WASHINGTON (CN) – The few thousand remaining bison roaming Yellowstone National Park may have a shot at protection under the Endangered Species Act after a federal judge ruled an Interior Department decision to bar them from protection was arbitrary and unscientific.
In a ruling filed Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper sided with environmental groups, the Buffalo Field Campaign and the Western Watersheds Project.
Both organizations petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2014 and 2015. Each petition argued bison herds dwelling in and around the park were prime for submission to the endangered species list due to encroaching development, livestock grazing, overhunting, climate change and disease.
Most critically, they argued, the bison required special protection because they are genetically unique.
Millions of bison once roamed the plains of North America and were driven to the brink of extinction. There are roughly 200,000 wild bison but the 4,900 native to Yellowstone are special, Judge Cooper writes, because they “are the only significant herd … with no evidence of hybridization with cattle, thus representing a genetically important population.”
Currently, the 4,900 are split into groups: a central and northern herd. Scientists have disputed the genetic integrity between them.
In 2012, scientist Patrick White released a study challenging data compiled in a study by Natalie Halbert which suggested the bison were genetically unique and therefore deserving of protected status.
Using Halbert’s study as the standard in their petitions, the groups saw their hopes dashed by the Fish and Wildlife Service when the agency rebuffed them, saying their request lacked scientific or commercial evidence supporting a threat.
The Fish and Wildlife Service, or FWS, overseen by the Department of the Interior, argued the population was “stable to increasing,” noting threats posed to the herd were minimal but monitored. In fact, a 2000 FWS plan, known as the Interagency Bison Management Plan, or IBMP, had already weighed the environmentalists concerns.
The plan was comprised of “conservative but protective steps” managing the herd, the wildlife service said, while enforcing additional measures to protect bison from surrounding livestock who, if exposed to the wild animals, could act as a vehicle for the disease brucellosis.
Brucellosis is transmitted from bison to cattle and causes reproductive failure in infected animals, capable of destroying herds.
After losing, the groups brought their challenge anew to Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke. The Interior also dismissed the petitions, again arguing their claims were unsupported by available scientific data.
On Thursday, Cooper disagreed and ruled the Interior unfairly relied on the White study without giving ample consideration to the Halbert study. Further, he said, the environmentalist groups correctly argued the IBMP was inadequate since it effectively prioritized the protection of livestock from brucellosis instead of ensuring bison species survival.
In addition to the Halbert study establishing genetic purity, it also correctly questioned the IBMP target of maintaining a population no smaller than 3,000 bison. Such a plan, as Halbert’s study suggested was not conducive to maintaining bison survival either, Cooper wrote.
When the Interior denied the petitions on the basis that White’s study was more accurate since it argued the “maintenance of a population through genetic diversity is not crucial for preserving genes,” that logic was flawed.
“Nor was it discussed why a reasonable person couldn’t rely on the Halbert study over the White study,” Cooper wrote.
In the 90-day window the Interior has to legally review petitions calling for additions to the endangered species list, it is Secretary Zink’s responsibility to “make a finding as to whether the petition presents substantial scientific evidence or commercial information indicating the petition may be warranted.”
By law if that evidence is found, a petition can move forward and within a year - and after public comment - a final decision is made. If not and scientific evidence is disputed, another review period begins.
In the 90 day review period of the bison petitions, Judge Cooper found Zinke merely “picked a side in the ongoing debate in the scientific community” and dubbed it “improper” at the 90 day finding stage.
“While the court might give deference to the service's conclusion that a reasonable scientist would not rely on the Halbert study, the service failed to offer an argument justifying that either,” Cooper added.
The Interior may have a point about the bison’s genetic makeup and its growth potential – it insists the bison are increasing – but for now, the decision will remanded for further review.
Cooper said the Interior "must explain why the evidence supporting the petition is unreliable, irrelevant, or otherwise unreasonable to credit, rather than simply pick and choose."