Ranchers Limit Bison Recovery

Bison - important primary grazer of the North American Prairie ecosystems.

By  - TWI - 04. November 2019

November 2 marked National Bison Day in the United States of America. Bison are seen as a conservation success story surviving after nearly going extinct in the early twentieth century. However, their populations are deliberately kept low to appease the ranching industry. With public opinion slowly evolving and bison numbers still near threatened, why are we allowing ranchers dictate the recovery of a species?

Bison were once so plentiful trains would stop for hours as herds crossed the tracks. Estimates put the population somewhere between 30-60 million before hunting and habitat destruction wiped them out. Luckily, government officials stepped in to protect the last few remaining bison and their habitat in Yellowstone National Park (YNP).

Today, Yellowstone holds about 4,000 of the 20,000 wild bison still roaming the North American continent. While the species lives on, the total population is a shell of its past self. And every year the National Park Service (NPS) captures about a thousand bison from the Yellowstone and sends them to be slaughtered by native American groups.

The cull is seen as a necessity to keep populations “healthy.” For as big as Yellowstone National Park is, it’s much too small to support a growing bison population. Bison are a migratory species, typically moving outside of the Yellowstone border to lower elevations in the winter seeking food.

Ranchers in the surrounding areas are not fans of the country’s national mammal making its way onto their land. They successfully lobbied for the government to label bison as a public threat with a landmark lawsuit in 1995. Montana sued YNP and, as a result, the bison population in the park is supposed to stay around 3,000 individuals.

The dislike from the ranching community stems from two main points. They believe bison will outcompete their livestock on grazing lands and will also transmit diseases, particularly brucellosis. Public safety is also a concern but that’s always listed without any real evidence when it comes to conservation. Sure a bison can hurt you if you get too close, so stay at least 25 yards away!

Brucellosis can spread to humans through unpasteurized dairy products. Symptoms include muscle and joint pain, fatigue, fever, and weight loss. However, the disease is very rare and is not only preventable with a few precautions but also treatable. The United States successfully eradicated the disease from cattle in twentieth century but bison and elk in the Yellowstone area are still vectors.

Here’s the thing though, brucellosis has never been recorded to pass from bison to cattle. And, ironically, the disease was first spread to wild bison from domestic cattle. But there are cases of brucellosis spreading from elk to cattle. Interestingly enough, the ranching community does not vilify elk. Elk have free reign to come and go from the park in as great a number as they please.

Elk get free reign because ranchers lease their land to hunting outfitters when its elk season. Ranchers can make a lot of money off elk, and that gives the species more rights than bison.

If bison want the same rights as elk, why don’t we allow legal hunting? Hunting bison turns out to have different effects on bison and elk. When hunted outside of the park, bison simply return where they are protected. This ends up not solving the issue of Yellowstone reaching its carrying capacity of bison. The last thing we want is for bison to over graze the park similar to elk before wolf reintroduction.

Hunting is pretty much off the table but there are two more options for the NPS in terms of managing a growing bison population. They can cull the population to keep it artificially low, like they do now. Or, they can capture bison and move them to their past home ranges currently left empty thanks to exploitation.

However, bison must be quarantined and proven brucellosis-free before they can be transferred outside of the Yellowstone region. The fear of transmission to cattle has made it illegal to translocate infected bison. Whether scientifically true or not, proponents of this law believe the separation of the species is why there has never been a case of brucellosis transmission from bison to cattle.

As it stands, the United States’ most “successful” conservation story will never truly be a success if the bison are continually culled and infrequently reintroduced to other areas of the county. The problem of over-grazing in the park is not because there are too many bison. Over-grazing is caused because there is a distinct lack of land open for bison migration.

Ranchers own much of the land suitable for bison migration and the American Prairie Reserve (APR) is attempting to change that. The APR is currently buying up private land in hopes of connecting vast swaths necessary for healthy ecosystems. Protecting a park like Yellowstone is great, but many wildlife species need more room and APR is working to establish migration corridors for the likes of bison.

Wildlife conservation in North America is stuck on the idea of culling species to limit their negative impacts on habitats. This needs to change. Conservation needs to focus on increasing the size and connection of habitats, even if that means fewer ranchers. We have more than enough food for every human on the planet yet we conveniently tell ourselves there is only so much to go around for already decimated wildlife populations.

There are a lot of similarities between the state of bison in North America and elephants in Africa. People claim there are too many and if we don’t cull them they will destroy the small amount of habitat we protect for them. And if you hunt them, they congregate in protected areas, compounding negative over-grazing effects.

It doesn’t matter if they’re herbivores like bison and elephants or carnivores like wolves and lions, there are not too many of them. There is too little land for them, and we directly influence whether or not that changes.

Photo credit: Jared Kukura