A New Day for Bison? – Ecological Restoration in the 21st Century

ROOM: Room 230 – Pecos
Wildlife professionals and conservation advocates have long demonstrated great interest in developing programs designed to ecologically restore American plains bison to native habitats within historic range. While the preservation of plains bison was achieved in the 20th century, their long-term sustainability as wildlife, subject to a complete suite of natural selection pressures, has yet to be secured. Plains bison were effectively left behind by the American conservation movement of the last century, principally because the last wild plains bison had been captured by private citizens and relegated to captivity. Their status as wildlife confuses professionals and public alike because they are routinely managed as livestock. It is time to develop opportunities for plains bison to be restored as wildlife, and join the rich history of wildlife restoration in North America. ‘A New Day for Bison? – Ecological Restoration in the 21st Century’ explores biological and social reasons to restore wild plains bison, defines ecological restoration and examines relevant science, provides background on traits that define wild plains bison, and surveys relevant genetic concepts and management concerns. The session presents historical management context, describes existing populations available for developing restoration herds, and highlights State, Tribal, and Federal restoration case studies. Challenges to the social and cultural aspects of plains bison restoration are presented, and future opportunities for success are explored. The symposium aims to provide wildlife professionals with a broad background of contemporary topics in American plains bison restoration, and seeks to inspire and mobilize advocacy for plains bison restoration actions.

