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Bison Begin to Return to Their Old Home on the Great Plains

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 26, 2018

by Richard Conniff/Smithsonian Magazine

Sometime this winter, if all goes as planned, a caravan of livestock trucks will carry 60 American bison out of Yellowstone National Park on a 500-mile journey into the past. Unlike their ranched cousins, which are mainly the result of nineteenth-century attempts to cross bison with cattle, the Yellowstone animals are wild and genetically pure, descendants of the original herds that once astonished visitors to the Great Plains and made the bison the symbol of American abundance. Until, that is, unsustainable hunting made it a symbol of mindless ecological destruction.

When the appalling mass slaughter of 30 million or so bison finally ended early in the 20th century, just 23 wild bison remained in Yellowstone, holed up in Pelican Valley. Together with a roughly equal number of animals saved by ranchers, they became the basis for the recovery of the species, Bison bison, carefully nurtured back to strength within Yellowstone National Park.

Yellowstone has done its job so well, in fact, that the herd now routinely exceeds the limit of about 4000 bison thought to be sustainable within park boundaries. Park rangers have thus had the disheartening annual job of rounding up “excess” bison for slaughter or watching some step across the park’s northern border into a hunt that critics deride as a firing squad. Relocating the animals would be the humane alternative, except for one scary problem: Ranchers and others have long maintained that bison spread brucellosis, a bacterial infection that is devastating to both cattle and bison. But an authoritative 2017 study using whole genome sequencing determined that every case of brucellosis in cattle over the past 20 years “has come from infected elk, not bison.” That finding has made it harder for ranchers to resist the idea of allowing some wild bison out of the park. In addition, the park has instituted an elaborate quarantine protocol to ensure that brucellosis does not travel with them.

The park service will ship the bison to the Sioux and Assiniboine tribal nations at Fort Peck Indian Reservation, in northeastern Montana. A small herd of Yellowstone bison is already thriving there, the result of a modest 2012 feasibility experiment. The plan is to build up that herd and to create a sort of bison pipeline, says Robbie Magnan, the reservation’s fish and game director. As more animals arrive from Yellowstone and pass through a secondary quarantine stage, the Fort Peck tribes will gradually export bison—Magnan prefers to call them “buffalo,” the common name on the reservation—to start herds at other reservations and conservation areas around the Great Plains.

On a practical level, the relocation is simply a way to keep the Yellowstone population in check. But it is also much more than that. The move begins to restore wild bison to the Great Plains and the Plains Indians, who depended on them for food, clothing and shelter. “It has a real spiritual meaning for us,” says Magnan. “The buffalo were taking care of Native Americans from the beginning of time, and now we need to help them.” The fates of indigenous people and bison have long been intertwined in the eyes of government, too:  Federal agents 150 years ago proposed eradicating the bison as a way to get rid of the Plains Indians, in what General William Tecumseh Sherman called “one grand sweep of them all.”

Renewed interest in the future of wild bison—including the 2016 designation of the species as the U.S. National Mammal—comes as the conventional account of their near extinction is facing fresh scrutiny. The story eyewitnesses and historians have told and re-told since the 1870s is that the destruction of the bison herds, almost overnight, was the work of ruthless white hunters arriving by railroad and armed with the latest weaponry. But that account may be too simple.

(Painting: George Catlin)

Citing fur trade records, archaeological data and contemporary accounts, environmental historians such as Andrew Isenberg at the University of Kansas and Dan Flores at the University of Montana argue that white hunters administered the crushing final blow—but only after a century of environmental challenges and over-hunting by Native Americans. The arrival of horses on the Great Plains from 1690 onward gave tribes a new and highly efficient means of pursuing their prey. More native Americans were also eking out a living from the fiercely variable Great Plains environment, as settlers displaced them from traditional territories. And commercial demand gave them a huge new outlet for bison hides.

Other researchers worry that this contrarian version of history will invite misunderstanding. “People hear only ‘Indians were involved, too,’” says Philip J. Deloria, a Harvard professor of Native American history, “and that has the effect of letting the others off the hook, and of letting the explicit military strategy of destroying Native American resources off the hook.” Deloria argues that the Native Americans’ culture, based on the idea of subsistence, prevented them from decimating the bison in the same devastating way the market hunters did.

