Visit Yellowstone National Park and you'd be hard-pressed not to spot a bison. Travel down to the south of Yellowstone and into Grand Teton National Park and you'll also have a good chance of spotting these woolly creatures.
And yet, while Americans overwhelmingly love bison as an iconic image of the West, a national survey out this week says they are largely clueless over the ecological plight these animals face.
While nearly three-quarters of the 2,000 people surveyed by the American Bison Society said they revere the shaggy animal and view them as an "extremely important living symbol of the American West," less than 10 percent know how many bison remain in the country.
While bison once numbered in the tens of millions and ranged all the way from Alaska to Mexico, today there are an estimated half-million bison left in the United States, according to the society. The vast majority of those live on private ranches, "with only about 9,000 plains bison considered free-ranging in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. An additional 7,000 free-ranging wood bison live in Canada."
Americans, according to those behind the survey, which was released by the Wildlife Conservation Society, want to see those numbers pumped up.
“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.”
Back in the 1980s a couple of professors from Rutgers University put forth their proposal for a "Buffalo Commons," which, basically, was a plan to convert 139,000 square miles touching ten Great Plains states into a nature preserve lush with shortgrass prairie and dotted with bison.
Now, of course, that proposal never got off the launchpad.
Indeed, in the wake of this week's survey results WCS officials say that ecological restoration that might benefit larger bison populations would likely take a century to occur and require cooperation from public, private, and indigenous groups.
According to the WCS, "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. It would also include bison interacting with the fullest possible set of other native species, as well as inspiring, sustaining and connecting human cultures."
Against that vision, the group believes the U.S. government should "better coordinate management of bison across federal agencies, take down barriers to the production and selling of ecologically raised bison meat, and work with Canada and Mexico on bison management."
Progress, the group believes, is already being made. For example, last month, Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne announced an initiative intended to bring together state, tribal, and agricultural interests to strengthen bison conservation efforts.
Background: In 1905, when only a few thousand bison remained in existence, the American Bison Society was formed at WCS’s Bronx Zoo headquarters, and began efforts to re-stock reserves on the Great Plains with animals from the zoo’s herd and other sources. By 1915, those efforts were considered a resounding success, and by 1936 ABS held its last meeting.
In 2005, ABS opened its doors once again as a WCS program and charged itself with playing a key role in bringing back the bison’s ecological role during this second century of bison conservation. Many wildlife species, including ferrets, prairie dogs and a variety of birds depended on bison herds as part of their ecology.