The Big Picture
An Iconic Symbol of the American West
The plains bison, also commonly known as the buffalo, is an iconic symbol of the free and open spirit of the North American prairie. While tens of millions of bison, described as “innumerable” by early 18th century European explorers, once roamed the Great Plains, only an estimated 500,000 bison remain in North America today. Of these, less than 4% (about 19,000 bison) live in conservation herds. Most of the bison on the landscape today are raised for commercial purposes. At present, no herd on the Great Plains is wide ranging, and the majority of North American bison conservation herds are not managed to preserve genetic integrity over time. Bison were crossbred with cattle at the turn of the 20th century in the hopes of mixing cattle domesticity with bison hardiness; of the approximately 500,000 bison alive today, fewer than 7,000 are non-hybridized.
Our Goals for Bison Restoration on American Prairie Reserve
We seek to restore bison to their original habitat on American Prairie Reserve lands, providing modern visitors a chance to witness the majestic species that astounded the earliest explorers and played a central role in the culture and spirituality of the Native Americans who preceded them.
Progress to Date
2005: First Bison Introduced to American Prairie Reserve
On a cold and rainy night, not long past midnight on October 20, 2005, 16 bison stepped back onto the Montana prairie after an absence of more than 120 years. APR and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) staff watched as the bison began to graze in their holding pasture, acclimating to their new home before being turned out onto American Prairie Reserve. Several of these bison were pregnant cows. After much waiting, the APR Reserve Manager was proud to report the births of five baby bison on the Reserve in April 2006.
2006-Present: A Growing Herd
From 2006 to 2009, the herd continued to grow with the addition of new arrivals from Wind Cave National Park and The Nature Conservancy of South Dakota. Additional calves have been born on American Prairie Reserve each spring since 2006.
In early 2010, we greatly increased the size of our herd with the addition of 94 bison from Elk Island National Park in Alberta, Canada. The ancestors of these bison originally came from Montana and were part of the Pablo herd, the largest herd of bison left in North America in the early 1900s, after they were largely extirpated from the Great Plains. The Pablo herd was privately owned until the Canadian government purchased the bison in 1907. The return of these bison to Montana continues to be a historic homecoming – 71 additional bison calves were transferred from Elk Island to American Prairie Reserve in early 2012 and another 73 calves were relocated in early 2014.
APR works with scientists to ensure the herd is healthy and adequately maintained. Data is regularly collected to guide herd management and future restoration work. APR and WWF developed a comprehensive, peer-reviewed reintroduction plan to provide guidelines for our efforts. In addition, APR and WWF assembled a panel of advisors that includes many of the most highly regarded scientists and bison managers in the country. Because we aim to create a herd as similar to the prairie’s original inhabitants as possible, we routinely test our source herds for cattle gene introgression when new bison are brought to the Reserve.
Thoughtful Management in Communication with Our Neighbors
APR works with neighboring ranches to develop a mutual understanding of our bison management goals. From 2008 through 2013, we worked to install electrified bison fencing around the perimeter of the Sun Prairie region, enabling the expansion of our bison range from, 2,600 acres in 2008 to 31,000 acres in 2013. These fences incorporate wildlife-friendly specifications while ensuring bison containment.
Using remote camera traps to take photographs and record 30-second videos, WWF biologists monitored wildlife passage under or over bison fencing on American Prairie Reserve to ensure that the fences do not inhibit the movements of other animals. Numerous photos have documented that the current bison fencing permits mule deer, white-tailed deer and pronghorn crossings in the area. Now, as part of the Landmark adventure science project on American Prairie Reserve, these camera trap studies will continue through 2016.
2008-2011: Bison & Domestic Cattle Water Use Study
APR and WWF conducted a joint study, funded by the Murdock Foundation, comparing the movements, landscape use and ecological impacts of our bison herd on neighboring cattle herds. APR has also partnered with University of Montana graduate students and WWF to conduct a comparative study of bison and domestic cattle water use. GPS radio collars were placed on both species in order to accurately monitor their respective movements and ecological impacts.
Contributing to Bison Restoration Nationwide
As part of APR’s desire to make a positive contribution to bison restoration efforts across the country, we have donated bison to conservation herds on the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge in Nebraska and the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Colorado, as well as the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, Colorado State University, the United States Department of Agriculture and the Bronx Zoo. In 2014, two female bison calves from the APR herd became national ambassadors at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in D.C.
APR will continue transporting bison from selected herds to the Reserve over the next few years. We continue to remove old barbed-wire fence and construct new fences designed specifically to manage bison and allow for the free movement of wildlife. Scientists will also monitor the herd and the health and vitality of regional habitat. Get more information in our most recent Annual Bison Report.