It’s tempting to look for a happier ending in the current restoration of the American bison: A great people working together—cowboy and Indian alike–can pull a species back from the cusp of extinction. (The International Union for Conservation of Nature ranks bison as “near threatened.”) But that doesn’t sound right, does it? The bison is a shaggy, snorting reminder that we Americans like to fight about our icons, and one other big fight surely lies ahead. Cattle ranchers will have to face up to their real fear about a resurgent bison herd: It is not about brucellosis, after all. It’s about competition for grass, and a slow turning of the tables, with their own uncertain future in the resource-limited West at stake.

END

(Photo: Joel Sartore/National Geographic Creative)

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2 Responses to “Bison Begin to Return to Their Old Home on the Great Plains”

  1. UPDATE: This press release from Defenders of Wildlife announces the First Tribal Buffalo Conservation Summit, taking place next week in Denver:

    What: First Tribal Buffalo Conservation Summit and National Bison Day Celebration

    When: Nov. 1-3

    Where: History Colorado Center, Denver, Colorado (Nov. 1-2); Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, Commerce City, Colorado (Nov. 3)

    Why: The Tribal Buffalo Conservation Summit will bring together tribal leaders, tribal wildlife managers, and conservation experts to share management strategies and discuss the important ecological, cultural and economic benefits of restoring bison to tribal lands.

    Conference attendance on Nov. 1-2 is limited to tribal and bison representatives. Media is also encouraged to attend the conference. The Summit agenda can be found here: http://online.nwf.org/site/DocServer/Tribal_Buffalo_Conservation_Summit_Agenda_10_10_18.pdf

    The National Bison Day events are by invitation only. Media is also allowed to attend the celebration.

    Native American tribes are leaders in bison conservation. In the last six years, tribes have restored hundreds of wild buffalo to western tribal lands in Montana, Wyoming and other states, and celebrated the birth of dozens of calves on tribal lands throughout the West. The summit will gather representatives from dozens of tribes to explain the most effective on the ground restoration techniques, collaborate to create more successes, and inspire other tribes.

    The Summit conference will be held at the History Colorado Center on Nov. 1-2. Tribal and wildlife management experts at the summit will discuss:
    · The spiritual, religious, ceremonial and cultural use of buffalo
    · Engaging youth in bison conservation
    · Improving landscapes and habitat through buffalo restoration
    · The ecology and genetics of bison restoration
    · Yellowstone National Park’s bison program
    · Partnerships for buffalo conservation

    At the National Bison Day Celebration on Nov. 3 at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, tribal leaders and elders will speak about the importance of buffalo to tribes and communities. There will also be native singing and drumming performances. Guests will see 190 wild bison roaming on this National Wildlife Refuge site, which the National Wildlife Federation helped establish.

    Up to 30 million bison once roamed the American West, but the mass slaughter of the 1800s reduced the number of wild and captive buffalo to less than 1,000 by the early 1900s. Native American tribes protected many of the surviving bison from extinction and were leaders in conserving the species.

    In the past six years, tribes have restored over 220 wild buffalo to the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Reservations in Montana and the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. Defenders of Wildlife, World Wildlife Fund, and the National Wildlife Federation provided support to these tribally-led efforts.

    The Tribal Buffalo Conservation Summit and the National Bison Day events are sponsored by the Intertribal Buffalo Council, the Fort Peck Tribes, the Fort Belknap Tribes, the National Wildlife Federation, World Wildlife Fund, and Defenders of Wildlife.

  2. That is a pretty small gene pool that bison were down to – I wonder if like Island Foxes they purged their genomes? – https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(18)31194-1

    Another point, I am not sure that we should get too obsessed by purity of genomes, especially in rare animals. It seems that the ancestry of many bovids is complicated & involves prehistoric (‘natural’) as well as historic (‘human induced’) cross-breeding with related species. For example, it seems Bison bonasus the European species has some aurochs ancestry. Is it not possible that herds that are hybrids have genes that are true Bison genes not to be found in ‘pure’ herds? There seem to be lots of interesting Bison genetics articles… eg https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0166081 & https://wildlife.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/jwmg.21433

    An interesting book Darwin Comes to Town by Menno Schilthuizen discusses the idea of hybrids & why we consider some good or bad.

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