Restore wild bison

[ Native wild animals have the least impact on ecosystems. While cattle plod along in line with one another, bison dance their own unique steps across the landscape, and don’t develop deep rutted grooves that can erode soil like cattle do.  As toxic invasive species invade rangeland and can no longer be controlled, domestic cattle are less likely to be able to cope. So let’s bring the bison back now, so our descendants can once again hunt them on horseback a century (or less) from now. 

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts:  KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity]

DeWoody, J.A. August 29, 2014. Heirloom genomes and bison conservation. A book review of James A. Bailey’s 2013 “American Plains Bison. Rewilding an Icon.” Science Vol. 345:1009

James A. Bailey, who was at Colorado State University, wrote this book “to describe some details of the breadth and depth of wildness in American plains bison, and to show how bison wildness is threatened by creeping domestication.”  It is a sobering assessment of bison biology today. Bailey’s thesis is that most bison advocates undervalue wildness to the detriment of bison and our sense of free will.

Early on, it becomes apparent that this book will not be a dusty academic treatise that only looks backward: Bailey quickly makes his foray into contemporary issues and notes that today, only two bison herds in the contiguous United States live in the presence of any nonhuman predators. How can we expect bison to continue a natural journey when we have removed predators as evolutionary drivers?

The book then proceeds to provide the obligatory summary of how humans devastated bison populations. Bailey does so in depressingly successful fashion, replete with photos and shameful anecdotes of our ancestors’ exploits.

Bailey drives home the point that the maintenance of bison in small pens is a travesty. Our society should instead retain elements of bison wildness by challenging them in a natural manner. This means with competitors, predators (wolves, bears, and humans), pathogens, and the environment itself. Wild plains bison evolved historically in the presence of pathogens and predators, and they remain the best means to control population sizes.

Bailey convincingly argues that traits necessary for the survival of wild animals are ill-adapted for captivity and vice versa. Animal production (i.e., farming or ranching) is insufficient to maintain the historical and biological integrity of wild animals. Many attributes of wild bison populations (e.g., dominance hierarchies) simply do not exist in most captive populations because artificial breeding schemes selectively avoid them. As a conservationist and hunter myself, I agree with this sentiment and particularly like his admonition that hunters and biologists must avoid artificial selection (e.g., for horn size) to the extent possible.

Bailey analyzes the 44 largest conservation herds of plains bison in the United States by considering a number of factors related to “wildness,” including range size, supplemental feeding, the presence of natural predators, sex ratio, and disease management (lack thereof being most consistent with wildness). The results are a bit disheartening: only two herds (Yellowstone and Utah’s Henry Mountains) stand out as justifiably “wild.

In the remaining herds, inbreeding, hybridization, and artificial selection (domestication) reduce the wildness of native bison and diminish their capacity to provide natural ecosystem services that are crucial to many other plains species. A variety of other species are described (e.g., prairie chickens and Arkansas darters) that could benefit from the establishment of large bison herds.

Bailey then switches gears, from esoteric discussions about why we should conserve wild bison to how we actually do so. The vast majority of states have no recovery plan for bison, and their regulatory status impedes conservation in most Western states because bison are not managed like most wildlife species. Bailey does not wave his hands and say “Let’s rewild bison everywhere,” but he provides detailed suggestions about where and how to conserve wild bison. The practical problems that are apt to confound bison rewilding are clearly recognized, including the uncertainties of global warming, the (incomprehensible) fact that many states do not legally recognize bison as wildlife, and the tendency to relegate bison to poor-quality lands because they will be easiest (and cheapest) to acquire. He argues that an objective review of bison status under the Endangered Species Act would at least identify them as threatened and recognizes that it might take a century or more to widely restore wild plains bison in the United States.

Bailey’s musings about nature resonated deeply, in large part because of the author’s intuitive understanding of wildness. He writes that “Wildness is the most unique and irreplaceable characteristic of wildlife. … In a world where humans increasingly restrict their own freedom by crowding and monotonizing their environment, wild bison should be retained, at least as a symbol of what we have sacrificed in domesticating and civilizing ourselves.

The plight of the bison should strike a chord with Bailey’s intended general audience, but ecologists, evolutionary biologists, and wildlife managers will find this book an effective primer on practical conservation biology. It should be required reading for all wildlife students; I know it will be for mine.

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One Response to Restore wild bison

  1. Maura Benton says:

    Alice I would like to inform your readers of a book called “Keeping the Wild”It is edited by George Wuerthner.He is also over at Wildlife News He has edited 3 “big books” Clearcut ; Wildfire; and Thrillcraft