Endangered Species Act Protection Sought for the Imperiled Yellowstone Bison

MONTANA: Western Watersheds Project and Buffalo Field Campaign petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) today to list the Yellowstone bison under the Endangered Species Act. Yellowstone bison are found primarily in Yellowstone National Park and migrate into the jurisdictions of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming where the wildlife species is forcibly removed or destroyed completely. Yellowstone bison are the only extant wildlife population of plains bison that retains its genetic integrity and still freely roams in the United States.

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 in privately owned herds. All privately owned bison are managed as livestock. Nearly all publicly held bison exist in small, isolated populations on restricted and fenced ranges with no predators and subject entirely to human selection.

The best available science presented in the petition shows that the Yellowstone bison are unique, significant, and genetically and behaviorally distinct. For this reason, the Yellowstone bison population is critical to the overall survival and recovery of the species.

“Prompt listing under the Endangered Species Act is required if this last remnant population of plains bison is to survive and recover,” stated Travis Bruner of Western Watersheds Project.

“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.” stated Michael Connor of Western Watersheds Project.

The petition catalogues the many threats that Yellowstone bison face. Specific threats include: 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.

The Yellowstone bison population is comprised of genetically and behaviorally distinct subpopulations with differing migration patterns. The wild migratory species uses a significant portion of the geothermal habitats in Yellowstone National Park, an unusual ecological adaptation unique to Yellowstone bison.

“The wild bison living in and around Yellowstone National Park are the only bison in America to continuously occupy their native habitat since the days when tens of millions migrated freely across the continent,” said BFC Executive Director Dan Brister. “A listing under the Endangered Species Act is necessary to ensure the survival of this iconic species.”

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.

Once numbering tens of millions, there were fewer than 25 wild bison remaining in the remote interior of Pelican Valley in Yellowstone National Park at the turn of the 20th Century. The 1894 Lacey Act, the first federal law specifically safeguarding bison, protected these few survivors from extinction.

A fact sheet on why wild bison are threatened with extinction is available here.

The petition is available online HERE.

  Western Watersheds Project works to protect and restore wildlife habitats on the nation’s public lands through education, scientific study, public policy initiatives, and litigation. Western Watersheds Project has offices throughout the west including Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Arizona, Oregon, and California.
     Buffalo Field Campaign is a regional conservation organization with offices in Montana. The mission of Buffalo Field Campaign is to stop the slaughter of Yellowstone’s wild buffalo herd, protect the natural habitat of wild free-roaming buffalo and native wildlife, and to work with people of all Nations to honor the sacredness of wild buffalo.


  1. Joanne Favazza Avatar
    Joanne Favazza

    Awesome news! Thank you WWP and BFC!

  2. Amre Avatar

    I hope their listed. Montana’s hazing and killing of bison has gotten out of hand.

    1. WyoWolfFan Avatar

      It really has. I’m not opposed to a fair chase hunt of bison, but Montana has taken it too far.

  3. Ida Lupines Avatar
    Ida Lupines

    All of our wildlife is precious and not valued here in the US, but if there is one that is emblematic of the prairies most, if it’s possible to do that, it just may be the bison. They should be protected; to destroy them is a sacrilege.

  4. Kathleen Avatar

    This is a great time & place to put in a plug for BFC’s wild bison calendar…great photography, interesting facts…check it out! Sales support BFC’s work.


  5. Kate Avatar

    ALL wildlife has to be managed. This all sounds fuzzy good. But there is no longer unlimited space for the animals to roam as they did in Lewis and Clark days, nor before that. The entities that want all of this protection and unlimited range to roam want everyone to leave, give up their homes, lives, means of living, etc. Oh, except for themselves, it’s fine for them to live and breath, just not the rest of us. The Yellowstone herd is culled exactly because they are THRIVING!! They will continue to thrive, but they need to be managed for the area. Get real! More bison are killed by bears, lions and wolves than humans kill. Yes, that is their natural prey, well, guess what, bison are natural prey for humans, too!

    1. skyrim Avatar

      A bit heavy on the drama Kate. Without totally dismissing (parts of) your theory, I would counter that it is humanity that needs management.
      More Bison, Less Montanans! (gittin’ real)

      1. W. Hong Avatar
        W. Hong

        I don’t understand less Montanans, I thought Montana had less people that most of the states?

        1. skyrim Avatar

          W. Hong
          Montana is one of the states with the lowest population. 45 or somewhere close. While my family Homesteaded in Montana in the 1860s and my alliances should be stronger there, I am offended by 80 percent of what comes out of that country. My comments were based on the above with tongue planted firmly in cheek.

          1. W. Hong Avatar
            W. Hong

            Please explain tongue in cheek, that is not a term I know.

              1. W. Hong Avatar
                W. Hong

                Thank you for the link.

