Cultural appreciation is helping protect the bison

Bison are the heaviest land mammals in both Europe and North America. In the USA, great efforts have been achieved in restoring the dwindling bison population. Primarily, efforts to restore these vast herds of bison have been made by Native American tribes. For instance the Fort Peck Reservation, the 9th largest Indian reservation in the US, has made substantial strides. Although, it has not been without its conflicts.

Please also read: Wildlife is losing the fight

The significance of Bison

Merely two centuries ago, large bison herds roamed as far as the horizon. Sadly the largest bison herd today is at Yellowstone National Park standing at 4000 strong. Nevertheless, the herd is under continued strain. Systematically, people cull Yellowstone’s bison with the intention of isolating the bison population from cattle. Supposedly, this helps to contain a disease (Brucellosis) which the bison formally caught from cattle. Therefore, preventing bison from potentially spreading it to cattle, which is unlikely anyhow. Further, in Yellowstone bison are often not the only cause for spreading disease. Elk are prevalent and often live side by side with cattle while also being carriers of the dreaded Brucellosis disease.

This posed a tremendous problem when trying to import some of the Yellowstone’s bison to the Fort Peck reservation, in order to build a cultural herd. A herd not for commercial use (e.g. leather) but as a spiritual herd. Previously, bison formed an essential part of Native American life. Formulating an integral resource physically, they also help shape the landscape and ecosystem. Moreover, bison acted as a symbol for their belief and spirituality.

The continent’s largest land mammal plays a major role in the spiritual and cultural lives of numerous Native American tribes, an integrated relationship.

Leroy Little Bear
Professor at the University of Lethbridge

Importantly, after an unanimous vote by the Montana supreme court in favour for the tribes; bison from Yellowstone were finally introduced to the Fort Peck Reservation. From this result, and over the course of several deliveries the Fort Peck herd now stands at 340 strong.

Bison in Vanatori Neamt Nature Park
Bison in Vanatori Neamt Nature Park

The bison’s impact since

Namely the bison’s reintroduction to the Fort Peck Reservation has had a drastic change in the ecosystem. The native grasses have begun to thrive, paving the way for grassland birds to return. Further, supported by a publication from the Saskatchewan Government. Here they explain that bison graze over greater areas than cattle, with 90% of bison migrating while 10% are sedentary.

For further information about bison grazing please read: Bison Pastures and Grazing Management.

Formally the European bison population was hunted to extinction. Important to the bison populations in Europe is Białowieża Forest, historically the last place bison persisted. Subsequently bison were reintroduced to Białowieża Forest in the 20th century. Continuing today, Białowieża Forest remains an important stronghold. However, the forest is under threat due to the illegal logging. Here more than 675 hectares of the Natura 2000 site have been clear cut, but the total impact is much greater.

At this time, several populations of bison spread across Europe. However, European bison are under threat not only from direct killing by people, but from other threats such as urbanisation and habitat fragmentation and destruction. Furthermore, similar to the historical events that occurred in the USA, Poland plans to kill 40 bison in an apparent attempt to limit the spread of disease. The exact same excuse used at Yellowstone.

While things may be improving for bison in the USA, Europe still has a long way to go.

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