The unfortunate truth, supported by objective science, shows us that extinction of wild, freely migrating buffalo is a very real concern.
Buffalo Field Campaign (BFC) understands the complexities of wild bison in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, as well as the threats facing this magnificent animal. This knowledge brings with it a responsibility for you and I, because any fully informed, objective person knows that the species Bison bison is currently quite endangered. Not just “at risk,” but right now, today, the buffalo are in danger of extinction.
To learn more about our efforts to obtain an official “threatened” or “endangered species” listing (with all of the protection that would afford), and to take action on behalf of the buffalo today, please follow this link.
Even as you read this, we continue our active work to prove this in the courts. When we succeed, the buffalo will not only have room to roam—but legal protections allowing them to migrate safely into the future.
The extinction-related information below offers you data and context related to the many difficulties facing the last wild buffalo—and the threats to their existence. Much work remains to be done to reach our goal.
Broadly speaking: Why and how is the survival of wild buffalo endangered?
There are about 500,000 commercially propagated bison on approximately 4,000 properties in North America. Existing “conservation practices” vary widely among private owners, are not regulated, and mostly encompass keeping the animals alive, behind fences, and in numbers great enough to survive frequent “harvesting” for commercial meat sales. Many of these ranched bison are selectively bred for characteristics deemed desireable by humans.
Escapes from these private/commercial groups are documented in Alberta, British Columbia, and Montana. After so much artificial selection for market-profiting traits, the risk to wild herds posed by the escape of hybridized individuals is significant. Escapees could establish themselves in the wild and/or crossbreed with established wild populations. If this happened with the Yellowstone herds, for example—an already extremely vulnerable population could be forever “polluted” with domestic cow genes from escaped beefalo (more on beefalo here).
You can learn about the historic slaughter era here, but to summarize: in the 19th Century, market-driven and recreational hunting eliminated the bison throughout almost all of its range in North America. To learn about the original range of buffalo, and view maps of historic bison habitat, click here!
Since that time, conservation measures have brought about limited recovery in the wild, and in “captive conservation herds” (an oxymoron, right?). Private commercial production of bison has resulted in significant numerical recovery, but does not provide for conservation of bison as a wildlife species—in the sense used for Red List designation.
The line between domestic and wild bison can be a blurry one unless you examine their genetic makeup. Even the legal status of the animal varies widely. Canada, the United States, and Mexico list bison nationally as both wildlife and domestic livestock. Legal status varies among State and Provincial jurisdictions. In Canada, four provinces and two territories list bison as both wildlife and livestock. Bison are listed by 20 states in the United Sates; 10 states list bison as wildlife, and all 20 list them as livestock. If you are confused, you are not alone!
Existing systems are failing the last remaining buffalo.
Regulatory mechanisms assure that essential habitat needs are addressed and that long-term habitat protections for a species are in place.
Within the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park, bison management includes hazing, capture, and shipment to slaughter. Under a court-mediated settlement in 2000, the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior, and the Governor of Montana, signed an agreement that limits bison abundance and distribution in Montana by killing or hazing bison that approach park boundaries; this agreement is known as the Inter-Agency Bison Management Plan (IBMP). These actions by the National Park Service create distinct impacts on the sub-populations in the park, and prevent the Yellowstone bison from moving out of the park into important historic winter range.
The United States Forest Service administers most of the public lands that serve as Yellowstone bison habitat outside the park. Although bison are extremely rare, are designated Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List, are a species of national interest, are the subject of great controversy, and are clearly impacted by agency actions such as the issuance of livestock grazing permits and other activities in bison habitat, the US Forest Service does not consider bison to be a sensitive species or a species of conservation concern. This is despite the science we offer to every agency, and our attempts to obtain an ESA listing for the buffalo.
For more information, on the endangered status of the Yellowstone buffalo, read these two papers by BFC's habitat coordinator Darrell Geist:
- The Endangered Circumstances and Status of Wild American Bison in North America Today (PDF, 5 pages)
- Why Yellowstone Bison are Threatened or Endangered with Extinction (PDF, 4 pages)
State wildlife officials in Montana and Idaho have lost most of their jurisdiction over wild bison to their livestock counterparts, who treat these unique bison as “diseased domestic livestock.” This situation is absurd, and will become illegal when—with your help—we get an ESA listing for Bison bison.
