In 2018, American Prairie Reserve (APR) will begin hosting an annual bison harvest on APR’s private lands. Since the inception of the APR project, an annual bison harvest has been a part of our long-term plans. After eleven years of steady growth in our bison population, our herd numbers more than 800 genetically diverse animals and we are now ready to begin conducting harvests.
Bison harvests will help maintain the health and sustainability of our bison population in a variety of ways. First, APR is currently still missing two top grassland predators: wolves and grizzly bears. These species naturally prey on bison and in doing so help keep bison populations in balance with other native ungulates and within the capacity of the landscape’s available forage. Until such time that robust populations of wolves and grizzlies are once again roaming the grasslands, carefully controlled and limited harvesting by human beings can provide similar checks on bison numbers. To mimic natural predation, hunters will only be allowed to take a specific age class of bison, generally in the range of two-years old or under, which, along with the aged and less fit, are the animals most commonly taken when predators are present in sufficient numbers.
Conducting limited annual bison harvests will also help APR fine-tune the bison population management strategies and practices needed in the near future as we continue to grow APR’s land base. Even at three and a half million acres, until such time when bison are considered wild and able to roam freely in Montana, American Prairie Reserve will be limited in the number of bison it can ecologically support. Harvesting by humans will be an important management tool to help augment the impact of natural death rates by predation, old age, and accidents and injuries generally sustained during the rut.
Lastly, cultural archeologists estimate that human beings sustainably harvested animals on these Northern Great Plains for approximately 14,000 to 16,000 years. About 160 years ago there was an influx of new immigrants of European descent. Shortly thereafter, the populations of elk, deer, pronghorn, big horn sheep, wolves, cougars, bears and bison plummeted in the space of sixty years. By 1910, most of these species were completely eradicated from the American Prairie Reserve region. Today, with the notable exceptions of wolves, swift fox and grizzlies, the original species have been reintroduced or have recolonized this area of the prairies. While they still exist at a small fraction of their pre-European settlement numbers, we believe that with careful management, including responsible and limited harvesting by humans, the populations of all of these species can flourish spectacularly on the grasslands once again.