Legal Status of the American Bison

On May 9, 2016, President Obama signed the National Bison Legacy Act, recognizing the American Bison as the national mammal of the United States.  Alongside this noble gesture, the Senate has repeatedly passed resolutions since 2012 recognizing the first Saturday of November as National Bison Day to encourage the celebration of the historical, cultural and ecological significance of the American Bison.   Though these recognitions were long overdue, they have not led to any significant improvement in the status of the American Bison.  Indeed the National Bison Legacy Act states that the “North American bison is adopted as the national mammal of the United States” (HR 2908) and makes clear that the Act will have no effect on any policy, plan, or regulation:

Nothing in this Act or the adoption of the North American bison as the national mammal of the United States shall be construed or used as a reason to alter, change, modify, or otherwise affect any plan, policy, management decision, regulation or other action by the Federal Government (Sec. 3 (b) Rule of Construction, HR 2908).

Though its importance is not over-looked, the Act, essentially, stands as symbolic gesture.  The wild bison need more than just rhetoric.  They need legal recognition at both the state and federal levels.

                The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species concluded that the American Bison is a Near Threatened species [1].  This designation results from the circumstances of the bison.  To persist, the species is dependent on ongoing conservation programs.  All mature bison occur within active management programs, which, if stopped, would result in the bison qualifying as a Threatened species. Geographically widely dispersed populations prevent natural movement and opportunities for the generation of genetic diversity.  Approximately 97% of the bison population is managed for captive, commercial consumption, while very few herds are managed for conservation purposes, and none are managed for public interest.  The number of adult bison in wild-free-ranging and semi-free-ranging extends from 11,000 to 13,000 with only 4 herds over 1000 individuals.  These low numbers, and the lack of free-range which would allow the subpopulations to inter-breed and strengthen genetic diversity, nearly qualify the bison to meet the criteria for Vulnerable Species. The conclusion of the IUCN Red List regarding the likelihood of wild bison increasing depends completely on conservation interventions.  Without the National Parks, Refuges or Sanctuaries the wild American bison is not likely to survive [2].

                Given this assessment by the IUCN and our seeming desire as a nation to honor the bison through such recognitions as the National Bison Legacy Act, one would think serious efforts would be underway to ensure the future of wild free-ranging bison.  Though a few efforts by individuals and groups have been made to improve current legal conditions in a few states affecting bison, no political will exists, either at the state or federal levels, to address the IUCN’s dire warning. (Continue to part 2)