Bison Conservation Initiative

DOI Bison Accomplishments
DOI Bison Conservation Initiative

Department of the Interior Bison Conservation Initiative 2020


The Department of the Interior (DOI) has delivered substantial progress in bison conservation, science, and partnerships since the 2008 issuance of the Bison Conservation Initiative (BCI). That document chartered the DOI Bison Working Group, commissioned a genetics workshop, promoted investigations into metapopulation management and herd health, encouraged open communication and partnerships, and established a vision for Bison conservation in the DOI has now arrived at a rare place of confluence of strong science products, active local-level management engagement, and supportive bureau and Departmental leadership. Active interest and cooperation among bison conservation partners – including states, tribes, nations, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) – is ready to move beyond assessment and toward coordinated conservation action. The DOI remains uniquely positioned to play an active role in developing the next stage in bison conservation by working with others to accomplish linked ecological and cultural restoration goals that are both broader and more meaningful than DOI could accomplish on its own.

With this new 2020 BCI, the DOI reaffirms its commitment to both leadership and partnership to ensure the conservation and restoration of this true American icon in perpetuity. We offer this updated vision for advancing collaborative approaches to ecological and cultural restoration of bison at multiple scales across their historic range in North America.

Five enduring goals of DOI bison conservation are central to both the 2008 and 2020 Initiatives:

  1. Wild, Healthy Bison Herds

DOI is committed to conserving bison as wildlife. To the extent possible, DOI will manage bison around principles and practices that maintain the wild character of bison, minimize artificial selection, and allow forces of natural selection to operate, including competition for breeding. DOI is committed to promoting herd health and managing diseases that may have significant impacts to bison conservation.

  1. Genetic Conservation

The DOI is committed to an interagency, science-based approach to restore gene flow across DOI bison conservation herds through a metapopulation management strategy to maintain genetic diversity and integrity.

  1. Shared Stewardship

DOI recognizes that shared stewardship with states, tribes, and other stakeholders is essential to address the scale, complexity, and ecological and cultural significance of bison conservation and restoration.

  1. Ecological Restoration

The DOI is committed to establishing and maintaining large, wide-ranging bison herds, subject to the forces of natural selection, on appropriate large landscapes where their role as ecosystem engineers shape healthy and diverse ecological communities. Smaller and spatially- constrained herds can be managed to restore ecological processes.

  1. Cultural Restoration

The DOI will provide opportunities to restore cultural connections to bison by working with tribes inextricably linked to bison, youth, and rural and urban communities to honor and promote the unique status of bison as an American icon for all people.

Accomplishments since the 2008 Bison Conservation Initiative

The 2008 BCI established the DOI Bison Working Group (BWG), a chartered interagency group comprising representatives of the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the U.S. Geological Survey. The BWG promotes active communication and coordination among these bureaus, identifies and supports high priority science needs, and develops and communicates guidance, as needed, to field managers and bureau and Department leadership on shared bison stewardship.

Completion of the following priorities and actions of the 2008 BCI:

Principles of the DOI Bison Conservation Initiative

The guiding principles from 2008 are updated and re-affirmed here as DOI commitments to learning, wildlife health, and shared stewardship.

  1. DOI will base management of its bison herds on the best science available and will engage with scientific partners to fulfill natural, cultural, and human dimensions information needs. 

  1. DOI will apply and learn from adaptive management.

  1. DOI will support development and application of genetic techniques to promote high levels of bison genetic diversity to support adaptive potential.

  1. DOI will actively emphasize management of bison health and manage diseases in bison that may affect domestic livestock or other bison herds.

  1. DOI will collaborate with interested parties, including States, Tribes, landowners, and conservationists toward shared bison stewardship.

  1. The BWG will facilitate discussions among DOI bureaus, tribes, states, and other partners to identify and prioritize prospects for multi-jurisdictional bison herds in order to emphasize large herds on large landscapes to support ecological and cultural restoration.

  1. DOI will promote bison conservation broadly and will work with partners to strengthen the connection of Native American peoples and the full American public to our national mammal.

  1. DOI will restore and manage bison as native wildlife.

DOI Actions for the 2020 Bison Conservation Initiative

Action 1: Develop and Launch a DOI Bison Metapopulation Strategy

To support the genetic conservation and shared stewardship of wild, healthy bison, the BWG will facilitate reasonable and practicable opportunities to enhance gene flow among DOI bison herds and into tribal herds in FY20.

The BWG will initiate development of the Metapopulation Management Strategy in FY20. This strategy will emphasize scientific rigor, adaptive management, and intentional learning. Launching this strategy will culminate in gene flow of bison among DOI herds and across bureaus. By May 1, 2020, the BWG will develop a detailed work plan for the Secretary of the Interior, outlining milestones, assignments, and resource needs. The BWG will solicit input from external conservation genetics experts, and state, tribal, and NGO partners; vet the Strategy with agency experts; complete and publish the peer-reviewed Strategy; complete environmental evaluation; implement bison transfers; and continue to collect genetic data from DOI herds to support and evaluate the metapopulation strategy.

