#MapMonday: Bison

Join Lindsay, our Conservation GIS Scientist, and Chamois, the Senior Representative for our Rockies and Plains program, to learn more about America’s national mammal - the bison. You can check out our story map on coexisting with bison here and another story map on restoring bison on the Great Plains here.

Click to view video transcript

Hey there and welcome to another Monday! I’m Lindsay, the Conservation GIS scientist in the Center for Conservation Innovation, here to cheer you up with one bison of a map! It will catch on.

Anywho - bison are North America’s largest land animal with mature bulls standing over 6 ft high and clocking in at up to 2,000 lbs! That’s heavier than a smart car! Even newborns can be as heavy as a 10-year-old kiddo - and just as bad about doing her virtual homework!

However, there are so few bison left that they are considered “ecologically extinct”. This means that their natural role in the Great Plains ecosystem has been severely diminished.

Defenders of Wildlife is working with several national parks, tribes, the InterTribal Buffalo Council, World Wildlife Fund, National Wildlife Federation and the Wildlife Conservation Society to establish new bison herds in key locations across the Great Plains to ensure the persistence of our national mammal.

This Monday we will get to know this symbol of unity, resilience, and healthy landscapes of communities. All hail the American bison!

Prior to European settlement of the American frontier, about 30 million bison roamed North America - from the forests of Alaska and the grasslands of Mexico to Nevada’s Great Basin and the eastern Appalachian Mountains.

But by the late 19th century, fewer than 1,000 could be found on the continent, with only a handful of wild bison left in the American West.

The effort to bring bison back to their historic range in Badlands National Park first began with the reintroduction of 50 animals to the park in the 1960s from Theodore Roosevelt National Park, followed by 20 more in the 1980s from Colorado National Monument.

Since then, Badlands National Park has been the source of creating bison herds across the United States. Our GIS tracking tool, showing historic movements of bison from Badlands, Wind Cave, and Theodore Roosevelt National Parks, also has direct applications to tracking animals translocated to various conservation herds across the plains.

The map shows an animated time-lapse of the transfer of bison between herds tracing back to as early as the 1920s. Each gray dot marks a site that has received bison from one of these three source herds.

These restoration efforts will help to increase the genetic diversity of the bison population - one of its greatest threats to survival.

They are also heavily impacted by human intolerance and habitat fragmentation. Helping to minimize these impacts can lead to this grazer once again becoming a keystone species in the Great Plains.

The bison helps create critical Great Plains habitat which supports a variety of other wildlife. As bison forage, they aerate the soil with their hooves for vegetation to grow and disperse grassland seeds as they migrate to seasonal habitats.

Additionally, prairie dogs prefer lands grazed by bison for establishing their colonies. Today, there are approximately 21,000 bison in more than 60 herds, managed as wildlife, within the United States and Canada.

It is safe to say that had it not been for the impressive conservation work of national parks, tribes, the Intertribal Buffalo Council and nonprofit organizations, including Defenders of Wildlife, bison would be in far worse shape today.

We are working to reduce conflicts between local residents and bison beyond park boundaries, establish conservation herds, and increase awareness of the importance of bison to the Great Plains.

Here is Chamois, our Senior Representative for the Rockies and Plains with more on bison.

Thank you, Lindsay! I’m Chamois Anderson, Senior Representative for Defenders of Wildlife based in Laramie, Wyoming. And Defenders is a leader in bison restoration.

We partner with Native American tribes and national parks across the West and the goal is to bring back wild herds, animals of high genetics and to manage them in conservation herds of 1,000 animals or more and then those herds contribute to a larger metapopulation of bison from Canada to Mexico.

So this is a tremendous effort, many partners - national parks, other NGOs or tribes - in restoring our national mammal back to our prairie grasslands and what this GIS bison map does for us is it’s a visual tool to showcase all the various herds and the land and to see opportunities where we can expand bison habitat, acquire more land for their historic range and also to track the number of animals per herd.

So bison practitioners across the west are using this map. What’s really great about bison is they’re coming back for their ecological benefits, they’re so important to our prairie grasslands, but also culturally for our tribes so there’s a lot of work that goes into bringing back bison, but it’s tremendously rewarding and thanks to you, our members, for contributing to the cause. Back to you, Lindsay!v

Thanks, Chamois and keep up the awesome work! If you are interested in learning more about the bison or in supporting Chamois and other Defenders’ work in the Great Plains, check out our story maps on bison. You can also stay up to date with our bison conservation efforts on Defenders webpage and if you are ever lucky enough to go visit bison in their natural setting, be sure to practice your social distancing - big wildlife needs their space too! Thanks for tuning in and we’ll see you next week for another #MapMonday.

Lindsay Rosa
Senior Conservation Scientist

As a Conservaion GIS Scientist with the Center for Conservation Innovation at Defenders, Lindsay leads geospatial analysis projects to improve conservation policies and practices.