Three Things to Learn from Bison Conservation

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Bulls establish rank in Yellowstone National Park, the home of the last wild U.S. bison.

The bison, or American buffalo, roamed the plains and woodlands of North America tens of thousands of years ago. It was a contemporary of saber-toothed cats, woolly mammoths and woolly rhinos but was a better survivor: the bison is the largest land animal in North America today, and once numbered in the millions (the exact figure is disputed, but likely approached 40 million animals on western grasslands).

Neither its size nor its numbers protected it.

Once guns arrived in North America, and a market opened for wild meat and hides, only decades elapsed before the bison all but vanished from its native range in the United States and Canada.

The woodland bison of eastern U.S. forests vanished by the early 19th century, and theplains bison was all but wiped out by 1884—in less than 20 years of intensive hunting.

Saving Bison

Some people, most notably hunters, wanted to save the bison. Outstanding among them was National Wildlife Federation Conservation Hall of Fame member Theodore Roosevelt, who as a young man joined with leading naturalist (and Conservation Hall of Fame inductee) George Bird Grinnell in an effort to save the last bison.

The year was 1887, and in the U.S. wild bison were restricted to fewer than 100 animals in Yellowstone National Park. Saving the iconic species was a huge challenge. No Endangered Species Act existed to protect the animals, and even the 1872 law that created the park failed to authorize protections for park resources. People still entered Yellowstone quasi-legally to cut firewood and to kill game for markets. Elk and bison were still being shot.

Under pressure from Roosevelt, Grinnell and their allies, Congress finally in 1894 enacted a law protecting the natural resources within Yellowstone National Park.

Protection alone did not suffice to recover the bison: decades passed before the herd began to recover. Nevertheless, today the Yellowstone animals remain perhaps the only genetically pure U.S. bison still alive, the last truly wild bison in the United States.

The years that went into making the park safe for wildlife has paid off for the American buffalo—its number there sometimes reaches as high as 4,000.

The Fight Goes On

National Wildlife Federation is involved in what might be called the next phase in restoring U.S. bison. The Federation is partnering with Indian tribes across the nation, with promising developments occurring right now for reintroduction of bison from Yellowstone in the Fort Belknap and Fort Peck reservations in Montana.

NWF  is also initiating a long-term plan to restore bison to the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge (CMR to aficionados) south of the reservations. The refuge may offer the last grassland large enough to allow the nomadic species to follow a normal pattern of life, moving in herds across a vast prairie.

The story of the bison reinforces at least three critical lessons in wildlife conservation:

  1. Without legal protections, a rare or imperiled species is unlikely to survive
  2. Despite tremendous efforts, recovering a depleted wildlife population may be the work of years and even decades—the destruction of a species moves with speed, but the biological pace of recovery in species that breed slowly cannot be hastened.
  3. Suitable habitat is the key to species protection—without Yellowstone National Park the bison as a wild creature would almost certainly be extinct today.

Habitat at the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and the two Indian reservations offers promise for the future of the American buffalo. Anyone who helps to restore this species is picking up the work that Theodore Roosevelt and his colleagues started more than 100 years ago and is marching in step with the generations of conservationists, hunters, wildlife enthusiasts and just plain bison fans who helped ensure that today we can see bison in native habit and not only in museums—an inheritance we too will want to leave to future generations.

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The photo associated with this blog was donated by a competitor in the annual National Wildlife Photo Contest. If you are a nature photographer, you may want to participate this year in the 41st annual National Wildlife Photo Contest. In addition to cash awards, winning photos will appear in National Wildlife magazine and on the NWF website.