Interior Department Has Plan For Restoring Bison To Public, Tribal Landscapes

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A new report from the Interior Department discusses ways to increase the country's bison populations.

Bison, an iconic species of the Plains nearly driven to extinction by the country's westward expansion, has rebounded greatly through conservation efforts over the past century, but more work to restore these animals to public and tribal lands remains to be done, according to an Interior Department report.

Commissioned by former Interior Secretary Ken Salzar, DOI Bison Report: Looking Forward envisions building on the current herd of about 10,000 bison contained in 17 herds spread across 12 states and 4.6 million acres on federal lands and adjacent lands where they are allowed to range. Currently, efforts to expand bison on federal lands include:

* In Arizona, Grand Canyon National Park is conducting an Environmental Impact Statement in cooperation with the state of Arizona, USFS and BLM to develop a long-term bison management plan.

* In Colorado, the Baca National Wildlife Refuge is developing a Comprehensive Conservation Plan that will explore options for bison conservation on the refuge.

* At Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, also in Colorado, officials are developing an EIS for long-term elk and bison management, including potential bison restoration on NPS lands.

* In Montana, formal bison restoration planning is underway, led by the state of Montana that may include Interior Department lands.

* In Nebraska, discussions are underway at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument on the potential for bison reintroduction.

* In New Mexico, options are being evaluated for a bison herd at Río Mora National Wildlife Refuge.

* In South Dakota, talks are underway between the National Park Service at Badlands National Park with the Oglala Sioux Tribe to restore bison on the park’s South Unit on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

* At Wind Cave National Park, also in South Dakota, there's potential bison pasture expansion using a 5,000-acre park addition.

Talks to bring bison back to Indian Country, as the report described it, include talks between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to allow the tribe to administer non-inherently federal activities at the National Bison Range, which is located entirely within the CSKT’s Flathead Reservation, and discussions between the Interior Department and the InterTribal Buffalo Council, an officially recognized tribal organization that serves to coordinate bison restoration among 59 member tribes in 19 states.

“The Interior Department has more than a century-long legacy of conserving the North American bison, and we will continue to pursue the ecological and cultural restoration of the species on behalf of the American public and American Indian tribes who have a special connection to this iconic animal,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said last week in releasing the report.

“This report reaffirms our commitment to work with many partners to ensure healthy, ranging bison contribute not only to the conservation of the species, but also to sustainable local and regional economies and communities,” said Acting Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks Rachel Jacobson.

The report outlines plans to work cooperatively with tribes, states, landowners, conservation groups, commercial bison producers, agricultural interests and others interested in bison to restore the nation’s bison population to a proper ecological and cultural role on appropriate landscapes within its historical range.

The report also details new developments in brucellosis quarantine that may allow healthy bison from the well-known Yellowstone herd to be relocated outside the Greater Yellowstone Area, if they are quarantined and determined to be brucellosis-free. This raises the potential that for the first time in over a half century, Yellowstone bison could once again contribute to the broader conservation of the species beyond the Greater Yellowstone Area without spreading brucellosis. When evaluating whether to implement a brucellosis quarantine program in the future, Interior will follow all necessary processes to ensure full involvement by states, tribes, and the public.

In addition, the report underscores the Department’s commitment to working with American Indian tribes to restore the buffalo, as it is commonly referred to in Indian Country, on both public and tribal lands because of its cultural, religious, nutritional, and economic importance to many tribes.

When European settlers first arrived in North America, the plains bison population was estimated at about 40 million animals. By the late 19th century, there were approximately 25 bison left in the wild. Since that time, Interior has played a significant role in saving the North American bison from extinction, stabilizing its population, and protecting and promoting the species’ genetic diversity.

There are many opportunities to chart a course for a robust bison conservation strategy over the next century. It will need to be based on developing innovative partnerships with landowners, tribes, states, conservation groups, commercial bison producers and others, continuing strong tribal relations surrounding bison restoration, and taking advantage of all tools in our toolkit, like brucellosis quarantine and strategies to promote genetic diversity. Policy makers will need to make decisions regarding many of these topics, such as whether to pursue a long term brucellosis quarantine program, which DOI lands should be prioritized for bison restoration projects, how to increase support to tribes for bison-related projects, and how to promote partnerships that achieve mutually beneficial goals. It is our hope that this report helps to inform the decision making process on these important issues.