American Bison: Native Wildlife or Domestic Livestock?

This blog post originally appeared on our Rockies Expeditions blog on September 11th. Our 2013 Spine of the Rockies Expedition is investigating Large Landscape Conservation through methods of visual and social media while connecting to the Rocky Mountain Region’s strong ties to outdoor recreation and wild spaces. For more on the expedition, visit:

Imagine the Rocky Mountain west and the Great Plains grazed by the 50 million head of American Bison that used to roam free. These bison, commonly mistaken as buffaloes, once ruled the greater American West.  With the bulls standing tall at around 1,800 lbs, these mammoth mammals inhabited their natural range from nearly coast-to-coast of the lower 48 states, as far north as Canada and south as Mexico.

An American Bison within Yellowstone boundaries.

An American Bison within Yellowstone boundaries.

Yet with manifest destiny on the national agenda, settlers moved out west and pushed the American bison out.  Commercial hunting for sustenance and sport devastated the native herds.  Population numbers of the largest North American land animal went from the millions to the thousands to nearly extinct by the beginning of the 20th century. Yellowstone National Park managed to take notice and just barely save the species. Today the wild herd still exists in Yellowstone NP with a population of about 3,000. These American bison represent the last genetically pure population containing only wild genetics, untainted by cattle interbreeding.

The idea of restoring this national treasure is exhilarating and overwhelming at the same time.  Corralled by Yellowstone’s borders these native species are subjected to a fraction of their historic territory and habitat.  Likewise their numbers have been managed and maintained in the thousands of head since inception.  Currently, the American bison is managed for maintaining a minimum viable population.  This term simply put means the lowest number of fertile individuals that must be in the herd to ensure the species survival and necessary genetic diversity.

These low population numbers put the species at high risk.  Genetic variability is limited by the small amount of suitable reproductive partners.  Therefore these animals cannot always adapt to changing conditions.  They have been bounded by legislation to Yellowstone NP and when they cross the arbitrary boundary they are sent to slaughter. American bison cannot read maps.  They do not recognize formal designations as boundaries.  When the season changes and food supplies have dwindled these animals search for new pasture.  Often times suitable landscapes are at lower elevations outside of the park boundaries.

American Bison regulate ecosystems by grazing grasses and shrubs.

American Bison regulate ecosystems by grazing grasses and shrubs.

Jonathan Proctor from Defenders of Wildlife explains, “The bison of Yellowstone are there because thats the only place they are allowed.  When they try to roam out of the place for forage in the winter they are hazed back into the park or rounded up and sent to slaughter for political reasons.  If they had their way the would all be out of the park in the winter, most likely down in lower elevations grazing in the grasslands, thats not an option anymore.”

The American bison is classified by the US government as a type of cattle, and is therefore managed as such.  This misunderstanding of this native species as livestock not as wildlife has created conservation management issues.  Yellowstone National Park is surrounded by sets of public lands, mostly US Forest Service wilderness areas. Therefore it would make logical sense that as these wild animals leave boundaries they should be able to find refuge in wilderness.  Unfortunately for the bison, wildlife outside of the national park is managed by the states, even on federal land.  Since cattle interests usually govern these areas, bison are often exterminated by either slaughter or hazing.

American bison have come under attack largely because of the bovine disease, brucellosis (Brucella abortus). This disease carried by cattle, elk, and bison causes pregnant animals to abort their calf.  Highly feared by cattle ranchers, bison have been targeted as a threat to cattle herds.  This is interesting because a case of brucellosis being transmitted from a bison to cattle has never been recorded.  However the vice versa happens easily, causing the bison herd to have to be tested and then either treated or slaughtered.  This accusation becomes even more ludicrous when considering the management of Rocky Mountain Elk.  Elk, proven to infect cattle, are considered a revered game species and therefore not subject to such exterminations. This classification seems strange when considering both these native species evolved on these lands as wildlife, not as domestic livestock.

Bison prefer to graze in low elevation grasslands.

Bison prefer to graze in low elevation grasslands.

This wildlife management situation is complicated by a variety of factors.  These issues of low genetic variability, insufficient habitat boundaries, and mismanagement as livestock make the American bison debate unique.  Politicians have attempted to equivocate the ‘bison problem’ as an attempt to ‘bring back the dinosaurs’.  Clearly this native wildlife is in dire need of assistance.  In 2000, the Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP) was created for this purpose of better managing the native species.  This combination of state and national agencies has proved inadequate.  In Montana, bison management is still dictated by cattle interests and in 2008 the National Park Service rounded up nearly 2,000 bison within park boundaries and sent them to slaughter.  These wild genetics are now forever lost because of an action taken by the agency in charge of ‘protecting’ them.

Thankfully, American bison restoration efforts are expanding beyond Yellowstone National Park boundaries.  The American Prairie Reserve in Phillips County, Montana sits on 274,000 acres and is devoted to protected the native ecosystem of the Great Plains.  The reserve protects essential migratory bird habitat and has recently expanded its efforts to include reintroduction of bison.  With help from the World Wildlife Fund, the American Prairie Reserve has been able to establish a population of American bison on its reserve using individuals from genetically pure herds.  The Yellowstone bison herd has contributed about 60 genetically wild individuals to the reserve.  These reintroduction numbers are growing and highly supported by nearby Native American tribes.  The reserve plans to continue to remove barbed wire fencing, introducing bison, and eventually reaching an expanse of 2 million grazable acres.

The debate centers on a value judgment between American bison and cattle.  It is essentially a question of what is important to our society, native wildlife or domesticated livestock.  While both species have managed to coexist for the past hundred years, bison will continue to cross jurisdictional boundaries that they cannot identify.  Citizens of the United States are entitled to their native wildlife.  Local economic interest has skewed the management of a national good and public resource.  If future Americans want to be able to witness a glimpse of what their ancestors encountered the American bison needs to be treated like the native fauna that it always has been.

Pat Hughes is a Field Researcher for the State of the Rockies Project

Photos by David Spiegel

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