Survey Says: Let Bison Roam

November 18, 2008

A national survey says that the American public respect and love bison, but most are unaware that the animals are in trouble. The survey is part of an effort to spark public support for ecological restoration of the species.

Americans may love bison burgers, but most don’t know these animals face troubles ahead. A recent public survey conducted by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) shows that while Americans do consider the bison, or buffalo, an important symbol of their country, they are woefully out of touch with the species’ prospects for long-term survival.

WCS released the survey at a national conference in Rapid City, South Dakota on restoring bison populations in the North America. Of the 2,000 Americans who filled out the questionnaire, fewer than 10 percent knew how many bison remain in the U.S. However, more than 74 percent believed that bison are extremely important living symbols of the American West.

Only about 9,000 plains bison range freely in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. An additional 7,000 free-ranging wood bison live in Canada. The remainder of the U.S. population, which totals 500,000 animals, lives on private ranches.

Bison once numbered in the tens of millions and ranged from Alaska to Mexico. Many wildlife species, including ferrets, prairie dogs, and a variety of birds depended on bison herds as part of their ecology. As commercial hunting and U.S. westward expansion advanced, bison were virtually wiped out and other native species declined.

The American Bison Society, a program of WCS, aims to restore the bison’s ecological role as an important species to North America in the next 100 years by working with government agencies, conservation groups, ranchers, and others.

Dr. Kent Redford of WCS sees promise in the survey results. “The results clearly show that the American public wants more to be done to restore the bison,” he said. “We know it will take decades of strategic planning and a wide group of stakeholders will need to take appropriate action.”

WCS is calling on the federal government to better coordinate management of bison across federal agencies, take down barriers to the production and selling of ecologically raised bison meat, and work with Canada and Mexico on bison management.

Progress is already being made. Last month, Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne announced an initiative that will work with state, tribal, and agricultural interests to help bison recover and thrive.

Americans’ preference for bison meat may also be a boon to conservation. Forty percent of survey participants said they have tried bison and 83 percent believed it was good or even better than beef. “One road to bison conservation may be a pragmatic, market-based approach,” Redford added. “Namely, to grow sustainable markets for wild, free-ranging bison meat.”

The three-day conference, titled “Building Blocks for Bison Ecological Restoration,” was co-sponsored by WCS, American Prairie Foundation, Linden Trust for Conservation, The Nature Conservancy, Safari Club International, and World Wildlife Fund.

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