Bison have pretty much been “odd ungulate out” when it comes to restoration efforts. Deer and elk are found throughout the West, and bighorn sheep and mountain goats are relatively widespread as well. But there are just a handful of free-roaming, genetically pure herds of bison in North America – today most of the gigantic, shaggy beasts are confined to ranches, destined to become buffalo burgers. And almost all of those ranch bison carry cattle genes, thanks to cross-breeding efforts to make them more docile and better suited for meat production.
Attempts to give wild bison more habitat in which to wander have met with strong opposition from ranchers and their political supporters, who fear the animals will spread disease and compete for forage (one Montana legislator called them “this creeping cancer, these woolly tanks”, and compared their restoration to bringing back dinosaurs).
But the Department of Interior recently released a report that commits to restoring bison on selected public and tribal lands – and not just as a few token animals here and there, but at scale, in numbers sufficient that they can once again fulfill their role as a keystone herbivore. The report isn't an actual plan for carrying out such restoration though, and doesn't include timetables -- it's more like a wish list.
The agency first proposed returning bison to their rightful place on the landscape back in 2008, and has taken some steps in that direction, like establishing a herd in the Book Cliffs of Utah. In 2012 then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar directed his department to identify public and tribal lands where bison from Yellowstone could be moved, with the goal of expanding the number of wild, genetically pure bison (today there are less than 10,000).
The long-awaited report commits to collaborating with tribes to restore bison to tribal lands; it also stresses cooperation with states, landowners, conservation groups, commercial bison producers and ranchers. To resolve the long-standing Yellowstone bison issue (described in our story “The Killing Fields”), the report proposes stocking suitable public lands with quarantined animals – once a bull or cow has been certified as free of brucellosis (which causes cows to abort) it could then be moved to a new area. Yellowstone scientists say that within five years, they could have bison with a clean bill of health ready to move.
The report identified the following areas in the West as historic bison ranges that are potentially suitable for relocating Yellowstone bison (many of these areas already have some bison):
• Arizona: Grand Canyon National Park
• Colorado: Baca National Wildlife Refuge, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
• Montana: Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, National Bison Range
• Utah: Book Cliffs, Henry Mountains
It also listed locations in Nebraska, the Dakotas, Iowa, Kansas and Oklahoma.
Several cooperative efforts are already underway, planning for potential new bison herds in the South Unit of Badlands National Park, and in Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Baca National Wildlife Refuge, and adjacent Nature Conservancy lands. And in Arizona, state and federal officials are working to establish a huntable bison herd adjacent to Grand Canyon. Montana has also worked to bring bison back, moving some animals from Yellowstone to Fort Belknap, and creating new management plans. But its relocation program has struggled, mostly due to opposition from livestock interests.
Interior sees collaborative restoration projects as essential to bison conservation. The report sets no specific goals, though, for which it’s been deservedly criticized by environmental groups. As the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reports:
“Defenders of Wildlife spokesman Steve Forrest said the report didn't reflect two years worth of work.
“We were happy to see the renewed commitment to bison conservation, but we thought there would be more in the way of goals,” Forrest said. “It wasn't like a directive to all the agencies saying, ‘Let's get the job done.' ”
The report concludes with a broad statement of intent:
“Indeed, by developing such partnerships, it is possible to look forward and envision a rich and varied tableau of conservation bison herds amidst working landscapes wherein healthy, ranging bison contribute not only to the conservation of the species, but also to sustainable local and regional economies and communities through such activities as tourism, hunting, agriculture, and ecological and cultural restoration.”
Some of you may have noticed that DOI’s vision for bison on the landscape carries at least faint echoes of the Buffalo Commons, that mid-80s “exercise in social prophecy.” If you’re not familiar with this proposal, it was the brainchild of two professors, Deborah and Frank Popper, who observed that much of the Great Plains were becoming depopulated, and that ranching, farming and other uses of the land weren’t sustainable. They suggested that the best thing to do was to return 10 million to 20 million acres of the Great Plains to grassland, and populate it with native wildlife, especially bison.
In 1992, the Poppers described their idea to HCN:
"To us, restoring a commons for buffalo offered a metaphor for a change to new uses of land that fell between intensive cultivation and pure wilderness, with less emphasis on agriculture and extraction and more on preservation and ecotourism."
Whether DOI was actually influenced by the Poppers’ ideas, who knows. But both articulate an approach that balances economic and environmental concerns. We may never see bison roaming 20 million acres of the Great Plains and the West, with hunters, tourists, ranchers and the land itself all benefiting from their presence. But 2 million seems doable. It'd be a start, anyway.
Jodi Peterson is managing editor of High Country News. She tweets @Peterson_Jodi.