Buffalo Field Campaign and Western Watersheds Project have filed a formal petition to list Yellowstone bison as Threatened or Endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Click here to read this extensive scientific document (PDF, 61 pages).
There are other serious threats to wild, natural, free-roaming bison. You can learn more here, on our Problems Buffalo Face landing page.
Below, in a Q & A format, we offer you additional information about threats to buffalo, their conservation status, and a bunch of basic details explaining why they should have ESA protection. Note: references and citations are available here.
Since 2008, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has Red Listed the bison as “Near Threatened.” 1
In Montana, two entities (1) Fish, Wildlife, and Parks; and (2) Montana Natural Heritage Program, currently list the status of the bison as S2, which is defined as, "At risk because of very limited and/or potentially declining population numbers, range and/or habitat, making it vulnerable to global extinction or extirpation in the state.” 2
"Today, the plains bison is for all practical purposes ecologically extinct within its original range." 3 ~ Dr. Curtis H. Freese.
This is why BFC’s legal team works so diligently to get the last wild herds of buffalo (taxonomically speaking: “Bison bison”) listed as an officially endangered species. That well-deserved designation—with all of the protections it would give—can protect the buffalo, their ecosystem, and their survival.
"The Bison of Yellowstone National Park are unique among bison herds in the United States, being descendants, in part, of the only continuously wild herd in this country." 4 ~ Dr. Margaret Mary Meagher, retired Yellowstone National Park bison biologist.
"Yellowstone National Park is the only place in the lower 48 States where bison have existed in a wild state since prehistoric times. Bison occupied the region encompassing the park from shortly after recession of the last glaciers 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, until the 19th century when they came close to extirpation." 5 ~ C. Cormack Gates Ph.D., University of Calgary.
No other plains bison population is as important to the survival of the species as the Yellowstone bison. The extirpation of the Yellowstone bison would:
- Result in the complete loss of genetically-intact, wild bison from the last stronghold of their historic and ecological range;
- Rob the United States and with world of “Bison Bison’s” unique ecological adaptations to the regional environment;
- Forfeit many other valuable and unique genetic qualities of this rare species.
Yellowstone’s geothermal features influence bison habitat and bison behavior by providing thermal sanctuaries within the park. The inclusion of geothermal areas as a significant portion of habitat represents an unusual ecological adaptation, one completely unique to the Yellowstone bison population. 5 [emphasis added]
The portion of the northern Greater Yellowstone ecosystem occupied by Yellowstone bison is the only place where natural patterns of population structure and gene flow in plains bison can be observed. 6, 8 [emphasis added]
Using mitochondrial DNA extracted from bison fecal samples, Gardipee (2007) found evidence of population structure and female philopatry to breeding territories. Female bison returning to breed at or near their place of origin is a behavior that has not been documented in any other wild bison population. 7 [emphasis added]
Halbert et al. (2012) demonstrated the existence of two genetically distinct subpopulations of bison within Yellowstone National Park that showed longitudinal differences in migration patterns. 8
The Yellowstone bison are not just geographically isolated from other bison, but have been physically isolated from other bison populations for more than 100 years.
Historically, within the northern Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem bison ranged across some 20,000 square kilometers (7,722 square miles!) in the headwaters of the Yellowstone and Madison rivers. The current occupied range is approximately 3,175 square kilometers...about 16% of their historic range. 10 Click here for Habitat Maps.
Livestock and livestock grazing management directly and indirectly impact bison and their habitat. Livestock directly affect vegetation structures, alter plant communities, alter soil characteristics, and impact other habitat elements. Public lands livestock grazing requires development such as fencing, cattle-guards, and roads to control livestock movements. These range developments impair buffalo movements and distribution. The proximity of livestock poses a significant threat of disease transmission from the domesticated animals to these free-roaming bison. 11
Continued livestock grazing public-lands bison habitat promotes a perceived need for “disease risk-management operations” such as those occurring under the auspices of the IBMP. Unfortunately, rather than managing domestic cattle to avoid bison habitat, the agencies instead manage bison out of its native habitat—for the sole purpose of benefiting a few powerful livestock industry interests. Public lands benefiting private interests: Does that sound right to you?
