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Photo by Todd Wilkinson.

What Does Bison Restoration Look Like? One Rancher’s View

In autumn 2006, the Wildlife Conservation Society held a landmark conference in Denver on the future of North American bison. Among the questions being pondered by the large gathering of conservationists, scientists, wildlife officials from the U.S., Canada and Mexico, and representatives from the commercial bison industry was this: Should bison be listed as a federally-protected species in the U.S. and moreover, do they warrant placement on the IUCN’s Red List as an imperiled animal in need of global focus?

While no one in attendance disagreed with the fact that bison, when numbering in the tens of millions, were once keystone species on the Great Plains, shaping the health and structure of plant, animal, and human communities, there is a divergence of opinion about whether buffalo can ever be restored to such large numbers that they again fulfill their historic role.

Is the Buffalo Commons achievable or is it a post-pleistocene pipe dream? Would listing of bison enhance the goals of bison recovery or would it alienate private ranchers who far and away are responsible for stewarding most of the bison in the world? In part four of NewWest.Net’s ongoing conversation with bison rancher Bob “Action” Jackson, the former Yellowstone Park ranger says bison recovery is less about numbers, pure genetics or legal classification and more about examining their functional role on the landscape which stems from understanding the nature of the beast. Do you agree with Jackson? — Todd Wilkinson

Click on the links below to read previous installments of the conversation with Bob Jackson.

As you imagine it, what does recovery of the American bison look like and what is necessary for it to succeed? Some environmentalists like to put down bison ranchers, but I’ve met a lot of well-intentioned, conservation-minded producers and the fact is that most of the 500,000 bison in existence today are found on private farms and ranches. The counter criticism that gets leveled from those who raise bison for a living is that some in the conservation community seem to have this utopian vision of millions of free-ranging buffalo again rumbling across the Great Plains, yet they have no pragmatic game plan for how to get there in a way that is rooted in reality. Moreover, producers say they feel resented by environmental organizations and that activists have no understanding or appreciation of the economic challenges that bison ranchers face.

BOB JACKSON: The supposed state of recovery in bison might best be assessed by a quote from Colonel Dodge. In his book, Thirty Three Years Among the Wild Indians, he states, “In May, 1871, I drove in a buggy from old Ft. Zara to Ft. Larned, on the Arkansas River. The distance was thirty four miles. At least twenty five miles of that distance was through an immense herd. The whole country appeared one mass of buffalo, moving slowly to the northward, and it was only when actually among them that it could be ascertained that the apparently solid mass was an agglomeration of from fifty to two hundred animals, separated from the surrounding herds by greater or lesser space, but still separated”.

The main point of this observation is that no matter what the overall size of the herd, the separate extended family units made up the herd. Compare this to today where any number or mass of individuals constitutes a “herd”. So, it comes down to whether one believes there is any more to a buffalo than what one sees in the masses of individuals now under present public and private management. In other words are they functional and sustainable as this species once lived? I do not believe they are.

Outside of Yellowstone and the indigenous woods bison herd in Canada’s Northwest Territories, most of what I see on government and private lands is a species whose depth of being is only skin deep. They would make horrible candidates for restoration. These animals aren’t allowed to form up into functional family groups and thus don’t possess the drive and emotions needed for the vitality of life or learning acquired from their ancestors. Social organization not only helps animals live effectively but it is also the key to genetic diversity, and symbiotic interaction with their landscape. Social organization is also what humans had to use for millions of years to make themselves into the species we see today. Families and its extensions are the E=MC ² of life for humans and herd animals.

With buffalo not being allowed to form up and maintain these groups there is no real restoration. This is important for humans because bison and other herd animals are major sources of food for us. Lack of social order means stress and the stress built up in today’s animals because they are dysfunctional translates into the inability of these animals to develop the nutrient value within their bodies which they are capable of.

To repeat, we need to consider that any herd animal which depended on social structure for eons for its very survival as a species is inherently and therefore chronically stressed without this order. What pre-white natives ate for meat in this country is not the same animal as that of todays stressed dysfunctional animals (wild or domestic). I know because I have tracked and then sampled a fair amount of elk meat from the scout bulls that on occasion left the few non-migratory herds in Yellowstone only to be shot by outfitters.

Also, today the ability of a dysfunctional animal to pass on desirable genes is severely limited without social order. With nature’s multi-generational related females, choosing a singular male for breeding the females in that extended family for the two-three year period he is competitive (six to eight years old), means the herd chooses the genetics for their extended family …for better or worse when it comes to competition with other extended families. There is no downside compared with the pure bred line breeding of domestic agriculture with its accompanying inbreeding problems. It is also the only system I know of where an animal doesn’t need to have offspring to pass on its beneficial genes. This all means social order herds have control of their destiny and today’s managed herds don’t.

