Thursday, May 27, 2010

American Bison Futures

Pile of bison skulls waiting to be ground for fertilizer (c. mid-1870s). Copyright expired - Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library - downloaded from American Wikipedia 23 May 2010.

American Bison Futures

Joseph Ingoldsby

The bison futures drama playing itself out on the high plains of Montana speaks to the future of the iconic American bison. Aside from legal, ethical, and financial interests, it raises a number of issues affecting what is truly a genetically endangered species on a highly fragmented range.

Bison were hunted almost to extinction in the Nineteenth Century and were reduced to a few hundred animals from estimates of 60-100 million by the mid-1880s. They were hunted for their hides, choice cuts of meat, and tongues--the rest of the animal left behind to decay on the ground. After the animals rotted, their bones were collected and shipped east in large quantities on the new trans-continental railroads. The bison bones were ground down for use as fertilizer, for bone china, and glue.

The U.S. Army sanctioned and actively endorsed the wholesale slaughter of bison herds. Bison meat was a daily ration for the soldiers at frontier outposts and stateside garrisons. The U.S. government promoted bison hunting for various reasons: to allow ranchers to range their cattle without competition from other bovines, to accommodate the railroad industry, to weaken the North American Indian population by removing their main food source and to pressure them onto the reservations. Without the bison, native people of the plains were forced to leave the land or starve to death.

The current American bison population has been growing rapidly and is estimated at 500,000. However, most of the American bison herds are genetically polluted or partly crossbred with cattle. Today there are only four free ranging, genetically unmixed herds of the American plains bison on public land, including the herd at Yellowstone National Park. The American bison is a keystone species, which migrated in vast herds across the prairies. Today, they exist in fragmented rangelands, surrounded by private lands with conflicting land use. American bison now occupy less than 1% of their former historic range.

Scientists say that urgent measures are needed to conserve the wild bison genome and to restore the ecological role of bison in grassland ecosystems. One measure would be to expand the boundaries of the National Park Systems to allow for the seasonal migration of the American bison and to connect the fragmented rangelands. As climate change brings extended droughts and weather extremes to the Great Plains, like the dust bowl of the past, creative measures will have to be undertaken to adapt to the increasing aridness of the plains and the ongoing depopulation of the region, making unsubsidized cattle ranching problematic. Perhaps now is the time to discuss selectively buying back permits and grazing allotments on critical parcels from the 260 million acres of federal land in the West to help restore the biodiversity of the West, returning the American bison as a the keystone species.

Environmental organizations, as the Sierra Club, have developed Conservation Policies for Federal Public Lands Grazing.

They speak of the impact of non-native grazing species on the landscape and the subsequent loss of native species, as well as management opportunities for the community implementation of conservation policies.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Species Survival Commission- American Bison Specialist Group recently published American Bison Status Survey and Conservation Guidelines 2010.

The purpose of the comprehensively researched planning report according to the authors, C. Gates and P. Gogan is ”to contribute to the development of strategies and actions that will conserve and ecologically restore bison as wildlife throughout their original range. D. Boyd speaks to the major threats to genetic diversity of the wild-bison genome including “demographic bottlenecks, founder effects, genetic drift and inbreeding.” He states that this is a challenge as 93% of the 400,000 bison in commercial herds have been undergoing artificial selection for domestication and consumption, for docility, body conformation and carcass composition. K. Aune outlines diseases affecting the bison.

Cattle ranchers have opposed the establishment of free-roaming bison populations that could compete with cattle for grass on federal grazing land or endanger herds with disease. Currently, the cattle ranchers’ concerns of bison disease are being addressed through national health strategies in the United States and Canada. P. Grogan describes the superb adaptations of the wild American bison to extremes of heat and cold on the Great Plains, their seasonal migrations between winter and summer ranges and their regenerative impact on the ecology and biodiversity of the Great Plains. However large-scale restoration of the American bison will require multiple holdings of tens or hundreds of thousands of hectares of contiguous land to allow for multiple herds of various sizes on geographically diverse landscapes representing all major habitats within their historic range. Extensive landscapes are necessary for the wild bison herds seasonal migration between their winter and summer ranges and to insure natural selection of the fittest animals and genetic diversity. The return of the wild bison to their historic range will require enlightened partnerships and co-management between private landowners, conservation groups, the commercial bison industry, Tribal and First Nations and government agencies operating under coordinated, science based regulations and policies for the ecological restoration of bison, if the wild bison is to survive.

© Joseph Emmanuel Ingoldsby, 2010

Joseph Ingoldsby, writes and advocates for biodiversity. Recent works include Vanishing Landscapes and Endangered Species, The Science Exhibition: Curation & Design, Museums etc Press, UK, 2010; Icons of the Vanishing Prairies, 2009; Vanishing Landscapes: The Atlantic Salt Marsh, Leonardo Journal, 42-2-2009 MIT Press and Requiem for a Drowning Landscape, Orion Magazine, March/April 2009.

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