GLAND, Switzerland - Restoring wild populations of American bison would benefit ecosystems in their historic range from the desert grasslands of northern Mexico, through the Great Plains of the United States and Canada, to the lowland meadows of interior Alaska, finds a new publication from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, IUCN.
Published Tuesday after three years of work, the comprehensive study features contributors from federal government agencies in the United States, Canada and Mexico; state agencies from bison range states in all three countries; and bison experts from nongovernmental and tribal organizations and universities.
Bison, also called buffalo, have a profound influence on ecosystems, but for restoration to occur, more land must be made available for herds to roam free, government policies must be updated and the public must change its attitude towards bison, according to the study, written under the auspices of the IUCN American Bison Specialist Group.
"Although the effort to restore bison to the plains of North America is considered to be one of the most ambitious and complex undertakings in species conservation efforts in North America, it will only succeed if legislation is introduced at a local and national level, with significant funding and a shift in attitude towards the animal," says Dr. Simon Stuart, Chair of IUCN's Species Survival Commission.
"No other North American species holds such great cultural and political significance," the study states.
Five hundred years ago, tens of millions of American bison roamed free on the plains of North America, from Alaska to northern Mexico. Now the American bison - which includes both plains and wood bison - is listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN's Red List of Threatened Species.
As of 2008, there were about 400,000 bison in commercial herds in North America, some 93 percent of the continental population. But little progress has been made in recent decades to increase the number of animals in conservation herds, which are managed for their genetic diversity and ecological roles.
In 2008, there were 61 plains bison conservation herds in North America containing about 20,500 animals, and 11 conservation herds of wood bison, containing nearly 11,000 animals, according to the study.
"While substantial progress in saving bison from extinction was made in the 20th century, much work remains to restore conservation herds throughout their vast geographical range," says University of Calgary Environmental Design Professor and co-editor of the study, Dr. Cormack Gates, who co-chairs the IUCN Bison Specialist Group.
"The key is recognition that the bison is a wildlife species and to be conserved as wildlife, it needs land and supportive government policies," said Dr. Gates.
"The decimation of the American bison in the late 1800s inspired the first recovery of bison and an entire conservation movement that protected wildlife and wild places across North America," says co-author Keith Aune, senior conservation scientist, Wildlife Conservation Society. "The IUCN Status Survey and Conservation Guidelines provide a new framework for inspiring a second recovery of bison and restoring functional grassland ecosystems."
In one of the study's 10 chapters, Aune and co-authors describe the complex maze of legal and policy issues confronting bison conservation. They point out that much of this complexity is due to a history of bison being treated like livestock rather than as wildlife.
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The legal recognition of bison as wildlife or livestock, or both, varies across various federal, state, and provincial jurisdictions. Only 10 U.S. states, four Canadian provinces and two territories, and one Mexican state classify bison as wildlife; all other states and provinces within the bison's historic range designate them as domestic livestock.
Overlaying this legal map for bison are several stakeholder groups that manage bison: public wildlife and land management agencies, Native American groups, non-profit conservation organisations, and private producers. Reportable diseases present another set of legal issues that affect international and interstate transport of bison.
In another chapter, Aune and co-authors describe the characteristics and implications for bison conservation of nine diseases, ranging from anthrax and bluetongue to bovine brucellosis and bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also called mad cow disease.
They detail the complex and difficult management challenges that diseases present in three of North America's most important conservation herds: the plains bison herds of Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park/National Elk Refuge that harbor brucellosis, and the wood bison herds in and around Wood Buffalo National Park that are infected with both bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis.
While the policies and legal framework for controlling disease in domestic livestock are well established, they do not work well when applied to wildlife, including bison, because they often conflict with conservation goals and our ability to manage and maintain wild populations, the study states.
The authors point to the recent development of national wildlife health strategies in both Canada and the United States that could help address this problem.
Bison have the best chance of full recovery as wildlife by being allowed to roam freely across hundreds of thousands or even millions of hectares, the study states, a situation that requires the support of both public and private landowners.
"The next 10-20 years present opportunities for conserving American bison as a wild species and restoring it as an important ecological presence in many North American ecosystems," the study concludes.
But, the authors say, the "greatest challenge is to overcome the common perception that the bison, which has had a profound influence on the human history of North America, socially, culturally and ecologically, no longer belongs on the landscape."
"The bison is the largest land mammal in North America, and yet it is perhaps the most neglected icon," says Steve Forrest, WWF Northern Great Plains Manager for Conservation Science. "These guidelines provide a roadmap for bringing the bison back to its rightful place as a keystone of the Great Plains."
Click here to read "American Bison: Status Survey and Conservation Guidelines 2010," and its recommendations on how to ensure that the species is conserved for the future.