For millennia, bison were a driving ecological force in North American grasslands. Their grazing patterns created successional vegetation, influenced natural fire regimes and provided habitat for grassland insects, birds, and small mammals. Bison served as a keystone species that engineered prairie ecosystems for over 10,000 years.
In the 1800s, fewer than 1,000 bison remained in the wild. In response, the American Bison Society (ABS) was established in 1905 by the New York Zoological Society (now Wildlife Conservation Society) to save bison from extinction. Along with a few other progressive thinkers, the ABS accomplished this mission. But a "second recovery" of American bison is needed to restore bison as wildlife.
Today, around 323,100 bison exist in North America. Most (~90%) of these bison are privately owned and managed as livestock. While these bison contribute to the overall recovery of the species and have important economic, cultural and nutritional values, many ranched bison herds are not exposed to conditions that shaped their ancestors' wild nature.
Far fewer bison alive today are managed for conservation and ecological restoration in settings that allow them to naturally retain qualities that rival their prehistoric wild predecessors' characteristics. About 31,000 bison are managed mostly on public lands for conservation purposes; of these bison, less than 15,000 are fully wild, roaming freely on large landscapes where natural selection can fully operate. Currently large herds of wild bison (>4,000 bison) in these conditions can only be seen in Wood Buffalo National Park (Canada) and Yellowstone National Park.
The second recovery of bison will occur by establishing large ecologically-functioning, free-ranging bison populations on landscapes within their historic range where they are managed as wildlife, interacting with ecological processes and coexisting with humans that recognize them as wildlife, similar to other wildlife species that are influenced by predation and managed by hunting (e.g., wild deer, elk, etc.). The ABS, since being reinstated in 2006 to inspire and inform the second recovery of bison, established ten principles to guide ecological restoration of bison, as follows:
- PRINCIPLE 1: Restore and support human-bison relationships through equitable application of cultural, environmental, nutritional, hunting, and economic means.
- PRINCIPLE 2: Recognize bison as wildlife in every jurisdiction across their historic range.
- PRINCIPLE 3: Create and strengthen shared stewardship of bison that incorporates public, private, non-government organizations and tribal herds.
- PRINCIPLE 4: Achieve the public and political support for ecological restoration of bison as native wildlife across their range.
- PRINCIPLE 5: Acknowledge and empower Tribes and First Nations to use their unique perspectives, roles and legal authority in helping to achieve the ecological restoration of bison.
- PRINCIPLE 6: Wild Bison have an innate right to exist in a wild state in viable populations distributed across their historical range.
- PRINCIPLE 7: Ensure the integrity of the bison genome with sufficient diversity to enable bison adaptation over centuries.
- PRINCIPLE 8: Ensure that large landscapes that are currently intact or that can be restored are available for ecological restoration so that bison can express their role as a keystone species.
- PRINCIPLE 9: Restore wild bison herds to numbers that will allow natural selection to operate through their behavior and ecology.
- PRINCIPLE 10: Ecological restoration requires both effective messages and effective messengers that can influence all stakeholders.
These principles depend upon human innovation, creativeness and willingness to move beyond just saving representatives of this species on small, intensively managed landscapes. Thoughtful, informed and coordinated management of these smaller conservation herds are important to the overall recovery of the species, but we can also work together to implement new inventive conservation practices in order to establish new free-ranging bison herds across multi-jurisdictional landscapes that will allow them to be "wild by nature" as well.
Restoring wild bison will require "shared stewardship" among diverse stakeholders including federal and state agencies, tribes and First Nations, non-government organizations, ranchers, hunters and private land owners. Collaboration will be key to setting a course for the next 100 years so our successors can look back and consider this initiative as pivotal to ecological restoration of this majestic species and the grassland ecosystems they co-evolved with over millennia. The future of wild bison depends on us.