From the Brink to the Foothills (part 2)

When the efforts began, theories regarding natural selection such as Darwin’s were either not known or not fully understood, and a developed ecological consciousness did not occur until the 1970s. Lack of awareness ruled in regard to such considerations as genetic diversity and the ecological ramifications of species loss.  Instead, the pioneers of the recovery efforts only had their own experiences and knowledge of animal husbandry to rely upon, which was based on the management of cattle and sheep; a domestication paradigm.

But domestication does not encourage genetic diversity and does not address the ecological harms resulting from the extirpation (i.e., localized geographical extinction) of the bison. The last hundred years or so of bison management involved confinement in fenced areas, roundups, selective culling, selection of bulls for breeding, vaccinations, supplemental feeding, controlling breeding cycles, and maintaining herd sizes below ecological carrying capacity[7]. Together these constitute artificial selection as opposed to natural selection. The paradigm of bison as livestock, which still predominates to this day, governs the management of bison[8].  Domestication affects genetic diversity, physiological processes and loss of natural behaviors [9] as seen in the following consequences:

  • Inbreeding with negative effects on survival and reproduction
  • Loss of genetic diversity
  • Altered body size, depending on selection
  • Reduced skull and brain size
  • Diminished dominance behavior
  • Reduced nutritional effectiveness
  • Diminished ease of calving
  • Reduced maternal behavior and lower milk quality
  • Lethargy, reduced mobility and agility
  • Diminished disease resistance
  • Reduced acuity of senses[10]

To effect a true bison recovery, the management paradigm needed to shift from livestock to wild animal.  Some conservationists question just how successful the bison recovery had been given the harms of domestication and the movement toward agribusiness. Most bison are still raised for meat production and managed as small herds for this purpose.  They are not significant participants in the grasslands and ecosystems as they once were[11].

 But more recently, with the growing ecological awareness, understanding bison recovery required the inclusion of ecosystem recovery. This recognition led the Wildlife Conservation Society in 2005-2006 to host a series of meetings involving indigenous groups, bison producers, conservation organizations and government and private land managers to determine a vision of bison restoration[12].  The vision, finalized in the Vermejo Statement (so named after the meeting location in Vermejo, New Mexico), includes maintaining herds that meet the criteria for ecological recovery, maintaining long-term health and genetic diversity, providing conservation incentives for bison producers, building capacity, and providing education and awareness to the public. Later, in 2014, the Wildlife Conservation Society facilitated the signing of the Buffalo Treaty by 13 indigenous nations, becoming the first cross-border treaty creating an intertribal alliance between the US, Canada and the Blackfeet Nation. This treaty helped restore bison to 6.3 million acres of Tribal and First Nations land [13].

Even prior to, and since the Vermejo Statement and the Buffalo Treaty, organizations existed who have embraced at least elements of this ecological vision.  The Buffalo Field Campaign, formed in 1994, for instance, serves its mission of ending the harassment and slaughter of the last wild herd in Yellowstone, protecting the habitat of the wild, free-roaming buffalo, and working with all people, especially Native Americans, to honor and protect the sacredness of the buffalo[14].

In regard to the wider issue of ecosystem recovery, the America Prairie Reserve, formed  in 2001 initially as The Prairie Foundation, exists “…to create the largest nature reserve in the continental United States, a refuge for people and wildlife preserved forever as part of America’s heritage,” aiming to restore a fully functioning prairie ecosystem[15]. Since 2005, the American Prairie Reserve has reintroduced bison to the reserve created in Montana abutting the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, and continues to expand both its land base and herd size.  The American Prairie Reserve, with the help of one of its staff biologists,[16] uses the Vermejo Statement as its guide to realize the Reserve’s mission[17].

Integrating the ecological vision with a cultural recovery, the Inter Tribal Bison Council, formed in 1991 when 19 tribes gathered in the Black Hills of South Dakota, exists to “…restore bison on Tribal lands for cultural and spiritual enhancement and preservation”[18].  However, less is known about the herds on reservations.  The tribal lands are a checker board of ownership, resulting from the Dawes Act of 1887 which allowed reservation land to be sold.  Even with the first nations buying back much of the land on the reservations, the bison herds are not, strictly speaking, free-roaming.  For instance, management of the bison introduced to the Fort Peck & Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana involves pasture rotation within fenced ranges on cattle grazing allotments held by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (Darrell Geist, email message to author)[19]. (continue to part 3)