Bison Conservation Initiative Fact Sheet

Public Fact sheet: Bison Conservation Initiative


  • The DOI manages approximately 11,000 bison on 4.6 million acres of public land, managed by the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. These bison occur in 19 herds in 12 states.

  • Most herds have 300-500 bison. The Yellowstone National Park herd is the largest, with about 4,800 animals. The smallest is a display/education herd of about 10 bison at Chickasaw National Recreation Area in Oklahoma.

  • Designated as our National Mammal in 2016.

  • Once numbering ~30 million and ranging across the United States and in Canada and Mexico, bison were hunted to near extinction, with only several hundred remaining by the 1870’s.

The 2020 DOI Bison Conservation Initiative is organized around five central goals:

  • Wild, Healthy Bison Herds: A DOI commitment to conserve bison as healthy wildlife.

  • Genetic Conservation: A DOI commitment to an interagency, science-based approach to support genetic diversity across DOI bison conservation herds. 

  • Shared Stewardship: A DOI commitment to shared stewardship of wild bison in cooperation with states, tribes, and other stakeholders.

  • Ecological Restoration: A DOI commitment to establish and maintain large, wide-ranging bison herds on appropriate large landscapes where their role as ecosystem engineers shape healthy and diverse ecological communities. 

  • Cultural Restoration: A DOI commitment to restore cultural connections to honor and promote the unique status of bison as an American icon for all people. 

Managing for Conservation Genetics:

  • Two key factors contribute to conservation of bison genetics.

  • Larger herds maintain diversity much more effectively than do small herds, so maintaining or establishing large herds helps a great deal.

  • Movement of bison among herds – while managing for bison herd health – can have the same effect for smaller herds. That is, smaller herds can effectively function, genetically, like much larger herds when they’re connected through occasional movement of bison from other herds.

  • In both cases, moving bison among herds helps support genetic diversity and reduce relatedness of bison within any given herd.

  • Genetic diversity is essential to preserve “adaptive capacity” – the ability of a species to adapt over many generations to changing conditions. Changing conditions may include habitat or our changing climate, disease agents, competition for breeding, or predation pressure. Adaptations may or may not be visible – they might include visible body characteristics (such as body size or coat thickness), invisible physiology (such as temperature tolerance or ability to digest certain plants), or behavior (such as ability to avoid predators or preferences for characteristics of mates). Genetic diversity and adaptive capacity are what enables a species to persist over the long term and under a range of conditions.

The 2020 BCI identifies four key actions that DOI will take to improve bison conservation and management:

  1. Develop and launch a DOI Bison Metapopulation Management Strategy (metapopulations are collections of smaller populations, or herds, with some movement among them) to restore and support genetic diversity across DOI herds, while managing for bison health;

  1. Develop and implement a DOI Bison Stewardship Plan to ensure DOI bison are managed as healthy wildlife in coordination with nonfederal partners;

  1. Adopt low stress capture and handling practices to optimally implement metapopulation management and stewardship activities; and

  1. Improve and expand mechanisms to support restoration of live bison to other bison conservation stakeholders. The DOI anticipates strengthening partnerships with tribes, the InterTribal Buffalo Council, and other tribal organizations to facilitate delivery of live bison to tribes that historically relied on bison. DOI also encourages states propose requests for bison to establish new state-managed, wild, huntable bison herds.

Plans to translocate bison in 2020

  • In the summer or fall of 2020, the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will collaborate on a transfer of wild bison from the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Colorado to Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. Translocated bison will be included in an on-going NPS genetics study to evaluate how effective transfers increase genetic diversity of the recipient herd.

  • Every year or two, national park and national wildlife refuge staff capture and remove and transfer some bison to balance herd size with available habitat. These live bison are donated to tribes and other wild bison conservation stakeholders. For example:

  • In 2020, DOI will also donate wild bison to support the establishment of a new bison herd on the Wolakota Buffalo Range within the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. This transfer of wild bison will support ecological restoration, cultural practices, economic development, food security, and public education on the Reservation. The establishment of this new tribal bison herd is enabled by a cooperative project by the Rosebud Economic Development Corporation and the World Wildlife Fund. When fully established over the next 5 years, the Wolakota Buffalo Range will support 1,000-1,500 bison on nearly 30,000 acres of exceptionally productive native prairie.

  • Live bison have been, and will continue to be, donated to other Native American tribes through tribal requests of parks or refuges or by way of the InterTribal Buffalo Council (ITBC). The ITBC is a federally recognized tribal organization that delivers live bison to member tribes, supports establishment of tribal bison herds, and supports the historical, cultural, traditional, and spiritual relationship of tribes and bison.

Last updated: May 6, 2020