National Geographic
Menu

Can bison roam across America again?

American bison have the best chance of full recovery as wildlife by being allowed to roam freely across hundreds of thousands or even millions of acres, conservationists said in a study released today.

“Making this possible poses one of the biggest challenges for restoring bison herds as both public and private landowners will need to give their support,” the Switzerland-based International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) said in a news statement.

american-bison-photo-1.jpg

NGS stock photo by Sam Abell

A new publication by IUCN, American Bison: Status Survey and Conservation Guidelines 2010, reports on the current status of American bison, in the wild and in conservation herds, and makes recommendations on how to ensure that the species is conserved for the future.

bison facts.jpg

The next 10 to 20 years could be extremely significant for restoring wild populations of American bison to their original roaming grounds. But for this to happen, more land must be made available for herds to roam free, government policies must be updated and the public must change its attitude towards bison, IUCN said.

“Although the effort to restore bison to the plains of North America is considered to be one of the most ambitious and complex undertakings in species conservation efforts in North America, it will only succeed if legislation is introduced at a local and national level, with significant funding and a shift in attitude towards the animal,” said Simon Stuart, chairman of the IUCN Species Survival Commission.

Five hundred years ago, tens of millions of American bison roamed free on the plains of North America, from Alaska to northern Mexico. Now the American bison–which includes both plains and wood bison–is listed as Near Threatened on IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species.

As of 2008, there were approximately 400,000 bison in commercial herds in North America, some 93 percent of the continental population, IUCN estimates.

“But little progress has been made in recent decades to increase the number of animals in conservation herds, which are managed carefully for their genetic diversity and ecological roles,” IUCN elaborated.

american-bison-photo-2.jpg

NGS stock photo by William Albert Allard

“In 2008, there were 61 plains bison conservation herds in North America containing about 20,500 animals, and 11 conservation herds of wood bison, containing nearly 11,000 animals.”

“While substantial progress in saving bison from extinction was made in the 20th Century, much work remains to restore conservation herds throughout their vast geographical range,” says University of Calgary Environmental Design Professor and co-editor of the study, Cormack Gates, who is also co-chairman of the IUCN/SSC Bison Specialist Group. “The key is recognition that the bison is a wildlife species and to be conserved as wildlife, it needs land and supportive government policies.”

american-bison-photo-3.jpg

NGS stock photo by James P. Blair

The survival of bison populations is affected by many factors, including limited habitat and severe winters. Yet the greatest challenge is to overcome the common perception that the bison, which has had a profound influence on the human history of North America, socially, culturally and ecologically, no longer belongs on the landscape, IUCN said.

“The decimation of the American Bison in the late 1800s inspired the first recovery of bison and an entire conservation movement that protected wildlife and wild places across North America,” says Keith Aune, Senior Conservation Scientist, Wildlife Conservation Society. “The IUCN Status Survey and Conservation Guidelines provide a new framework for inspiring a second recovery of bison and restoring functional grassland ecosystems.”

“The bison is the largest land mammal in North America, and yet it is perhaps the most neglected icon,” said Steve Forrest, WWF Northern Great Plains Manager for Conservation Science.

“These guidelines provide a roadmap for bringing the bison back to its rightful place as a keystone of the great plains.”