The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledged last month that there was a substantial basis for the American bison, an animal that once roamed freely in the millions across the American heartland, to be warranted protections under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
The story of the American bison is both a cautionary tale and a hopeful reminder that through long-term conservation efforts, endangered species can get back on track towards recovering their populations.
Taking a step back, 150 years back to be precise, nearly 30 million American bison used to roam throughout the plains in the expanse between the Rocky and Appalachian Mountains. Yet by 1889, the free-roaming population had become nonexistent due to decades of unsustainable hunting by white settler populations, early industrialization, and diseases. From 1871 to 1872, it’s estimated that white settlers killed 5,000 bison every day.
What ensued was the deterioration of the ecological system of the plains, causing not only pain for animal and plant populations, but also the indigenous communities that have called the Great Plains their home for generations.
It wasn’t until the early 20th century that small federally-managed herds saved the American bison from the brink of extinction. Today, under the Department of the Interior, the leading conservation overseer for the American bison, through relocation efforts and better farming practices, the bison appears to be having a relative population boom in recent years. There are currently about 400,000 bison demarcated under the categories of production, public, and tribal herds.
Chamois Anderson, a representative at Defenders of Wildlife, noted that the bison was “extremely important to our grasslands.”
“They are an ecological engineer. They have the ability to graze in a mosaic pattern, clipping them down just enough so they grow back succulent and nutritious for a number of species,” he continued.
On top of their role in the ecosystem, the bison signifies a strong cultural connection for tribal communities. The Buffalo Treaty of 2014 was the first official acknowledgement of the importance of the bison to Native American and First Nations communities from the federal government.
Conservation programs have sought to transfer small herds of bison in recent years, with the desired outcome of creating “metapopulations” that will go on to assimilate into wild bison herds. The Bison Conservation Transfer Program plans to transfer 175 bison by the end of summer 2022.