Bison Today

How did bison come back from the brink of extinction?

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Dennis Lingohr/American Prairie Reserve

As commercial hunting and U.S. westward expansion advanced at the end of the 19th century, bison were virtually wiped out and other native species declined, too. In the next century, bison numbers rebounded to nearly half a million. How did that happen? Founded by Hornaday at the Bronx Zoo in 1905, the American Bison Society began to reintroduce bison to reserves in the West in the early twentieth century. With Theodore Roosevelt as its honorary president and William Temple Hornaday as a founding force, the American Bison Society set out to preserve and increase bison populations in the United States. In order to do so, the society established a number of small herds in widely separated parts of the country. This helped save the species from extinction.

Along with the efforts of American Bison Society, Congress began to take action to protect the remaining bison, and private ranchers started to create small herds. Slowly, the population crept up thanks to legal protection, refuges and breeding programs at zoos and other institutions.

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Jim Jenkins, Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Did bison nearly going extinct impact their habitat?

For thousands of years, bison maintained the prairie ecology. Seeds spread and grazed grasses grew back in a continuous cycle. Without bison, the prairies almost disappeared. With the recovery of bison, the prairies themselves are coming back. Now that herds are protected, native prairies are taking root once more.

How many bison are alive today?

Of the remaining American bison population, approximately 500,000 individuals are managed in human care as livestock by private commercial ventures, while conservation herds are comprised of around 30,000 individuals. The 30,000 individuals consist of about 19,000 total plains bison in 54 conservation herds (herds managed in the public interest by governments and environmental organizations), and 11,000 total wood bison—another subspecies of the American bison, in 11 conservation herds.

Are bison considered endangered today? Bison Today Quote edit5-02

The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists bison as Near Threatened. Under IUCN of Nature Red List Guidelines, commercial bison herds are not eligible for consideration in determining a Red List designation; consequently the IUCN calculates the total population of bison in conservation herds to be approximately 30,000 individuals… Six wild (free-ranging, not confined primarily by fencing) herds of plains bison occur in the natural range of this subspecies: two in Canada, three in the United States and one in Mexico. There are ten wild populations of wood bison within the natural range of the sub-species; all are in Canada. Wood bison no longer live in the wild in Alaska, a part of their previous natural range.

Do we still need bison conservation?

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Dennis Lingohr/American Prairie Reserve

While bison have made a comeback since their population was devastated over 100 years ago, the species still depends heavily on conservation action for its survival.

“The decimation of the American bison in the late 1800s inspired the first recovery of bison and an entire conservation movement that protected wildlife and wild places across North America,” says Keith Aune, Wildlife Conservation Society Senior Conservation Scientist. “The IUCN Status Survey and Conservation Guidelines provide a new framework for inspiring a second recovery of bison and restoring functional grassland ecosystems.”

Conservation threats to American bison include habitat loss, genetic modification in captive populations, and low genetic diversity among individual herds. The remaining American bison population consists of about half a million bison managed as livestock and about 30,000 individuals in conservation herds.

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Jim Jenkins, Smithsonian’s National Zoo

How are American Indian nations involved in bringing bison back?

Today, American Indian nations have a leading role in the recovery of American bison. Some tribes own land on which bison are protected, and members of those nations help to manage the herds. Native nations are working with government agencies, bison ranchers, and conservation groups to promote the protection of the species. Through these collaborative efforts, bison herds are becoming a fixture on the American landscape again. Learn more about the significance of the American bison to American Indian nations.