1:10PM Why Restore Wild Bison?
  Tom France
In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, populations of most big game species and other wildlife found in the American West were decimated by a combination of market hunting, habitat conversion and unregulated take of animals for food and recreation. By the late 1800’s, early conservationists, led by hunters like Theodore Roosevelt, were beginning to develop a new paradigm for wildlife management that included habitat protection and restoration and the regulation of take. Over roughly the last century, these early efforts have matured and many wildlife populations have been restored to abundance under the management of state fish and wildlife agencies and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Throughout the western states, both state governments and their citizens take great pride and much economic and recreational benefit from their restored herds of elk, deer, bighorn sheep and antelope. In part because of this success, the failure to restore significant numbers of wild bison to the landscape stands out to many as important unfinished business. Notably, several Native American tribes and the State of Utah have established herds of wild bison yet for the most part, both state and federal agencies have avoided the challenges associated with wild bison restoration. What are the reasons for this reluctance and is the future for wild bison becoming brighter?
1:30PM Current Conservation Status and Future Opportunities for Plains Bison Restoration
  Keith Aune
IUCN has begun a major effort to update Red List Status of mammal species every 5 years. As part of that endeavor the IUCN Bison Specialist Group (BSG) completed a status assessment for American Bison. The BSG developed a process to determine the appropriate categories and classifications of bison herds established under a conservation mission. We evaluated 69 conservation bison herds in North America to determine their status as wild bison managed by Government agencies, tribes or non-profits. We did not assess the status of privately owned bison for commercial purpose. There are 21 free-ranging bison herds not managed within a fenced landscape. Using our categories and classification key we determined that 8 wood and plains herds are >400 bison and fully function as wild. Thirteen herds are free-ranging but too small. Eighteen additional bison herds are considered wild but function with serious limitations because they too small, lack predation or range restricted. The remaining thirty conservation bison herds are not functioning as wild bison because they represent small populations (less than 200) and are on limited acreages (< 5000 acres). We completed a Population Viability Analysis (PVSA) for 8 wild herds with help from the IUCN Conservation Breeding Specialists Group. These 8 herds are demographically competent for 200 years. However, all but two of these herds will lose genetic diversity (5-8%) over the next 200 years. Exceptions are Yellowstone and Wood Buffalo National Parks. The Red List status of American Bison is “near threatened”. Recent bison restoration projects at many locations are focused on restoring ecological functionality of the species and keep bison from creeping closer to Red List Category of vulnerable and legal endangered species status. More efforts are needed to ensure the full ecological recovery of American bison.
1:50PM Historical Context and Threats to Wild Plains Bison Sustainability
  Harold Picton
Bison first entered North America 225,000 years ago. As ice ages can and went bison reached a peak extending from Mexico to the British Isles. In North America the advances of ice led to partitioning producing the giant bison and then in the last 20,000 years,the ancient bison. As the climate entered the Holocene Thermal Maximum and now hunted by humans, bison were subjected to intense selection by climate and habitat change, predation by wolves, grizzly bears to produce the modern plains bison by 5,000 years ago. Lack of horses limited the effect of human hunting until the 1600 and 1700’s. As the Little Ice Age developed native American tannedD robes wereE A prime tnativeade Item IN Europe and eastern states. Use of hides for industrial belts became a final market leading to the final grest hunt of1883. A few people gathered small groups of bison, usuall less than 10 or 1 to save the spesies/ Even including the remnant Yellowstone herd, these all probably provided less than a hundred breeders to survive the bottleneck. The American Bison Society worked to save the Yellowstone bison from poaching and started several bison refuges. After this early 1900’s interest in the species it waned for about 70 years. Interest revied in the late 2ofh century. Today there are only a few conservation populations of wild plains bison. Most are small with limited prospects for survival and have other problems. Problems for the future of the species include disease, climate change, domestication effects, cattle gene introgression, landscape fragmentation and need to provide habitat areas large enough to support herds of several thousand bison for genetic and epigenetic conservation.
2:10PM Wild Plains Bison Genetics and Management
  Cynthia Hartway
The Department of the Interior (DOI) is the primary conservation steward of North American plains bison, with 19 herds – totaling around 12,000 bison – living on DOI lands. Concerns have been raised about the long term genetic viability of the DOI herds because 12 of these herds are kept behind fences, only one herd is > 1000 animals, and almost all are culled to maintain low population densities. Compounding these concerns is the fact that these herds have primarily been managed in isolation from one another, with each herd considered to be an independent population. The objective of our joint NPS/WCS project is to use the best available science to build a meta-population viability model of plains bison on DOI lands, and to use this model as a guide for developing a management strategy to maintain or increase genetic variation of bison across all herds. We are working with herd managers to gather and analyze up-to-date genetic and demographic data for all 19 DOI herds, and will use these data to: 1) establish a common, standardized baseline of genetic information across all herds; 2) develop a population viability analysis (PVA) for each individual herd under current management; 3) explore the outcome of proposed metapopulation management scenarios across all herds. The ultimate goal of this project is a collaborative conservation strategy for the long-term viability of wild plains bison that spans their entire North American range and is based on shared stewardship between federal agencies, state agencies and tribal nations.
2:30PM Plains Bison Restoration – Keys to Success on the Ground
  Kyran Kunkel
Despite over a decade of renewed focus on bison restoration by agencies and NGOs, big progress on the ground remains elusive.  There have been no significant increases (>500 animals) in bison conservation herds outside of the American Prairie Reserve (APR) in northeastern Montana.  The primary problem remains that there are not big landscapes to restore bison to.  Rancher opposition to bison remains unflagging and government agencies remain timid.  The APR solution has been to buy hundreds of thousands of acres of land and restore wildlife including bison, with a goal of the largest herd ever conserved, over 10,000.  We are on track to achieve that in less than 10 years.  We have been successful because we have a big and inspiring vision for wildlife restoration that excites the public and donors and because we are nimble, entrepreneurial, and execute on the ground. We conduct our work using action science, learning by doing and adapting. We measure the ecological impacts of bison versus cattle and biodiversity focused management vs livestock focused.  We have over a decade of success, doing what we agreed to do for bison management with our neighbors. We have largely negated their concerns about disease, escapes, and property damage.  Our rigorous science based monitoring strategy has been important for the agencies review and approval of our experiment.  Perhaps as significantly, our new conservation approach on BLM lands has moved the BLM measurably toward conservation.  The primary challenge ahead for us is due to the scale we are proposing; significant opposition to bison and large scale wildlife restoration remains in rural Montana and the West.  We will need to demonstrate clearly the economic, ecologic, and social value of this grand change from a livestock centered to biodiversity centered economy and society.
2:50PM Refreshment Break
3:20PM Role of Partnerships on the Restoration of Plains Bison
  Luis Ramirez
The restoration of bison on North American grasslands include a wide diversity of variables. Cultural, ecological, and social components have to be considered to ensure the success of bison programs. Given this complexity, the role of partnerships has become central in order to secure the expertise required to develop, implement and maintain bison conservation. The Denver Zoo research and conservation department has develop a program were tribal herds, state universities, local and federal governments, and NGOs work together to gather the social, cultural and ecological understanding of bison conservation on rural and urban settings. Currently, the Denver Zoo manages the Rio Mora National Wildlife Refuge in Northeastern New Mexico and engage with local governments in Colorado to better understand bison perception among urban citizens Denver and Fort Collins areas. All these, with the goal of creating the momentum and knowledge needed to incorporate bison as a restoration tool in private lands, contribute to the cultural restoration of bison, and improve the perception and role of bison in urban areas.
3:40PM The Missing Link in the Ecological Restoration of Bison, State Management
  Bill Bates
At one time, bison were the keystone ungulate grazing across much of North America. Once numbering over 30 million, a 1905 survey found just 1089 had survived. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) launched a nationwide effort to restore the ecological role of bison. This included allowing herds to range freely across natural habitats, utilize natural reproductive processes, and not subject to selective culling practices. The DOI called for a collaborative effort to include federal and state agencies, conservation groups, and landowners. In 2016, DOI managed 19 herds across 12 states, yet only six of those herds met these criteria. Those six herds numbered about 7000 animals and lived on approximately 4.4 million acres. Fenced DOI herds consisted of 3200 animals on 208 thousand acres. A closer analysis reveals active state management in each of those six herds. Most are managed as free-ranging herds through hunting when not on National Park Service lands. Evidence suggests that state involvement is key to resolving issues with other interests.
4:00PM Tribal Role in the Ecological Restoration of Plains Bison
  Patrick Toomey
The Inter Tribal Buffalo Council (ITBC) is a national organization comprised of 56 Tribes across 19 states. For over 20 years, ITBC has worked to restore bison to Indian lands to re-establish the sacred relationship between the bison and Indigenous people. ITBC serves as the Indian voice on bison protection, management, and conservation issues, and is committed to reestablishing buffalo herds on Indian lands in a manner that promotes cultural enhancement, spiritual revitalization, ecological restoration, and economic development. The presentation will provide an overview of significant historical bison reintroductions, highlight contemporary success in restoring bison to sovereign reservation lands, and examine future opportunities for achieving the ecological restoration of bison on and around tribal lands.
4:20PM Federal Role in the Ecological Restoration of Plains Bison
  Glenn Plumb
Over the past century, the American bison was saved from extinction and set upon a path to conservation and recovery. The Department of the Interior (DOI) has contributed significantly to bison conservation and will continue to do so during the 21st century. DOI lands currently support 17 bison herds in 12 states, for a total of approximately 10,000 bison over 4.6 million acres of DOI and adjacent lands. DOI bison resources, whose total population accounts for one third of all bison managed for conservation in North America, are crucial to the long-term preservation of the species. While bison are no longer threatened by extinction, substantial work remains to more fully restore the species to its ecological and cultural role on appropriate landscapes within its historical range. Many American Indian tribes have strong cultural ties with the buffalo, and DOI seeks to collaborate with tribes and tribal organizations to promote bison restoration on both public and tribal lands. In 2008, the Department of Interior launched the DOI Bison Conservation Initiative intended to rethink and revitalize how federal bureaus and their partners conceive, plan, and implement cooperative bison conservation. In 2011, the NPS Call to Action encouraged parks to rethink how they can innovate in cooperation with partners and the public to more fully accomplish the agency mission and specifically identified innovative and cooperative bison conservation at a larger landscape level as a high priority. In 2014, the DOI Bison Report proposed the federal role is to facilitate and support innovative collaboration amongst tribes, states, landowners, conservation groups, commercial bison producers, agricultural interests and others interested in bison, and seek to build partnerships amidst larger landscapes suitable for ranging wild bison, while concurrently generating and maintaining sustainable local and regional economies and communities.
4:40PM Very Long Term Conservation of the Bison genus: What’s it going to take?
  Glen Plumb
In October of 2008, then Secretary of Interior Dirk Kempthorne signed “Bison Conservation Initiative” (Initiative) for the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI). This initiative provided legitimacy and momentum to guide the conservation agencies within DOI to pursue a more focused conservation effort on behalf of bison (Bison bison spp.). The first priority of the Initiative provided by the Secretary was the establishment of the DOI Bison Conservation and Management Working Group whose purpose was to guide management of DOI bison herds. The Working Group was designed to operate as an interagency working group composed of the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Geological Survey, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In 2010, the Working Group released its genetic assessment in a report titled: Bison Conservation Genetics Workshop: Report and Recommendations” (http://www.nature.nps.gov/biology/documents/Bison_Genetics_Report.pdf). Key findings were:

    The 12 DOI herds are an irreplaceable resource for the long-term conservation of North American plains bison and show low levels of cattle introgression.

    The herds have retained significant amounts of genetic variation by the standard measures, heterozygosity and allelic diversity.

In 2014, the Working Group produced an assessment of bison restoration opportunities on DOI lands at the request of Secretary Ken Salazar. The report described the applicability and level of complexity of restoring Yellowstone origin bison to DOI lands. (http://www.nationalmammal.org/pdf/DOIBisonReport-LookingForward-NPS-NRR-2014-821.pdf) The Working Group will focus on incorporating the results of the new population viability assessments and develop methods to implement a metapopulation management system. We will also work to devise additional metapopulation mechanisms to engage tribal ecological and cultural restoration initiatives on a large scale and to the extent practicable and possible, support multi-scale bison restoration efforts.

Organizers: Paul Santavy, Wildlife and Habitat Restoration Working Group, Lewistown, MT; Keith Aune, Wildlife Conservation Society, Bozeman, MT; Steve Torbit, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Lakewood, CO; Tom France, National Wildlife Federation, Missoula, MT
Supported by: TWS Wildlife and Habitat Restoration Working Group, Wildlife Conservation Society, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Wildlife Federation

Location: Albuquerque Convention Center Date: September 26, 2017 Time: 1:10 pm - 5:00 pm