If humankind was ever put on trial for its crimes against wildlife, our near extermination of the American bison would make for a damning Exhibit A. Luckily, we came to our senses in time to avert extinction; today, around three-quarters of a million bison roam North America’s plains. Still, those animals can hardly be called wildlife: The vast majority contain DNA from cattle and dwell in quasi-domestication on ranches. Even the genetically pure Yellowstone National Park herd is essentially managed as livestock.
Two recent developments, however, suggest that happier times lie ahead for the shaggy icons of our prairies.
The first exciting item comes from the Canadian government, which recently announced that it would spend $6.4 million (CAD) to reintroduce the behemoths to Banff National Park. Like the United States, Canada managed to annihilate nearly all its bison by the end of the 19th century, with the exception of a few pockets of wood bison, a larger-bodied subspecies. In 1909, however, our northern neighbor imported a handful of American plains bison; these days, the country hosts two free-ranging herds of plains bison and 10 herds of wood bison. (Wood bison, which have been absent from the U.S. for a century, will incidentally be restored in Alaska this year.)
Under the Banff plan, Parks Canada will truck 30 to 50 plains bison over from Alberta’s Elk Island National Park in January 2017 and pen them in a paddock until spring, when they’ll be turned loose in a 165-square-mile area along Banff’s eastern edge. Semi-permeable fences will keep bison inside the park while allowing other species to disperse (at least in theory), and prescribed burns will maintain open grasslands. In turn, scientists hope the herbivores will function as ecosystem engineers, their grazing and wallowing restoring Banff’s ecosystems to a semblance of their former selves.
Inevitably, the plan has detractors, from scientists convinced that fencing will transform Banff into a glorified game farm to ranchers who fear those same fences won’t prevent bison from traipsing beyond park borders. But if we’ve learned anything about wildlife management, it’s that animals should be able to migrate freely in and out of parks. “I cannot take seriously anyone who says they are worried about what bison might do in the forest reserves when I see the kinds of cumulative abuse from off-roaders, logging companies, oil and gas, road builders and grazing licensees that Alberta seems blithely ready to live with,” wrote former Banff superintendent Kevin Van Tighem in a trenchant Calgary Herald op-ed. “There’s a bit of a cognitive dissonance thing happening there.”
Lest you think Canada has cornered the cognitive dissonance market, consider America’s infamous Interagency Bison Management Plan, the document that governs state and federal agencies’ approach to the Yellowstone herd.
Since its inception in 2000, the IBMP has been one of the West’s most maligned wildlife plans, and for good reason: When bison attempt to decamp the park for lower elevations each winter, the government slaughters them (over 500 this winter alone, in a herd of nearly 5,000) or hazes them back into the park, for fear that bison will spread brucellosis to domestic cattle. Though the agencies relaxed their zero-tolerance policy in 2011 by allowing bison to seasonally roam into Montana’s Gardiner Basin, the Montana Board of Livestock has nixed proposals to open additional lands, and the woolly beasts remain the park’s de facto prisoners. Yet according to the Centers for Disease Control, there’s never been a recorded incident — not one — of cattle actually contracting brucellosis from Yellowstone bison.
Now, the old IBMP may be on its last legs. Earlier this month, the National Park Service and the state of Montana announced they would begin preparing a new plan, one that better accounts for growing public tolerance and new brucellosis science. The agencies are currently soliciting public comments.
“This is a chance to hit the reset button, which is not lost on any of the parties,” says Bart Melton, Northern Rockies regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association. Melton and other conservationists want the government to abolish arbitrary population limits and allow bull bison, which pose little disease risk, to access over 400,000 acres of public land outside Yellowstone throughout the year. (Females would be permitted in winter.) Cattle don’t frequent those areas, effectively precluding disease transmission.
While a more tolerant bison plan would be a welcome development, wildlife advocates shouldn’t hold their collective breath: It took the government a whopping 10 years to complete the original IBMP. Though the agencies currently expect to finalize the plan by late 2017, Melton hopes they'll shoot for 2016, the Park Service’s centennial and the close of the Obama Administration. “What a great deadline for them to try to achieve,” says Melton. “Look at the Park Service emblem: there’s a bison front and center.”