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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Job Title: Executive Director Reports To: Board of Directors Compensation: $75,000 to $80,000, plus generous benefits and paid leave. Funding for relocation expenses available. Classification:...
  • WATER DIRECTOR
    Applications will be accepted on a rolling basis. Application review will begin on April 2, 2021 and will continue until the position has been filled....
  • CLIMATE JUSTICE FELLOW
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks applicants for a climate justice fellowship. The fellowship...
  • VIRGINIA SPENCER DAVIS FELLOWSHIP
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is offering a fellowship for early-career journalists interested in...
  • COLORADO WILD PUBLIC LANDS VIDEO CONTEST
    Please submit your video of 30 seconds or less, taken on public lands, to [email protected] by May 15th for a chance to win in one...
  • WMAN NETWORK COORDINATOR
    WESTERN MINING ACTION NETWORK (WMAN) CONTRACT OPPORTUNITY CLOSING DATE: Feb. 19, 2021 WMAN is seeking a team member to coordinate the various network activities to...
  • FRIENDS OF THE INYO IS HIRING TRAIL AMBASSADORS FOR THE SUMMER OF 2021
    Friends of the Inyo's Trail Ambassadors (TAs) support the Inyo, Sierra, & Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forests and other partners by providing positive public service, outreach, interpretation,...
  • LAND & CABIN ON CO/ UT LINE
    18 ac w/small solar ready cabin. Off grid, no well. Great RV location. Surrounded by state wildlife area and nat'l parks.
  • MANAGER PERMACULTURE LANDSCAPE CONTRACTOR
    Permaculture / Landscape Company Manager / Site Lead Red Ant Works, Inc. - 20+ year landscape construction and horticultural care company seeks manager and site...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau with lodge, river trip and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance is looking for a passionate, dynamic, organized, and technology-savvy communications professional to help grow our membership and presence in the Four...
  • ENERGY AND CLIMATE PROGRAM ASSOCIATE
    San Juan Citizens Alliance seeks an Energy and Climate Program Associate to focus on public outreach, education and organizing to advance campaigns to mitigate climate...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    This position provides professional real estate services and is responsible for managing and completing real estate projects utilizing a project management database that is designed...
  • WILDFIRE MITIGATION SPECIALIST
    The Wildfire Mitigation Specialist is responsible for delivering wildfire risk mitigation information, recommendations and programmatic resources to wildland urban interface homeowners, community members and partners....
  • DEVELOPMENT POSITIONS
    Thorne Nature Experience is hiring for a Development Director and Senior Individual Giving Manager. Individuals will work collaboratively with Thorne's Executive Director to develop and...
  • SENIOR PROGRAM MANAGER, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION & ENERGY
    The National Parks Conservation Association, a 100-year-old nonprofit advocacy organization and the nation's leading voice for national parks seeks a Senior Program Manager, Landscape Conservation...
  • BACKCOUNTRY AND FRONTCOUNTRY STEWARDSHIP CREW MEMBERS
    The San Juan Mountains Association (SJMA) is hiring a crew of ambassadors to work in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service to educate visitors on...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, NATURAL HISTORY INSTITUTE
    The Executive Director is the chief executive officer of the Natural History Institute (NHI). The Executive Director has broad authority to lead and manage the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    - The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region - The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful,...
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Native plant seeds for the Western US. Trees, shrubs, grasses, wildflowers and regional mixes. Call or email for free price list. 719-942-3935. [email protected] or visit...