Bright Future for Bison

May 2, 2008

It will likely take a century, but conservationists believe they can restore the American bison to a surprising amount of its former range. Particularly important are the grassland ecosystems, both public and private, that might benefit from bison grazing, and local communities that might benefit from having herds flourish nearby.

A continental assessment of the American bison by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) sees a hopeful future for this iconic species of the western plains. But it will take work for conservationists to help the bison reclaim its vast home on the range in the next 100 years.

To evaluate the potential for ecological recovery, scientists, ranchers, and Native Americans/First Nations peoples examined large, unfettered landscapes that were once home to plains and wood bison. These sites range from grasslands and prairies in the southwestern U.S., to Arctic lowland taiga in Alaska, to swaths of mountain forests and grasslands across Canada and the U.S., to parts of the Mexican desert. Using a “conservation scorecard,” the researchers rated each landscape based on the availability of existing habitat and the potential for bison interaction with other native species such as elk, mountain lions, prairie dogs, and grassland birds. They also factored in the socio-economic climate and the potential for cultural re-connection with bison in each region.

“The bison is one of the great living symbols of North America,” said Dr. Eric Sanderson of WCS. “This assessment shows us that with hard work and ambitious goals, we can restore this iconic species to a surprising amount of its former range over the next century.”

Bison once numbered in the tens of millions but were wiped out by commercial hunting and habitat loss. By 1889, fewer than 1,100 animals survived. In 1905 the American Bison Society (ABS) formed at the Bronx Zoo and began to re-populate reserves on the Great Plains with animals from the zoo’s herd and other sources. Of the estimated 500,000 bison living today, 20,000 are considered wild; the rest reside on private ranches.

“The bison is an important part of the heritage of not only the Wildlife Conservation Society but the United States,” said Dr. Steven E. Sanderson, President and CEO of WCS. “One hundred years ago, through our efforts and the efforts of others, the bison was saved from extinction. We are now looking one hundred years from now, because we believe there is an ecological future for the bison in the North American landscape.”

In 2006, WCS created a new American Bison Society to restore the species’ ecological role. The new vision also received the support of other conservation groups, Native Americans, agencies, and private ranchers. According to the groups, ecological restoration would be achieved when large herds of bison can move freely across extensive landscapes within their historic ranges and interact with a full set of other native wildlife. Such a recovery would also inspire, sustain, and connect human cultures.

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