Over the next decade, the BWG will support providing brucellosis-free bison originating from Yellowstone to tribes. In addition to supporting cultural restoration, the quarantine program can support genetic conservation of DOI herds by incorporating Yellowstone-origin bison into the DOI metapopulation. If surplus bison become available, the BWG can help facilitate bison movement from tribal back to DOI herds.

Action 2: Develop and implement a DOI Bison Stewardship Plan

Creating new large herds has long been recognized as key to the functional conservation of bison. DOI remains committed to the objective and recognizes that some of the greatest opportunities for realizing such herds lies with initiatives by tribes, states, and NGOs. The BWG will develop and implement a Bison Stewardship Plan to establish the comprehensive framework and ecocultural vision for long-term bison conservation partnership opportunities. The Stewardship Plan will describe DOI engagement with state, tribal and NGO conservation partners and identify specific opportunities for DOI to lead or support establishment of additional large, free-ranging bison herds. In FY22, the BWG will complete and begin to implement a detailed work plan in support of the Stewardship Plan. Also in FY22, and regularly thereafter, the BWG will also propose a full session on ecocultural restoration of bison at an appropriate technical outlet. The session will include presentations on progress with implementing the metapopulation strategy, related research findings, and invited contributions. By embedding actions under the BCI within the broad and interdisciplinary scientific community, we will strengthen our science-based management approaches; adaptive management; ecological, cultural, social learning; public engagement and science communication.

The BWG will also invigorate its role in identifying, prioritizing, and promoting science and information needs to support bison conservation and restoration. The BWG will develop a list of priority interagency research needs and highlight key information need of our shared stewardship partners. The BWG will actively maintain this list and coordinate across bureaus to seek cooperative funding for the highest priority research needs in support of both the Metapopulation Management Strategy and the Stewardship Plan.

Action 3: Improve and Expand Mechanisms to Support Ecocultural Restoration of Live Bison

Ecocultural bison conservation concurrently pursues species conservation, restoration of ecological processes, and support of the traditional human use of natural resources. An ecocultural approach addresses the unique historical connection between bison and indigenous peoples, and the iconic status of bison for the American people and nation. In FY21, DOI will expand effective mechanisms to enable the distribution of live bison to tribes. By delivering bison to tribes, DOI supports realization of tribes’ own goals to establish and manage their own bison herds, to rescue and sustain cultural practices and sacred rituals, promote food security, and nourish cultural identity.

The BWG will also facilitate development of a consistent donation protocol for each bureau to provide a clear, transparent process for evaluating requests for live bison to establish or augment conservation herds. In particular, DOI welcomes requests from states, tribes and conservation partners for bison to establish new herds for ecological restoration, public viewing, and development of increased public hunting opportunity.

Action 4: Adopt Low Stress Capture and Handling Practices

Bison herds grow at a rate that rapidly outpaces the available habitat on DOI bison management units. Capture is periodically required to manage herd size, which can provide opportunities to donate live bison in support of partner conservation and restoration efforts. Low-stress handling practices reduce animal stress and increase safety for both bison and personnel during capture operations, while increasing overall alignment with our goal to manage bison as wildlife. Some parks and refuges have already begun to modify and upgrade facilities to improve animal welfare during capture events, and many have received some site-specific training in low stress handling practices.

DOI commits to further adoption and institutionalization of low-stress handling practices by ensuring that training is available to all staff engaged with bison capture and handling. In addition, DOI commits to investing in appropriate operational and infrastructure modifications and upgrades to minimize stress and to ensure both animal and personnel safety.


The 2008 BCI has been a touchstone for DOI bureaus for 12 years. The commitments made there have now resulted in meaningful technical products and organizational improvements that continue to advance the conservation of American bison.

The Bison Working Group, established as a mechanism for implementing the 2008 BCI, quickly became a productive model of interagency collaboration. Federal professionals working in support of bison conservation note that today we enjoy an unprecedented degree of coordination, open communication, and cooperative planning. The benefits of keeping agencies organized and self-directed has resulted in numerous benefits and meaningful technical products; these benefits have been realized not only by the federal agencies working to conserve bison, but also through the strength of our collective attention to fostering fundamental partnerships with states, tribes, and other conservation partners.

With this 2020 BCI, we reaffirm the commitments of 2008 and emphasize a vision toward supporting shared stewardship of large, wild, connected, genetically diverse bison herds for ecological and cultural renewal. Through sound science, effective communication, and productive collaboration DOI will expand access of all Americans to our national mammal.

View the Bison Conservation Initiative Working Group Strategy >

Part of a series of articles titled Wildlife in the Badlands.

Badlands National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Grand Teton National Park, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Wind Cave National Park, Wrangell - St Elias National Park & Preserve, Yellowstone National Park more »

Last updated: August 4, 2020