From the Brink to the Foothills (part 3)

Even with organizations using an ecological approach, the domestication paradigm still rules over 90% of bison.  Only the Yellowstone herd and the herd in the Henry Mountain Range of Utah are managed as free roaming, wild bison. But those cases also see human meddling.  In Yellowstone, the herd size is kept below ecological capacity, and the Henry Mountain herd is too small, most likely causing the herd to suffer inbreeding depression (i.e., the reduced biological fitness in a given population as a result of inbreeding). But the necessary allocation of habitat allowing the herd to grow to avoid inbreeding depression has not occurred[20].

In addition to the domestication paradigm, strong opposition to wild bison exists.  The National Cattlemen Beef Association (NCBA) carries a great deal of political clout and opposes, as a matter of policy, any expansion of wild bison[21].  Their “beef,” they say, is with the spreading of brucellosis disease which can cause spontaneous abortions in cattle, bison, elk, and other species, even though no documented evidence exists of brucellosis spreading from bison to cattle.[22] 

Supporting the NCBA’s disease concern, the research needs for the Yellowstone bison, as directed by the Interagency Bison Management Plan for the State of Montana and Yellowstone National Park, focus entirely on disease management to the exclusion of all other research[23]. There is no funding of potential research projects drawing public attention to the critical role of how bison fulfill the ecosystem[24].  The stated purpose of the plan is to “…maintain a wild, free-ranging population of bison and address the risk of brucellosis transmission to protect the economic interest and viability of the livestock industry in the state of Montana”[25].

 The approved research projects, then, beg the question: Why is the approved research only focused on the last half of the plan’s purpose?  If the purpose of the plan is to maintain a “…wild, free-ranging population of bison…”, why no research for the bison’s role in the ecosystem? The answer to this question requires understanding the role of the livestock industry in the state of Montana.  Montana is one of the few states that has a separate department just for livestock, completely separate from the Departments of Agriculture and Wildlife.  Consequently, the livestock industry has increased influence in Montana, primarily a cattle-raising state.

Then, of course, inertia offers its deadweight.  The US Forest Service and the US Fish and Wildlife Service have mandates to preserve the national forests and wildlife refuges in their natural state, but the mandates have never been fully implemented; especially in the case of bison. Elk, bear, moose, and other species have been allowed to exist in the wild; but not bison, except in the cases of the Yellowstone and Henry Mountain herds.   Even the necessary research of wild bison as envisioned by the Vermejo Statement has not been initiated by these agencies. According to the report and recommendations of the Bison Conservation Genetics Workshop[26], despite the directions of the U.S. government’s Bison Conservation Initiative[27], the required research goes unrealized. Additionally, to date, there has been no research on how the bison in Yellowstone fulfill the ecosystem.  The only studies performed thus far [28] regard the relationship of bison to the ecosystems of tallgrass prairies[29]

Thus, even with the awareness of the required ecological paradigm, and organizations engaged in efforts to realize that paradigm, the ecological recovery of the bison still remains in question.  Until greater public support arises, the political appetite necessary to achieve the steps toward ecological recovery, at best, will be slow in coming or may not occur at all. We are only at the foothills of a true bison recovery.  The question remains whether we possess the will to scale the mountain before us.


[1] Dary, David A.  The Buffalo Book (Athens, Ohio. Ohio University Press, 1989), 132-133.

[2] Dary, 122.

[3] Dary, 121-124

[4] Dary, 132-133.

[5] Bailey, James A.  American Plains Bison: Rewilding an Icon (Helena, MT. Sweetgrass Books, 2013), 155.

[6] Callanbach, Ernest. 1996. Bring Back the Buffalo: A Sustainable Future for America’s Great Plains (Berkeley. University of California Press, 1996), 55.

[7] Bison Bellows, 03-17-16. Retrieved from https://www.nps.gov/subjects/bison/bison-bellows.htm, and Bailey, 137.

[8] International Union for the Conservation of Nature (ICUN).  American Bison: Status Survey and Conservation Guidelines 2010. Retrieved  from https://cmsdata.iucn.org/downloads/american_bison_report.pdf.

[9] Bison Bellows, 03-17-16.

[10] Bailey, 141.

[11] Sanderson, Eric, et al. “The Ecological Future of the North American Bison: Conceiving Long-Term, Large-Scale Conservation of Wildlife”. Conservation Biology Volume 22, No. 2 (2008): 252-266.

[12] Sanderson, et al.

[13] Bison Bellows, 04-07-16.

[14] Buffalo Field Campaign, “Who We Are”. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.buffalofieldcampaign.org/who-we-are/mission-vision-values (accessed 15 October 2018)

[15] American Prairie Reserve, “Mission and Values”(n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.americanprairie.org/mission-and-values (accessed 15 October 2018).

[16] This staff biologist is also one of the Vermejo Statement authors

[17] Heidebrink, Scott, Bison Management Specialist. American Prairie Reserve. Scott Heidebrink, email message to author. 29 October 2018

[18] Inter Tribal Bison Council, “Our History” (n.d.). Retrieved  from http://www.itbcbuffalonation.org/who-we-are/history/ (accessed 15 October 2018).

[19] Darrell Geist, email message to author. 29 October 2018. Geist, Darrell, Habitat Coordinator. Buffalo Field Campaign.

[20] Darrell Geist, email message to author. 29 October 2018.

[21] NCBA 2018 Policy. FL3.10. National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. 2018 Policy. Retrieved from http://cqrcengage.com/beefusa/file/1TtXnElZpZB/2018%20NCBA%20Policy%20Book.pdf (accessed 20 October 2018)

[22] This is a rather strange concern since they are not concerned about brucellosis spreading from elk and bear. The actual concern seems to be with grazing and foraging.

[23] See Interagency Bison Management Plan Appendix D FEIS 2000 Vol 1. Interagency Bison Management Plan  Appendix D FEIS 2000 Vol 1.  Retrieved from http://ibmp.info/Library/FEIS_finalEIS/FEIS_volume1_132Mb.PDF

[24] Darrell Geist, email message to author. 22 October 2018.

[25] Interagency Bison Management Plan. 2000.

[26] Dratch, P. and Peter Gogan. Bison Conservation Initiative Bison Conservation Genetics Workshop: Report and Recommendations Natural Resource Report NPS/NRPC/BRMD/NRR—2010/257.

[27] Bison Conservation Initiative. 2008. US Department of the Interior.

[28] For example see Knapp, A. K., J. M. Blair, J. M. Briggs, S. L. Collins, D. C. Hartnett, L. C. Johnson and E. Gene Towne. “The keystone role of bison in North American tallgrass prairie”. BioScience 49 (1999): 39-50.

[29] Darrell Geist, email message to author. 22 October 2018.