A few hundred years ago, tens of millions of American bison roamed the tallgrass and shortgrass prairies of Kansas. But the rapid expansion of civilization across the continent nearly expunged the species. It is estimated that during the middle of the 19th century, 500,000 bison were slaughtered each year for subsistence, and another 100,000 for their hides alone. By 1889, just 1,091 of these majestic beasts survived in captivity and in the wild.
Much has been done during the intervening 120 years to bring the bison back from the brink of extinction. Yet much remains to be done. To address the complex issues concerning the status and conservation of the American bison, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature has published a 154-page report on the American Bison: Status Survey and Conservation Guidelines 2010
For a quick description of the essential substance of the report, see Bringing Bison Back to North American Landscapes on the IUCN website, or Science Daily’s virtually identical Bringing Bison Back to North American Landscapes.
As the IUCN explains the current state of the America bison, “five hundred years ago, tens of millions of American bison roamed free on the plains of North America, from Alaska to northern Mexico. Now the American bison – which includes both plains and wood bison – is listed as Near Threatened on IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species.
“As of 2008, there were approximately 400,000 bison in commercial herds in North America, some 93 percent of the continental population. But little progress has been made in recent decades to increase the number of animals in conservation herds, which are managed carefully for their genetic diversity and ecological roles. In 2008, there were 61 plains bison conservation herds in North America containing about 20,500 animals, and 11 conservation herds of wood bison, containing nearly 11,000 animals.
“‘While substantial progress in saving bison from extinction was made in the 20th century, much work remains to restore conservation herds throughout their vast geographical range,’ says University of Calgary Environmental Design Professor and co-editor of the study, Dr Cormack Gates, who is also co-Chair of the IUCN Bison Specialist Group. ‘The key is recognition that the bison is a wildlife species and to be conserved as wildlife, it needs land and supportive government policies.’”
For an exquisite series of photographic representations of bison, see the IUCN’s Bison Photogallery. For more on bison conservation, see the American Bison Society, rejuvenated by Wildlife Conservation Society. Here’s an excerpt from the site:
“By the 1870s, bison populations had been decimated. An 1889 survey conducted by William Hornaday, the first director of the Wildlife Conservation Society (then the New York Zoological Society), found that only 1,091 bison, wild and captive, remained in North America.
“Hornaday, Theodore Roosevelt, and other sportsmen and conservationists recognized that a great American mammal was about to be lost as the plains were settled, and so in 1905 the American Bison Society was born. The ABS launched a national campaign to raise funds to create wild bison reserves, stock them with bison from WCS’ Bronx Zoo and elsewhere, and educate the public about the bison. In 1907, the ABS shipped 15 bison to the Wichita National Forest and Game Preserve in Oklahoma by cart and rail. This was the first animal reintroduction in North America. In 1910, the ABS helped buy the nucleus herd for the National Bison Range, Montana, and in 1913, ABS donated 14 bison to Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota. Counting on the successful reproduction of the species, the ABS considered their work done and disbanded the organization in 1935.
“Today the bison remains a unique icon of North American culture and natural history and now number approximately 450,000 in Mexico, the US, and Canada. Bison exist in vastly differing management circumstances, herd dynamics, states of genetic integrity, and settings than in the past. They are absent from most of their former range, and their grazing does not influence the grassland fire or nutrient cycling regimes, nor the plant structures of the prairies. Over 90% are being raised for meat in confined and managed circumstances, which can minimize the interaction they have with the landscape.”