The USF&WS has completed its 12-month finding on the petition to downlist the Canadian wood bison. It has proposed the downlisting from “endangered” to “threatened.” It has also notified the court in Conservation Force’s Wood Bison II suit and moved that its published proposal moots that part of the suit. The USF&WS claims in court that the proposal fully satisfies Conservation Force’s suit claims to compel both the compulsory 12-month finding on the downlisting petition and the claim to compel the mandatory five-year review required for all listed species. Considering the low number of foreign species that have ever been downlisted, this is a two-fold success.
On February 8, 2011, the USF&WS finally published the 12-month finding and proposed rule in the Federal Register to downlist the wood bison from “endangered” to “threatened.” This has been promised for more than a decade. The Federal Register Notice can be found on Conservation Force’s website under News and Alerts and at Federal Register Vol. 72, No. 163, Thursday, August 23, 2007, page 6734.
The Federal Register Notice allows for 60 days to comment, until April 11, 2011, and states that the USF&WS will make its final determination within 12 months of February 8, 2011. Of course, the mandatory 24 months for the whole rule has already passed, and the USF&WS is notorious for not meeting promises about non-discretionary obligations. Unless we can come to some agreement, Conservation Force and its allied organizations will no doubt be filing a third suit, Wood Bison III, to ensure it is completed in less than 12 months instead of waiting until the 12 months pass before initiating suit, which can drag on for years after the deadline has already passed. It took more than two years after suit was filed to get the positive 12-month finding. In total, it will have taken about five years from the petition filing in 2007, suit and all.
The USF&WS is not proposing a complete delisting, rather they propose downlisting to “threatened” because of diseases, particularly bovine brucellosis and bovine tuberculosis. Nevertheless, there are seven free-ranging, disease-free herds with a total of more than 4,000 animals in those herds in Canada. Interestingly, that is said to be more than the number of free-ranging plains bison (smaller body size and different appearance than wood bison, which can be 2,000 pounds, six feet tall and 12.5 feet long) in the United States. They have been brought back from near extinction by the Canadian program - that is truly remarkable. All the while, the USF&WS has done nothing to restore free-ranging wood bison in the United States. There are no free-ranging wood bison in the US according to the USF&WS news release. The Canadians have long let it be known that the US listing is obstructing its conservation strategy.
The history of wood bison recovery is notable. In 1922, Canada created what may be the largest national park in the world, the Wood Buffalo National Park (WBNP). It was set aside for the protection of the last wood bison. There were so few wood bison that thousands of plains bison were brought in, leaving no pure-bred wood bison. In 1959, an isolated northern population of pure-bred animals was found in the Park. Thirty-seven of those were captured and translocated to other locations in the recovery efforts. By 2000, there were 2,800 in six locations where they had been translocated. Today there are more than 4,400 free-ranging, pure-bred, disease-free wood bison in seven herd locations. Those herds are growing at 20 percent per annum, and all originate from the original 37 from the Park. Now the USF&WS has made the positive finding that “Because of recovery efforts, the wood bison is no longer in danger of extinction. Therefore, it is no longer appropriate the species be listed as endangered.”
In 1988 Canada reclassified its wood bison from endangered to threatened in Canada. In the 1990s, CITES downlisted the wood bison in Canada, and by 1999 the Wood Bison Recovery Team considered the Yukon population recovered. In 1999, the Yukon authorities began granting tourist hunting permits to create revenue and incentives for the local First Nation people as part of the long-term recovery and survival strategy. In 2000, Tim Mervyn of the Yukon Outfitters Association was able to acquire permits to auction at what was then the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep (FNAWS). FNAWS called upon its partner, Conservation Force, to attempt importation of the trophies into the United States, thus Conservation Force’s Wood Bison Initiative was born. We were ready because we had been working on its conservation since downlisting by CITES. The Initiative was our usual two-barrel approach, both downlisting and enhancement permitting. Both were promised by the Clinton, then the George W. Bush Administrations, but the permits went unprocessed, and the promised FWS-initiated downlisting never transpired. Finally, we prevailed upon the Canadians to file their own downlisting petition after waiting over half a decade for the USF&WS to do it on their own, as they promised Conservation Force and the Canadians. Filed in 2007, that too went unprocessed until we stopped believing broken promises as the Bush Administration came to a close.
Conservation Force and some of its allied organizations, including FNAWS (now called Wild Sheep Foundation and the one that began it all), have filed two suits to date to get us where we are. The first suit was to compel the 90-day downlisting finding and the processing of the import permit applications languishing since 2000. The USF&WS finally processed the permits. Despite positive findings by the Division of Scientific Authority and the Division of Management Authority, a political policy decision from above by the current Administration overrode science. The permits were denied in complete contradiction to the findings in the record. The enhancement provision in the ESA and its very express implementing regulations remain dormant because political concerns override the conservation of the species. In the interval, some of us at Conservation Force have wasted the best part of our adult lives chasing recovery dreams and waiting on promises.
The second suit, Wood Bison II, still ongoing, was to challenge the permit denials and compel a 12-month finding and five-year review of the listing. In the interval, the court in Wood Bison I denied attorney fees because permit processing deadlines are not mandatory under the ESA and the USF&WS had acted before an actual formal order had been issued. That is on appeal. The lesson is clear: The hunting community should not have waited 10 years to sue.