Pulled from the brink
When Lewis & Clark first crossed the continent in the early 1800’s, tens of millions of American bison roamed from the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, all the way to the Rocky Mountains, profoundly shaping the ecology of the continent for millennia.
As manifest destiny pushed American expansion westward, wholesale slaughter of the bison began. Many U.S. Government officials believed that extirpating bison from the Great Plains was a necessary step towards conquering the Wild West. In 1873, one year after the establishment of Yellowstone National Park, Secretary of Interior, Columbus Delano, stated, “The civilization of the Indian is impossible while the buffalo remains upon the plains. I would not seriously regret the total disappearance of the buffalo from our western prairies.”
And that’s what almost happened. By the time John Muir founded the Sierra Club 1892, the prairielands of the American West no longer echoed with the hoof beats of great bison herds. Thankfully, 50 wild bison were discovered in the remote valleys of Yellowstone National Park, and this remnant herd from Yellowstone helped save the species from the brink of extinction.
The uncertain future of wild bison
While we saved bison from complete extinction, we have yet to truly save wild bison. Unlike other species such as elk, antelope, and bighorn sheep that have been restored to broader landscapes in the West, bison are absent from over 99% of their historic range. In fact there are so few wild bison left that we’re losing bison genetics at an alarming rate.
Loss of bison genetics
Of the more than 500,000 bison found today in North America, 96% are domesticated commercial livestock. Due to cross breeding experiments with cattle, there are fewer than 7,000 genetically pure bison left on earth. Of the 20,000 bison considered to be part of “conservation herds”, less than 7% come from wild free-roaming populations that are primarily influenced by natural regulation, and natural regulation is a necessary to promote healthy genetics. Only a handful of these conservation herds are larger than 400 animals, which is well below the minimum population of animals needed to prevent inbreeding and loss of genetic diversity. Unless we find new approaches to bison conservation, the bison genome will continue to lose genetic diversity needed for the long term health and vitality of the species.
Essential role of a keystone species
For millennia plains bison played a profound role in shaping the ecology of the ecosystems throughout their original range, which covered nearly 2/3rds of the continental United States. Today, however, plains bison is a missing link across most of this landscape.
Bison are considered a keystone species because their presence on the landscape helps foster robust ecosystems teeming with a diversity of flora and fauna species. As bison graze they literally help shape the ecosystem on the landscape level through creating a mosaic of different grazing
intensities, which in return, creates diverse habitats needed by many different species. For example, prairie dogs pioneer into heavily grazed areas and prevent invasion of woody vegetation while creating new opportunities for predators such as the swift fox, burrowing owl, and endangered black-footed ferret. In fact, one of the key reasons that grassland birds have experienced a steeper decline than any other guild of North American birds may have to do with the extirpation of bison from grassland ecosystems.
Bison are such a foundational species that ecologists tell us that “restoring the ecological role of bison is a prerequisite to large-scale and comprehensive restoration of biodiversity in the Great Plains and other grassland regions of North America that bison once inhabited” (Freese et al. 2006).
Bison Management Today
While there are over 2.6 million cattle in the state of Montana, there are fewer than 650 wild bison that live in the state year-round, and none of these bison are managed as free-roaming wildlife. Rather than being treated as a valued native wildlife species, they are intensively managed like livestock and live behind fences much like animals in a zoo. Our last wild bison are on the path towards domestication—unless we act now.
Yellowstone bison and brucellosis
Even the bison of Yellowstone National Park, undoubtedly the most wild and important conservation bison in the world, are forbidden from utilizing the vast public lands adjacent to the park in Southwestern Montana due to concerns over a disease called brucellosis. Bison that try to follow their historic migratory routes out of the park to lower elevations during the winter are rounded up and driven back into the park at a cost to tax-payers of $3 million a year. During particularly harsh winters, it’s common for bison to die of starvation in the high plateau of the park as they can’t get to the forage because of deep snow.
Brucellosis was first given to wildlife by domestic livestock around the turn of the century, and some ranchers worry that bison may transmit the disease back to their cattle which graze on lands near Yellowstone. Female cows that are infected with the disease will often have a miscarriage during their next pregnancy, and ranchers whose herds become infected will incur the financial burdens of testing and slaughtering infected cattle.
The good news is that despite years of controversy over brucellosis and Yellowstone bison, Montana’s livestock industry remains as vibrant as ever. New science has shed light on the fact that risk of transmission of brucellosis from bison to cattle is extremely low. In fact, there has never been such a case in the wild, although elk have given the disease to cattle numerous times. Unlike bison, elk are managed as wildlife and allowed to freely roam on public lands in Greater Yellowstone. Migrating Yellowstone bison deserve and need a place on Montana’s public lands, too.
Further highlighting the need to update today’s outdated management practices, recent overhauls to federal brucellosis regulations have greatly diminished the economic threat brucellosis presents to the Montana livestock industry.
Much has changed since the current Yellowstone bison management practices were put into a place over a decade ago, creating opportunities for Montana to try new approaches to management of this key bison conservation herd.
A new approach: Bison as wildlife
The good news is that wild bison can coexist with local communities and a strong livestock industry, as we’ve seen in Jackson, WY, the Henry Mountains of Utah, and Saskatchewan, Canada. Given the large public landscapes found in our state, we have the unique opportunity to lead the way in bison conservation.
While there are valid public concerns that need to be addressed, Montanans have figured out how to live with other charismatic mega fauna such as elk and grizzly bears, and we can surely do the same for wild bison.
It’s time that we take new steps towards managing bison as a valued native wildlife species.
Room to roam for Yellowstone bison
The Sierra Club and others are working to secure the first ever year-round habitat in Montana outside of the park for migrating Yellowstone bison. The Gallatin National Forest, adjacent to Yellowstone National Park, said they would welcome bison on their lands if the state of Montana will let them stay.
Recognizing the need to update management practices for Yellowstone bison, a citizens’ advisory council comprised of local ranchers, conservationists, and residents of local communities passed historic consensus recommendations asking state and federal lands managers to give bison new habitat and repopulate public lands in the Greater Yellowstone region.
Currently the state of MT is considering a proposal to allow migrating Yellowstone bison more room to roam, an approach that’s critical for the long term health and vitality of this American icon.
Opportunities for wild bison restoration
Right now Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks is also considering opportunities to restore a wide-ranging (and hopefully genetically viable) population of wild bison somewhere in the state. Given the large public landscapes found in Montana, we have the unique opportunity to lead the way in bison conservation. Restoring wild bison would not only be a great ecological benefit to some of our last truly wild ecosystems, but it could also help local economies through creating new ecotourism and hunting opportunities.
Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks has successfully restored other species in the state including elk and bighorn sheep, and Sierra Club is working to ensure that we do the same for bison.
For question on Sierra Club’s efforts to restore bison as wildlife in Montana, or to get involved with our efforts, please contact Zack Waterman at email@example.com