Then and Now
Bison once dominated the American landscape from the Appalachians to the Rockies, from the Gulf Coast to Alaska. An estimated 20 to 30 million bison migrated across the Great Plains in massive herds, providing sustenance for many who followed. For centuries, Native Americans depended on bison as a source of food, clothing and shelter in order to survive on the open plains. But in the mid-1800s, ever-increasing hunting pressure began to take its toll. Unregulated shooting led to mass slaughters of bison in the 1870s, and by 1889, scarcely 1,000 bison remained.
Today, there are about 500,000 bison in North America, but most of them are raised as livestock and contain cattle genes as a result of early 1900s cross-breeding experiments with cattle. Only 30,000 bison are protected in conservation herds, far fewer are free of cattle genes, and even fewer are unfenced and free-ranging.
Key Recovery Milestones
In 1998, federal and state agencies released a 15-year plan for managing Yellowstone bison that included allowing the animals to be killed when they migrate outside the park in search of food. Defenders responded with an alternative plan called The Citizens’ Plan to Save Yellowstone Buffalo. Despite receiving overwhelming public support, the Citizens’ Plan was ignored, and bison continue to be killed unnecessarily.
As recently as the winter of 2007-2008, a record 1,600 bison were killed—the largest wild bison kill in more than a century. More than 50,000 Defenders activists wrote letters to Montana tourism officials expressing their outrage over the senseless slaughter. In response, Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer helped broker a deal to create a corridor for bison to roam outside the park during winter.
Less than three years later, hundreds of Yellowstone bison were allowed to move outside of the park for the first time. In early 2011, Gov. Schweitzer went one step further by preventing the shipping of Yellowstone bison within Montana, effectively putting a halt to the slaughter of surplus bison. In April of 2011, state, federal and tribal wildlife managers reached a tentative agreement that would permanently allow bison to use an additional 75,000 acres of land in Gardiner Basin outside of Yellowstone during winter months.
In September 2011, Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks released a draft plan to relocate bison to four new locations around the state—two wildlife management areas and two tribal areas. In December, plans were approved to move Yellowstone bison to the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Indian Reservations. Finally, in March 2012, about 60 genetically pure, disease-free Yellowstone bison completed a 500-mile journey from a quarantine facility just outside the park to Fort Peck.
Half of these bison will eventually be moved to Fort Belknap once fencing is completed there. Both reservations plan to use these bison to start new herds that will be managed sustainably as a valuable cultural and economic resource. Hopefully, the bison will also be used someday to seed additional conservations herds in other areas across the Great Plains.