Thus the only possibility a “managed” herd animal has for “improvement” is the genetic choice of chance. Biologists keep telling us about bottlenecks, where huge numbers in diverse locations are needed but all one needs to start genetic diversity is two extended family herds with each having their own territories to defend. It’s the same principle where the girl or guy from the neighboring school looks more exciting and attractive than the girl or guy from their own school. The indicators scientists use to prove these bottlenecks can not measure the emotions every one of us and all other animals use to maintain viable populations. Yes, I believe there are serious genetic bottlenecks out there but most are happening because we, as wildlife managers, do not understand social structure, whether it is Florida panthers or bison-bison.

Today’s dysfunctional bison are not compatible with their environment either. This is because without a family there is no home and home is all important for any species distribution and grazing patterns. Does one think all those millions of bison Colonel Dodge witnessed just haphazardly formed up and then dispersed in a haphazard way at the end of each movement? It would have been chaos.

Colonel Dodge’s herd had the structure of a military movement. The older bulls were two weeks in the front, the young bulls were flankers and the rear guard followed the whole herd. Accounts said the groups all melted away till there was no more herd. To do so in such a non descript way means they peeled off to their homes the same as humans do when masses congregate and then disperse at sporting events or pilgrimages. It is the same as I saw each year in Yellowstone where the elk migration from Jackson started with a huge trail but got smaller with each family exiting at their drainage.

Compatibility with land happens for several reasons in social order herds. Think family and apply it to any environmental or range science problem and we can solve it when it comes to herd animals. Mothers and grandmothers, in order to teach, need to keep offspring away from disruptions and distractions. Thus, a benefit is no overgrazing in sensitive riparian areas in the summer. Families of any species will not make a home in areas used by many others…i.e., all families needing to come to the same water source to drink. (Think of a human family that finally attained everything it wanted. A nice house on the golf course, a progressive school for the kids, and a house that had all the things mother ever desired. Then add to this scenario strangers walking through the house at any or all hours of the day and night to get a drink of water. This family would be gone pronto).

Homes also meant family herds were intimate with their surroundings and best knew what to eat and when. They had the uninterrupted learning from thousands of related ancestors. Thus all those broad leafs and “weeds” in the uplands that today’s managed grazers don’t know are edible are selected by natures herds. Management Intensive Grazing was also here long before modern man came up with his “new” idea of expensive and labor intensive paddocks. Families accomplish this because they WANT to stay close to each other. Thus, we have another way nature answers range sciences dilemma of “eating the best and leaving the rest”.

One can go on for pages and find the answers to most all agriculture’s husbandry and environmental problems. But in the end we need to know if we can change today’s dysfunctional management, a system created by man when he started domesticating animals for emergency food, and which he went on to arrogantly apply to all animals, wild and domestic.

Yes we can change it, and the “well intended bison producers” in your question are the ones who are best equipped to do so. Some are doing it by default and some are because economic consideration means speedier implementation. There are people in the bison business today with the deep conviction that “there has to be a better way” than the model invented by the cattle industry.

From what I read in the early interviews on why he wanted to raise bison, I think Ted Turner highlights the producer rising above conventional agriculture to find this “better way”. He also happens to be the one in the best position to carry this out and he has hired great people to wrestle with the big questions. But he confronts, as all of us do, a problem of implementation because the system and the market do not immediately reward those who want to make positive changes. He knows that any long lasting ecological sustainability in the way the lands are managed and cared for is dependent upon having economic sustainability. That’s just a fact.

In today’s world of production agriculture, there are huge obstacles and resistance from outside forces to melding economic and environmental goals succinctly. In many cases, the academics in range science, those who market sustainable food products, the conscientious consumer, and the agricultural support communities are too far removed from reality on the ground to be of much help. We need to think differently about how we grow food in this country. Believe it or not, the National Bison Association is trying to advance this cause but it is going to take all of us thinking about the choices we make every day as consumers.

Stay tuned for the next installment of Todd Wilkinson’s conversation with Bob Jackson. NEXT TIME: Bob Jackson sets off fireworks by offering a blunt and eye-brow raising assessment of public land management agencies and their stewardship of bison.

Click on the links below to read previous installments of the conversation with Bob Jackson.

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One comment

  1. Thumbs -Up Todd..defenently one of your best pro-mo here at New ancient Bison have roamed dis earth fur many years. Cleasing de land no one wanted AHO AHey!!