Bison Returned to their Ancestral Plains

bison-great-plains-ancestorsOne of the greatest losses in the ecological history of the North American plains is that of the American buffalo. During the ten-year span between 1873-1883 there were over a thousand commercial hunting outfits that hunted bison. They were killing anywhere from 2,000 to 100,000 bison per day. By 1884 American bison were nearly extinct. The iconic animal is not only in the states of the Great Plains, but also in North America as a whole.

Thankfully, a man named James “Scotty” Phillip of South Dakota prevented the utter decimation of bison. Phillip was one of the first to reintroduce bison to North America. In 1899 Phillip was the owner of a small herd, totaling a number of five bison, including one female. When Phillip died in 1911 at the age of 53 he was credited with producing an estimated 1,000 plus heads of bison. At the same time, two Montana ranchers also cared enough about the survival of the species to privately breed bison. For twenty years Michel Pablo and Charles Allard maintained the largest collection of purebred bison. Allard died in 1896 and in 1907 the United States declined his offer to purchase the herd. Instead, the herd was shipped to the Elk Island National Park in Canada, who brokered a deal with Pablo. Other herds have also been produced and maintained from the help of zoos. Unfortunately, to this day bison struggle with disease and gene problems from not having enough genetic diversity in their species as a consequence of nearly going extinct.

Recently there has been very exciting news for the bison repopulation effort. For years, many have dreamed of getting bison back out on the prairie where they belong. Earthjustice is making an effort to do just that: bring buffalo home. The program marks the first time in over 100 years that purebred baby bison are being born where their ancestors once roamed at populations reaching into the millions. The purebred baby buffs spring from bison that hid out in the high country during the 19th century slaughter. The high country they are linked to is currently Yellowstone National Park, the United States’ first national park. These offspring are among the last genetically pure bison, as most buffalo that exist today carry cow genes.

Native tribes in Montana who have tried to reestablish the herds from the Yellowstone stock have headed the effort. Unfortunately, cattle interests have blocked their efforts. But the state of Montana agreed to move 60 buffalo to the Fort Peck Indian reservation in northeastern Montana. The Fort Belknap reservation in central Montana has also requested to join the effort. The cattle industry has been fighting the issue based on the fact that bison carry a disease that can affect cattle brought in from Europe. The disease has been controlled and effectively diminished in the 20th century. Elk also carry the disease, but for some reason the Montana Farm Bureau Federation does not concern themselves with elk, and Earthjustice speculates that perhaps that is because they have a high value to hunters.

The bison that will live on the American Prairie Reserve in Montana will be freed into a 6,100-fenced hectare enclosure, where they can roam the plains freely as they once did. Unfortunately, at Yellowstone Park bison are forced into the park by strict enforcement by rangers and if they refuse to return they are killed out of fear of spreading disease to cattle. Bison are still recovering as a species from nearly going extinct over a hundred years ago. To fight Yellowstone National Park’s efforts to contain buffalo rather than preserve an important and constantly recovering species, please sign this petition at Change.org.

Photo credit: gallery.usgs.gov/images/03_02_2010/yEug8KJ876_03_02_2010/large/bison_cow_and_calf_FWS_image.jpg

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