Why Aren’t American Bison On The Endangered Species List?

Asked by a student in Mrs. Campbell’s class at Sunnyside Elementary

Answered by Stephany Seay, Media Coordinator, Buffalo Field Campaign & Ross Martin, Summer Volunteer Coordinator

Excellent question. The answer in a nutshell is: politics.

Once teeming 70 million strong over most of North America, wild American bison today number fewer than 4,700 individuals. They all reside in and around Yellowstone National Park. Wild, migratory bison (or buffalo) occupy less than 1% of their historic range. Scientists classify wild buffalo as “ecologically extinct”. The International Union for the Conservation of Science (IUCN) has “Red Listed” wild bison as “threatened with near extinction.” Even the state of Montana classifies them as “threatened with global extinction.” The Yellowstone herds are the only continuously wild, migratory American bison left in the continental U.S.

It’s a no-brainer that they warrant federal protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Alas, wild bison currently have no such protection. But, Buffalo Field Campaign and Western Watersheds Project are working to change this. In 2014, we filed a petition with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) to gain ESA protection. Seven years later, we are still fighting in the courts.

Stephany Seay photo. Gardiner, MT.

According to the ESA, wild bison should be protected to maintain their genetic diversity and restore their keystone, ecological role. Instead, each winter and spring, as wild bison migrate to lower elevation winter range and calving grounds in Montana, they are threatened with capture for slaughter and quarantine (domestication), excessive hunting, and some hazing. Roughly 25% of wild bison in Yellowstone are eliminated each year. These actions take place under a misguided state and federal plan called the Interagency Bison Management Plan. This plan, which is now expired but still in operation, was crafted largely by Montana livestock interests, who view native wild bison as a threat to their industry and selfishly attempt to thwart their natural restoration. The IBMP is a result of a Montana law, MCA 81-2-120, that gives authority over wild bison to the Montana Department of Livestock whenever they migrate into Montana. That’s like putting the fox in charge of the hen house. The cattle industry also has an unlikely ally doing most of their dirty work: Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone hosts and operates an industrial size bison trap, where hundreds of wild buffalo are captured annually and sent to slaughter or are held captive for quarantine purposes.

The USFWS has so far denied ESA protection to wild bison for two primary reasons; inclusion of domestic bison, or beefalo, and the livestock industry’s political power. Approximately 500,000 bison-like animals dwell on private ranches and public herds in the U.S., but they are not true, wild bison. Nearly all are contaminated with cattle genes. Including these domestic bison hinders ESA protection, underscores the ecological importance of wild bison, and misleads Americans into thinking that domestic livestock can pass as wildlife.

Photo by Stephany Seay. Madison River, Bakers Hole, May 2012.

Political opposition from the livestock industry is perhaps the biggest barrier to an ESA listing. A bacteria called Brucella abortus (Brucellosis) brought to this continent by invasive cattle was spread to wild bison and elk, but later eliminated from domestic livestock herds. The presence of brucellosis in wild bison has been used to justify their annual slaughter. Brucellosis management continues to dominate conservation decisions although there is no evidence of bison-to-cattle brucellosis transmission. Meanwhile, elk, who roam freely, have been implicated numerous times in transmitting brucellosis back to cattle. An endangered species listing would give wild bison priority over private cattle grazing on public lands, so the listing is fiercely opposed by livestock interests.

American Bison meet all the criteria for ESA listing, but until science aligns with politics, our National Mammal will remain unprotected.

You can review our ESA petition here:

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