign, are hoping US- FWS will agree that the listing of the Yellowstone bison population is critical to the overall survival and recovery of the species.

If successful, the ESA listing would limit Yellowstone National Park and state efforts to control bison populations along the northern range, where the animals come out of the park, and are above number objectives set by managers.

Yellowstone bison are found primarily in Yellowstone National Park and migrate into Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, where they can be hunted or removed by USFWS.

The groups contend that nearly all plains bison in the United States are private livestock and/or descendants of bison that were commercially interbred with cattle. These hybridized cattle-bison no longer retain their identity as plains bison, or status as a wildlife species; however, they believe the Yellowstone population is different.

“The extirpation of the unique Yellowstone bison would represent the complete loss of wild bison from the last stronghold of their historic and ecological range, loss of unique ecological adaptations to the local environment, and the loss of valuable and unique genetic qualities,” said Michael Connor of WWP.

The petition lists a number of threats the petitioners believe the bison face including “extirpation from their range to facilitate livestock grazing, livestock diseases and disease management practices by the government, overutilization, trapping for slaughter, hunting, ecological and genomic extinction due to inadequate management, and climate change.”

According to a press release from the two groups, “Policies of the National Park Service and National Forest Service, and state regulatory mechanisms threaten rather than protect the Yellowstone bison and their habitat. Since 2000, the park has taken over 3,600 bison in capture for slaughter operations. The Forest Service issues livestock grazing permits in bison habitat. State regulatory mechanisms in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming all result in the forced removal or complete destruction of bison migrating beyond park borders.”

The groups have requested the USFWS issue an initial finding on the petition within 90 days as required by the Endangered Species Act. This is the second ESA request for the Yellowstone bison, with the first being submitted in 1999; USFWS took eight years to respond.

The petition follows years of conflict between landowners, environmentalists and the state organizations over a number of bison related issues including brucellosis concerns.

Earlier this month, state wildlife officials announced a decision to relocate 139 brucellosis-free bison to Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribal lands in northern Montana.

Following the completion of environmental analysis and review of public comments, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ (FWP) decision notice found no significant issues associated with relocating bison to the tribal location—or to three out-ofstate locations that were also under consideration.

The finding essentially follows the Montana Fish & Wildlife Commission’s October approval to keep the bison within state borders if a finding of no significance was determined.

The wild bison to be moved were part of a quarantine feasibility study conducted by FWP and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service at a facility near Corwin Springs north of Yellowstone National Park. The work was aimed at finding a feasible method to produce wild bison free of brucellosis, a disease that can cause some pregnant bison, elk and domestic cattle to abort their first calf.

Bison in the program have been repeatedly tested over the course of their quarantine and are brucellosis-free.

In March, state wildlife officials requested proposals from agencies or organizations capable of permanently caring for the bison for conservation purposes. The bison have been held at the Green Ranch, west of Bozeman, during their five-year monitoring period.

FWP received 10 proposals—four of which were analyzed in the environmental assessment. The examined proposals included those from the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes near Fort Peck, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and the Wildlife Conservation Society Zoo Consortium in New York and Ohio.

While that project is moving forward, the Yellowstone bison dilemma is still a work in progress.

In May, the Montana Board of Livestock proposed an increase in tolerance surrounding the bison migration, but a solution was not reached. Last week, FWP released a compromise to a 2013 environmental assessment, asking for public comments.

Under the new alternative, if the park’s bison population exceeds 4,500, management would remain as it is, with riders hazing bison back into the park in the spring, normally by May 15.

If the population is between 3,500 and 4,500, bison could remain on Horse Butte year-round. If they left Horse Butte after May 15, they could be hazed back into the park or killed.

If less than 3,500 bison exist in the park, the area would expand.

Hunting may also be used to control bison that go outside the allowed boundaries after May 15.

Public comment on the new alternative is being accepted until Dec. 11. The full addendum and comment information can be found at — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor


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