Americans Love Bison, Don't Know the Risks They Face

Thursday, Jan 7, 2010  |  Updated 6:18 PM EDT
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Americans Love Bison, Don't Know the Risks They Face

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NEW YORK, New York, November 24, 2008 (ENS) - Americans are out of touch with the fact that the American bison, or buffalo, is in trouble as a wild species, but they do love them as an important symbol of their country, and as a meal on the dinner table.

These views were expressed in a public survey released by the Wildlife Conservation Society at a national conference on restoring bison populations in North America held last week in Rapid City, South Dakota.

The survey is part of an effort spearheaded by the American Bison Society, which is a program of the Wildlife Conservation Society, based at New York's Bronx Zoo.

The American Bison Society aims to achieve ecological restoration in the next 100 years by encouraging government agencies, conservation groups, ranchers, and others to do all they can to restore the bison's ecological role as an important species.

The national survey asked 2,000 Americans more than 50 questions about bison to gage public awareness about this iconic species, as conservationists grapple with how to best restore populations to the American West and elsewhere.

The survey showed that fewer than 10 percent understood how many bison remain in the United States.

More than 74 percent of those surveyed believe that bison are an extremely important living symbol of the American West, and more than half view the bison as emblematic as a symbol of America as whole.

Before European settlers arrived in North America, at least 30 million bison are estimated to have roamed the Great Plains and grasslands from Alaska to Mexico. Bison dominated the prairies for nearly 10,000 years, shaping the land with their grazing patterns and migrations.

They were wiped out by commercial hunting and habitat loss that resulted from the settlers' westward expansion.

While an estimated 500,000 bison remain in the United States, most of those animals live on private ranches, with only about 9,000 plains bison considered free-ranging in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. An additional 7,000 free-ranging wood bison live in Canada.

Today, the genetically purest descendants of those wild bison are the targets of a government campaign that has slaughtered over 5,000 wild bison since 1985. Domestic cattle have encroached into the bison's native range, which raises the specter of disease transmission from bison to cattle. Despite the fact that there has not been one case of Brucella abortus transmission from wild bison to cattle, bison are not tolerated outside Yellowstone National Park by Montana's livestock industry and the state and federal agencies that back them.

The National Park Service, U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Montana Department of Livestock permit and participate in the killing of American bison within and migrating from Yellowstone National Park.

Yet the Yellowstone population, unlike most other bison populations held in the public trust, are genetically pure Bison bison, unmixed with cattle breeds.

"The results of this survey clearly show that the American public wants more to be done to restore the bison," said Dr. Kent Redford of the Wildlife Conservation Society. "We know it will take decades of strategic planning and a wide group of stakeholders will need to take appropriate action."

Wildlife Conservation Society is calling on the federal government to better coordinate management of bison across federal agencies, take down barriers to the production and sale of ecologically raised bison meat, and work with Canada and Mexico on bison management.

Progress is already being made, Redford said. For example, last month, Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne announced an initiative that will work with state, tribal and agricultural interests to strengthen bison conservation efforts to help bison recover and thrive.

Forty percent of survey respondents said that they have tried eating bison and 83 percent of those said it tastes as good or better than beef.

Redford said, "The survey also showed that one road to bison conservation may be a pragmatic, market-based approach, namely to grow sustainable markets for wild, free-ranging bison meat."

The three-day conference entitled "Building blocks for bison ecological restoration," was co-sponsored by the Wildlife Conservation Society, American Prairie Foundation, Linden Trust for Conservation, The Nature Conservancy, Safari Club International, and World Wildlife Fund.

The conference was attended by more than 100 participants and covered all aspects of bison ecological restoration. It was attended by representatives from U.S. federal, state and Canadian agencies, private ranchers, and indigenous groups.

Ecological restoration will likely take a century, says the Wildlife Conservation Society, and will only be realized through collaboration with a broad range of public, private and indigenous partners.

Ecological restoration of North American bison would occur when large herds of plains and wood bison can move freely across extensive landscapes within all major habitats of their historic ranges, said Redford. It would also include bison interacting with the fullest possible set of other native species, as well as inspiring, sustaining and connecting human cultures.

{Photo: American bison by Julie Larsen Maher © Wildlife Conservation Society}

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.

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