Bringing Bison Back

March 3, 2010

A new publication by IUCN, written with WCS collaboration, reports on the current status of wild American bison, and makes recommendations on how to ensure the species is conserved for the future.

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. A new publication by IUCN, American Bison: Status Survey and Conservation Guidelines 2010, reports on the current status of wild American bison, and makes recommendations on how to ensure that the species is conserved for the future. Several Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) staff contributed to the report.

“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,” says Simon Stuart, Chair, 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.

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. 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.

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.

“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, WCS Senior Conservation Scientist. “The IUCN Status Survey and Conservation Guidelines provide a new framework for inspiring a second recovery of bison and restoring functional grassland ecosystems.”

Wild bison have the best chance of full recovery by being allowed to roam freely across vast open spaces. To truly restore their herds requires the support of both public and private landowners.

Editor’s Notes
American Bison: Status Survey and Conservation Guidelines 2010 was edited by Cormack Gates, Curtis Freese, Peter Gogan and Mandy Kotzman, and is the product of more than three years of cooperative effort by numerous contributors. The production of the report was made possible with funding from several non-governmental organizations and government agencies including the World Wildlife Fund, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the University of Calgary Faculty of Environmental Design, the American Bison Society, the US Geological Survey and the US National Parks Service.

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