Plains Bison - The Forgotten Species

 

The imperiled condition of some wildlife has garnered public attention - and legal status as threatened or endangered. But the absence of wild bison in Montana has been largely ignored.

 

When Yellowstone grizzly bears were down to a few hundred individuals, they were listed. Today, there might be 1000 bears in northern Montana, still only on the verge of delisting. There were hundreds of wolves in the Yellowstone Country before they were delisted.

 

By comparison, there are no wild bison in Montana!

The International Union for Conservation of Nature ranks plains bison on its red list of imperiled species as “near-threatened”. The Montana Natural Heritage Program lists plains bison as “at risk”. But there are no wild bison in Montana!  

 

Of course, there are lots of bison in Montana, but they are not wild and very few are public wildlife. Classification of bison in Montana depends upon a mix of legal definitions and biology. 

 

Five kinds of bison are legally recognized by Montana.

 

Several thousand private livestock bison, governed under the Department of Livestock (Chapter 81, Montana Code).

About 350 federal bison at the National Bison Range. These are officially (and actually) “display animals” in an “exhibition pen” under Montana law (Chapter 87).

 

Wild public bison that seasonally visit Montana from Yellowstone Park. These are animals “infected with a dangerous disease” managed primarily under Chapter 81 by the Department of Livestock. (Fish, Wildlife & Parks participates in this management with DOL approval.) Many of these bison are annually harvested or captured and sent to slaughter.

 

Bison on several Native American reservations, in commercial and cultural herds. At least most are fenced in. They are owned and managed under laws of other nations for diverse and variable purposes.

 

Bison, not a disease threat, recognized under Montana wildlife laws (Chapter 87). There are none in the state.

 

Are any of these bison wild? We have a legal definition and a biological definition for wildness.

 

In Chapter 87, a wild bison “has not been reduced to captivity”. “Captivity” is not defined, but may be intended as “containment”. It remains unclear just how much bison mobility, over how large and diverse a landscape, is necessary for legal wildness.

 

But the legal definition of wildness is biologically inadequate. In biology, a wild wildlife population is subject to a preponderance of natural selection. (Redundancy is necessary here because wildness is usually overlooked when the term “wildlife” is used. Even the profession of wildlife management mostly neglects the issue of wildness.)

 

We don’t pass bison to future generations. Our legacy is the bison genome – the many forms of genes (alleles) in their very many combinations contained across all the animals in a population. Thus, natural selection and the definition of wildness are necessary elements of wildlife conservation ethics.

 

Natural selection is necessary to maintain a preponderance of beneficial alleles, with most animals in a wild herd having a preponderance of allele combinations that are most effective for living and reproducing effectively in the wild environment. Replacement of natural selection with artificial (human determined) selection and/or with random genetic drift, gradually disorganizes the wild genome, diminishing wildness and its valuable characteristics.

 

The evolution of Bison bison has been largely a response to predation, especially human predation, and mobility has been a large component of that response. All traits of bison anatomy, physiology and behavior must be consistent with the characteristic of mobility and mobility is necessary for bison to fully use their most basic evolved traits.

 

Thus, provision for a preponderance of natural selection, for wildness of bison, depends upon allowing for bison mobility over a large, diverse landscape and upon management of predation on bison, including human predation.

 

The wildest bison in Montana are only seasonal visitors from Yellowstone Park. In Yellowstone, they roam over a large landscape and are the only plains bison in the USA that live with effective wild predators. But in Montana, they are only controlled and culled, without management for diverse public benefits.

 

Next on a biological scale of wildness are about 1000 private bison on the American Prairie Reserve in north-central Montana. The Reserve intends for these and more bison to roam over a very large, diverse landscape. Bison will use mobility and their gene-based instincts and learning to select habitats in response to plant phenologies and variable weather. Their behavior and related traits will be subject to natural selection. If many bison are allowed to die on the range and if herd management minimizes interference with mobility and with natural sex- and age-specific rates of mortality, natural selection may be preponderant in determining the future of the herd’s genome. Current limits for wildness of these bison are that natural predators, especially wolves, are not present on the Reserve and that these bison are, legally, private livestock.

 

Private and Native American bison in commercial herds, and bison within the National Bison Range, cannot be considered wild. Commercial bison genomes are being domesticated with artificial selection. Bison Range animals have a limited range and are intensively managed as well.

The future wildness of bison in Native American cultural herds is uncertain. As noted above, it will depend upon allowance for great bison mobility over a diverse range and upon management of predation. And wild or not, these are not public bison.

 

Thus, there are no wild bison in Montana.

 

The future for any wild bison in Montana depends upon two issues: (1) a lack of active public support for wild bison grounded in little understanding of the complex matters of wildness, discussed above; and (2) strong political opposition to bison restoration from the organized Montana agricultural community.

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Montana takes pride in having brought several species of large mammals “back from the brink” of extinction during the 20th century. But bison, probably once the most abundant large mammal in the state, are a forgotten species. Restoration of wild plains bison in Montana has not occurred.

 

The Montana Wild Bison Restoration Coalition is formed to bring bison back from the brink. Goals of the Coalition are: (1) to disseminate science-based information on opportunities for bison in Montana; and (2) reestablish publicly owned, wild bison on and near the CMR National Wildlife Refuge.

 

Jim Bailey, Belgrade    May 27, 2018

 

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