HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Wildlife advocates will use the courts to try to force the U.S. government to evaluate whether Yellowstone National Park bison are a threatened or endangered species after federal officials rejected their petition earlier this year to protect the national mammal.
Western Watersheds Project, Buffalo Field Campaign and Friends of Animals on Monday filed a 60-day notice of their intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Department of Interior. The groups say Fish and Wildlife Service officials did not consider how dramatically the Yellowstone bison's range has been reduced or how the continued hunting and slaughter of the animal threatens its existence.
"Instead of allowing these bison to behave like bison and move with the seasons, government agencies are practicing indiscriminate killing that is destroying their genetic diversity," said Michael Connor, the California director of Western Watersheds Project. "Protection under the Endangered Species Act is the only way to counter these government management inadequacies and other threats."
Millions of bison once freely roamed throughout the Great Plains, but they were nearly driven to extinction in the 1800s through widespread hunting. The Yellowstone herd, roughly 4,900 animals, is the largest remaining wild population of bison that have not been bred with cattle.
Bison ranged over 7,700 square miles at their peak. Now their principal habitat is about 1,225 square miles within Yellowstone, from which they migrate in winter in search of food, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Outside of the park, bison face hostility from ranchers and landowners concerned with the spread of disease and the destruction of property.
Some bison caught outside the park are slaughtered as a population-control measure by the Interagency Bison Management Plan, which was created by a group of federal, state and tribal officials. More than 8,000 Yellowstone bison have been killed since the 1980s, most by slaughter.
Hunters outside the park boundaries kill hundreds more each year.
Despite their restriction of movement, the Yellowstone herd's population is stable and increasing, the Fish and Wildlife Service said in its decision to reject two petitions seeking federal protections for the animals.
"We find the petitions do not present substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that the petitioned action may be warranted for Yellowstone bison," the agency's decision said.
Western Watersheds Project and Buffalo Field Campaign filed one of the two petitions seeking protections for bison. The other was filed by an individual.
In their notice to sue, the groups, joined by Friends of Animals, said it was the Fish and Wildlife Service that failed to rely on the best scientific information.
The groups argue that the sheer curtailment of the bison's range justifies its designation as threatened or endangered. Plus, the continued hunting and slaughter of the animals threatens them through a loss of genetic diversity and their ability to migrate, the groups say in the notice.
The groups say they will file a lawsuit if federal officials do not reverse the decision to reject the petitions. Accepting them would prompt a 12-month review to evaluate whether bison warrant protections under the Endangered Species Act.
Officials with the Interior Department and Fish and Wildlife Service did not have immediate comment Tuesday.
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