    2. Barb Rupers Avatar
      Barb Rupers

      For the past 20 years I have wondered why the powers that be don’t let the bison out of their park “prison” so there is more game for hunters; why aren’t the sportsmen pushing for this? Must be related to politics.

      1. Elk375 Avatar

        Barb, bison in Montana are controlled by the Department of Livestock and elk by the MTFWP’s. It is sad that the Department of Livestock is entrusted to manage the bison.

        1. Barb Rupers Avatar
          Barb Rupers

          How and when did this transfer of management occur? What of the legal battle this spring in which victory was declared for wild bison? Department of livestock is also putting its finger in the pot for management of elk.


    3. Nancy Avatar

      “ALL wildlife has to be managed”

      Kate, seriously, take a look around, fact is our species is the only one in need of being managed before its too late for other species we share the planet with:

      Lots of information out there if you want to take the time to look and care about the research being done:


    4. Amre Avatar

      Kate, your probably a troll. If you are, go away.

      1. John Philip Avatar
        John Philip

        Right. I live in the crowded northeast. Even here, it’s a rare bird that suggests “all wildlife needs to be managed.” It’s a bizarre idea that I dismiss with the Laffer Curve.

  6. Brian Ertz Avatar
    Brian Ertz

    The petition is phenominal. Well done Dr. Connor

    1. JB Avatar

      Legal question: There was a case regarding what constituted a ‘foreseeable’ threat a few years back, where the Service argued that longer time periods (e.g., beyond a 100 years) were the unforeseeable future, and therefore did not threaten a population/species. The court, if I recall correctly, said that any event that was predictable was foreseeable, regardless of the amount of time.

      So here’s what has me scratching my head– the petition notes in two places that Yellowstone’s unique ecology is due in part to the fact that the park sits on an active caldera, but fails to mention that caldera as a threat factor. If Yellowstone’s bison are truly unique because of their lack of cattle genes, AND this unique population sits on top of an active volcano that blows predictably (with rather devastating consequences), then why not list the caldera as a threat?

      1. Ida Lupines Avatar
        Ida Lupines

        act of God is a legal term for events outside human control, such as sudden natural disasters, for which no one can be held responsible.


        ‘Not realistically possible to guard against’ would be my guess, and timing difficult to pinpoint. Human-caused threats to bison can be addressed and are ongoing.

        1. Ida Lupines Avatar
          Ida Lupines

          ^^And the more we protect them and their numbers, the less vulnerable they will be to natural disasters.

      2. Elk375 Avatar


        Then, I am a threaten person. If the caldera blows up, I go with it. Should I move? My last concern in life is the caldera blowing up.

        In the summer of 1970 I was working for the park service and we were repairing board walks in one of the geyser basins. One day lady walked up to us concerned about volcanic activity and the possibility of the caldera erupting. I and the rest of the crew had not even thought about it until that moment. All of us expressed no worry. She looked at us and said “you are find young men on good terms with your Lord and are prepared to meet him today”. Are the bison prepared?

        1. JB Avatar


          You are one person, so your analogy doesn’t work. The point is that the vast majority of the genetically pure population sits on top of a live volcano (if plains bison were everywhere [like people] it would not be an issue).

          Note, I was also quite specific in my phrasing — I started by saying this was a “legal question.” The question (in a more generic form) is this: if the only [or majority] of a population of a species sits is subject to a periodic, long-term threat, is that population threatened in terms of the ESA (and existing case law)? If the caldera is too much for you to overcome, imagine a population of a species that gets reduced to a low level and then is confined to an area prone massive floods, or even periodic episodic disease.

          1. Elk375 Avatar


            I was just being a smart ass.

            1. JB Avatar

              Apologies then. My sarcasm detector doesn’t work for written communication. 🙂

  7. Ken Watts Avatar
    Ken Watts

    Let me get this straight. We introduce wolves to Yellowstone because they are endangered. Wolves kill bison. Now we must list bison because they are endangered. Are you kidding!

    The wolves have already killed nearly all the moose in Yellowstone. Should they also be listed?

    1. W. Hong Avatar
      W. Hong

      I was under the impressions that wolves kill very few bison and that their preferred animals to kill are elk, I thought that the request to list bison was for other reasons.

      1. Brian Ertz Avatar
        Brian Ertz

        W. Hong,

        You are correct.

  8. Ed Loosli Avatar
    Ed Loosli

    Ken Watt:
    Quick Facts about Moose in Yellowstone (Nat. Park Asso)
    •Fewer than 200 in Yellowstone.
    •Population has declined in last 40 years due to loss of old growth forests surrounding the park, hunting outside the park, burning of habitat, and predators of late.

    Note that Montana still permits 15 Yellowstone ecosystem moose to be “harvested” each year.

    I actually think it would be wonderful for the wildlife of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, if moose were listed as Endangered, along with grizzly bears, wolves, and bison. The ESA often is the only thing standing between rare animals and the point of a gun.