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
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • NATURE EDUCATION DIRECTOR
    Our mission is to inspire a life-long connection to nature and community through creative exploration of the outdoors. We are seeking an educational leader who...
  • DEVELOPMENT AND MARKETING DIRECTOR
    The Development and Marketing Director is a senior position responsible for the execution of all development and marketing strategies to raise funds and increase public...
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Coordinates all Wyoming Wildlife Federation philanthropic activities. Tasks include identification, recruitment, and retention of donors, organizing fundraising events, and assisting with grant writing.
  • REALTOR NEEDS A REMOTE ASSISTANT
    This is a business assistant position, The working hours are flexible and you can chose to work from anywhere of your choice, the pay is...
  • CORPORATE & GRANTS PARTNER MANAGER
    Forever Our Rivers Foundation Corporate Partnerships Manager February 2020 www.ForeverOurRivers.org Forever Our Rivers Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, was formed in late 2016 with the mission...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Central Oregon LandWatch is seeking an Executive Director to advance our mission and oversee the development of the organization. Job Description: The Executive Director oversees...
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • MEDIA DIRECTOR
    Love working with the media? Shine a spotlight on passionate, bold activists fighting for wild lands, endangered species, wild rivers and protecting the climate.
  • STAFF ATTORNEY - NEVADA
    The Center for Biological Diversity is seeking an attorney to expand our litigation portfolio in Nevada. Come join our hard-hitting team as we fight for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Montana Wildlife Federation seeks an energetic leader to advance our mission, sustain our operations, and grow our grassroots power. For a full position description,...
  • HISTORIC COMMERCIAL OPPORTUNITY IN DOWNTOWN NOGALES
    Nogales. 3 active lower spaces and upper floor with lots of potential. 520-245-9000 [email protected]
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • DIRECTOR, TEXAS WATER PROGRAMS
    The National Wildlife Federation seeks a Director to lead our water-related policy and program work in Texas, with a primary focus on NWF's signature Texas...
  • SPLIT CREEK RANCH
    Spectacular country home on 48 acres with Wallowa River running through it! 541-398-1148 www.RubyPeakRealty.com
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...
  • NEW MEXICO GILA NATIONAL FOREST HORSE RANCH
    43 acres in the Gila National Forest. Horse facility, custom home. Year-round outdoor living. REDUCED to $999,000, 575-536-3109.
  • EVERLAND MOUNTAIN RETREAT
    Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • COPPER CANYON MEXICO CAMPING & BACKPACKING
    Camping, hiking, backpacking, R2R2R, Tarahumara Easter, Mushroom Festival, www.coppercanyontrails.org.