Extensive amounts of land within the northern Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are unprotected and threatened by land use intensification. Zoning policies are needed that can affect large areas, including regionally coordinated growth management efforts to preserve biodiversity by redirecting future development (Gude et al., 2007). The same authors conclude, “Future habitat conversion to exurban development outside the region’s nature reserves is likely to impact wildlife populations within the reserves.” 12 [emphasis added]
To appease Montana's powerful livestock industry, which doesn't want to compete with wild bison for public lands grazing. Yellowstone bison that seek winter habitat near the Park's boundaries are subject to intensive management actions conducted under the Interagency Bison Management Plan. These actions, driven by commercial interests, disturb current population substructures (Halbert, 2003; Gardipee, 2007; Freese et al., 2007; Halbert et al., 2012).
Many hundreds of Yellowstone bison have been killed since the State of Montana brought bison hunting back in 2005 and the tribes resumed hunting under their treaty rights. This includes those animals killed in both the Gardiner and West Yellowstone areas.
While scientists acknowledge the existence of largely distinct Northern Range and Central Range bison herds, the agencies currently fail to take this complex subpopulation structure into account. Since the Northern Range bison tend to migrate from the Park at Gardiner, and the Central Range bison migrate both from Gardiner and West Yellowstone, the smaller Central range bison herd clearly bears the brunt of the hunt and slaughter. This contributes to the disproportionate culling of genetically distinct breeding herds and poses a grave threat to the future of this iconic species.
Explore other Problems Buffalo Face.
The American Bison Specialist Group recognizes nine federally listed diseases of concern for bison conservation in North America: anaplasmosis, anthrax, bluetongue, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, bovine brucellosis, bovine tuberculosis, bovine viral diarrhoea, Johne’s disease, and malignant catarrhal fever (sheep associated). Hemorrhagic septicemia (outbreaks have occurred in the past) and malignant catarrhal fever (outbreaks have occurred in the region) pose the most immediate threats to Yellowstone bison.
The IUCN cites a number of serious threats to the conservation of plains bison such as: habitat loss; genetic manipulation of commercial bison for market traits; small population effects in most conservation herds; lack of exposure to a full range of natural limiting factors; cattle gene introgression; loss of genetic non-exchangeability through hybridization between bison subspecies; and the threat of depopulation as a management response to infection of some wild populations hosting reportable cattle diseases. In particular, the IUCN cites culling of bison populations to prevent spread of bovine diseases as a major threat to their conservation. 1 Yet it continues each year...
Genomic extinction poses one of the most imminent threats to bison conservation. Bison are at extremely high risk of genomic extinction because of domestication and anthropogenic selection, and hybridization with cattle (Freese et al. 2007). More than 95% of “bison/buffalo (nearly all beef-alo) exist under private ownership and are subject to agricultural practices which promote anthropogenic selection for traits to meet the market standards of the commercial bison industry (Freese et al., 2007). There is widespread evidence of hybridization with cattle among private bison herds. Selection for particular traits which may be conferred by cattle alleles has the potential to increase current levels of introgression (Ward et al., 1999; Halbert, 2003; Halbert et al., 2005; Freese et al., 2007; Halbert and Derr, 2007). Evidence of hybridization with cattle has now been found in all major conservation herds except for the Yellowstone bison. As such, the Yellowstone bison are the last remnant of genetically intact plains bison. 3, 16, 13, 17, 18
Human activities have led to large increases in the atmospheric concentration of heat-trapping gases, which is changing the climate in Greater Yellowstone. According to Saunders et al. (2012) in Greater Yellowstone, the last decade was 1.4°F above the region’s 20th century average. Summer temperatures in Greater Yellowstone have gotten hotter by an even larger margin, with the summers of the past decade 2.3°F above the average for 20th century summers. Yellowstone National Park has documented that precipitation has been declining as temperatures have been increasing (Yellowstone Center for Resources, 2013). Thus as the climate dries, more bison will move out of the park, and as they leave the park, they will be hazed and killed. 19, 20
We are the last line of defense for these animals. Things grow worse for them each year. Without the presence of BFC’s wonderful volunteer patrols, and without your support, circumstances would be even more dire.
Will you help protect the buffalo? Will you make a donation today?
Note: all references and citations are available here.
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