Interior commits to bison restoration – but offers few specifics


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).

Bison grazing near Antelope State Park in Utah. Photograph by Flickr user Matt Peoples.

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.

Deb Dedon
Deb Dedon Subscriber
Jul 08, 2014 03:29 PM
"Huntable" bison near the Grand Canyon? Bow and lance only, fellas. Do it the old fashioned way. And if you can't, don't.
Mark Pearson
Mark Pearson Subscriber
Jul 08, 2014 04:37 PM
The restoration of bison to Utah's Book Cliffs is a terrific success story and demonstrates a practical approach for returning bison to large landscapes. But alas, the Dept of Interior had absolutely nothing to do with this success. The Book Cliffs bison restoration was a project of Utah's Division of Wildlife Resources in partnership with local landowners and the Ute Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation. The tribe donated some of its bison to the effort, and DWR transplanted another few dozen from the wild herd in Utah's Henry Mountains. If only the Dept of Interior were as foresighted and nimble as Utah in bison management.[…]/#
Tom Darnell
Tom Darnell Subscriber
Jul 08, 2014 04:44 PM
Eliminate Federal farm subsidies and the establishment of free-roaming bison herds will happen a lot sooner.

Dave Carter
Dave Carter
Jul 09, 2014 08:08 PM
I was disappointed by the inaccuracy in the lead paragraph of this article. While it is true that some bison herds on private ranches contain traces of cattle genetics, those genetics are largely the result of some brief crossbreeding experiments conducted by the handful of ranchers who gathered up the remnants of the decimated herds 120 years ago. Those experiments were not successful, so those ranchers abandoned the practice. Today's bison ranchers are dedicated to maintaining the integrity of the animals. The National Bison Association Code of Ethics specifically prohibits crossbreeding bison with other species. And, may ranchers are now conducting genetic testing on their herds to weed out the remnants of cattle genetics. More information is available at
Bob Laybourn
Bob Laybourn Subscriber
Jul 15, 2014 01:46 PM
"Beefalo", "Cattalo" and "Yakalo" are names for recent crossbreds. Crossbreeding has been both very small scale and fairly large operations including the sale of hybrid genetic material (semen) for artificial insemination. I believe that once the cattle or other genes have been introduced; it is difficult or impossible to remove them. I am no expert and may be mistaken in whole or in part.
Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder Subscriber
Jul 15, 2014 02:16 PM
Sorry, Dave Carter, but, the hybridization efforts, while not modern, still persist. (And, the author didn't say the efforts were modern, just that they had been done.)[…]American_bison_conservation
R Frasier
R Frasier
Jul 19, 2014 08:08 AM
@ S Snyder, I think your talking about two different things. Bison Ranchers, do not cross breed, however some cattle owners still do. Trying to make that "better" beef. Back in the "slaughter days" it was for better hides, silkier fur....and more meat on their cattle. It was dropped, eventually...for several reasons.