Conservation Wildlife Management

Feds Announce Plan to Restore Bison Populations and Improve America’s Grasslands

The Department of the Interior will rely on Indigenous Knowledge and direct $25 million in federal funding to build back bison herds and improve grassland habitats
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Part of the bison herd that was reintroduced to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge in 2007. USFWS

In celebration of World Wildlife Day, the Department of the Interior announced Friday that it’s launching an ambitious new program to restore American bison and vital grassland ecosystems. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s order empowers the DOI’s bureaus and partners to work with Indigenous leaders and communities to bring back wild bison populations in the central U.S. The program will receive more than $25 million in federal funding from the Inflation Reduction Act.

As the DOI points out in Friday’s announcement, bison recovery in the 20th century is already one of America’s greatest conservation success stories. Rebounding from an all-time low of a few hundred animals in 1889, the nation’s wild bison herds now number greater than 15,000. The vast majority of these—around 11,000 of them—are spread across 4.6 million acres of public land in 12 states.

This number, however, represents a tiny fraction of the roughly 60 million bison that roamed across pre-colonial North America. Bison are still “functionally extinct” on the larger grassland systems they coevolved with, according to the DOI, and the loss of this keystone species has been both culturally and ecologically devastating. By working to expand bison herds and steward the habitats they rely on, the DOI aims to improve the overall health of America’s heartland.

“The American bison is inextricably intertwined with Indigenous culture, grassland ecology and American history,” Haaland said in Friday’s press release. “While the overall recovery of bison over the last 130 years is a conservation success story, significant work remains to not only ensure that bison will remain a viable species but also to restore grassland ecosystems, strengthen rural economies dependent on grassland health and provide for the return of bison to Tribally owned and ancestral lands.”

The Important Role of Tribes in Restoring Bison

The order outlines a framework for bison restoration in the U.S. by formally establishing a Bison Working Group. The BWG will include representatives from the five DOI bureaus that already manage lands with bison on them: the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, and the U.S. Geological Survey.  

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These partners will develop a long-term stewardship plan to establish new bison herds, restore native plant communities, and strengthen existing conservation partnerships. Importantly, the DOI says that “robust engagement with Tribes” is at the core of these efforts. Tribally led organizations will play a leading role in the management of current and future herds, according to the agency, which seems only natural considering their vast well of knowledge and the deep cultural ties they have with American bison.

The Interior Department is committing more than $25 million to these ends. This funding comes from the Inflation Reduction Act, which the current administration describes as “a historic and transformational investment” in tackling the climate crisis while creating good-paying jobs and lowering the cost of living for working Americans.

The Power of Prairies

While the federal government’s ultimate vision is to bring back a portion of the once-thundering herds that roamed the Great Plains, this can only be achieved by improving the health of the grasslands these animals rely on. According to some estimates, more than two-thirds of these habitats have been eliminated over the years. Restoring America’s imperiled grasslands will help the free-range ruminants regain their footing. It will also provide benefits that extend far beyond increasing bison forage.

Stronger, healthier grasslands enhance soil quality and benefit countless other species, from mule deer to migratory birds to pronghorn and pollinators. On a landscape level, America’s prairies are also one of our most important tools in building climate resiliency.

Read Next: The Grasslands Conservation Act Just Hit the Senate. Here’s What it Means for Hunters and Wildlife

Thanks to the deep root systems of native, perennial grasses—which evolved, in part, due to the constant grazing of bison—these ecosystems can store vast amounts of carbon over time. Even though trees get most of the attention when we talk about “carbon sequestration,” studies have found that grasslands in fire-prone regions can actually be more reliable carbon sinks than forests. (This is because deep-rooting grasses store carbon underground, while trees store it in their trunks and leaves—where it all gets released back into the atmosphere during wildfires.)

Bringing back bison while restoring grasslands and bolstering climate resiliency are goals that align with much of the larger conservation community. Several of these groups, including Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, have already voiced their support for the strategic investments that are being prioritized under Secretary Haaland’s Order.

“Today’s announcement by the administration outlines the most pressing conservation issues in our great country,” BHA President and CEO Land Tawney said Friday. “We applaud their commitment and look forward to helping advance the work that will anchor our public lands conservation both immediately and in the longer term.”

The DOI’s plan to restore bison will no doubt be met with criticism, particularly from the cattle industry, which has largely benefited from the disappearance of bison in the U.S. by overtaking the same grasslands that bison once dominated. Cattle grazing is now the single largest use of federally owned lands in the West. According to some group’s estimates, there are currently around 1.5 million cows grazing on public land across 13 Western states.

Accordingly, politicians with ties to the cattle industry have been some of the most outspoken opponents of bison restoration in recent years. In December, Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte appealed a BLM decision that granted a 10-year bison grazing permit on state-owned lands managed by the federal agency. Gianforte has argued that bison conservation undermines the health of rural livestock, and that public lands within the state should only be leased to commercial livestock producers.