Plains Bison: Forever Wild or Forever Lost?

By Beacon Staff

Wildlife biologist James Bailey is a man in a race against time. At stake is the future of America’s wild bison, a cultural and biological resource that is quickly being lost to domestication and a weakened genome.

Bailey outlines the issues and solutions in his new book, “American Plains Bison: Rewilding An Icon,” published by Farcountry Press.

“Most people think there is no issue with the bison because Ted Turner owns a bunch, but the fact is we’re domesticating them,” Bailey said. “We’re stripping out the wild genes and replacing them with domestic genes. We’re losing the wild bison.”

At the turn of the 20th century there were just 100 wild bison left on the continent, down from 60 million. A concentrated conservation effort helped rebuild the animal’s numbers. One of the heroes of the animal’s rebound was Kalispell’s own Charles E. Conrad, who purchased 50 bison from a man in Pablo in 1900. The animals were brought to Wild Horse Island and then later moved north in the Flathead Valley, where they grazed at Smith Hill and just north of downtown Kalispell, where today’s Buffalo Hill Golf Course sits. After Conrad died in 1902, his wife kept the herd together and in 1908 she offered 37 buffalo to start the National Bison Range in Moiese.

Today, there are more than 200,000 bison in domesticated private and commercial herds in the U.S. There are another 17,000 bison in mostly public herds, according to Bailey, but even those are falling victim to mixed genes and domestication. According to the Buffalo Field Campaign, a group working to protect wild buffalo, there are just 4,500 wild bison left.

“My purpose is to alert people that we’ve been domesticating a species for more than a century,” he said. “We don’t pass on wild bison to the next generation, only the bison gene.”

Bailey was a professor of biology at Colorado State University for 20 years and taught big-game management and wildlife nutrition. He has published multiple books about wildlife issues and moved to Montana when he retired. He now lives in Belgrade and studies the bison of Yellowstone National Park. Even though the National Park Service’s mantra is to preserve parks and the animals that call them home in a natural state, Bailey said that it wasn’t happening with bison.

Even in Yellowstone, the bison are not left in a natural state and are often fed by the park service, according to Bailey. While those efforts may ensure survival of the animals, Bailey said the best option to protect wild bison is to let them live in an ecosystem dominated by natural selection and processes.

The cover of James A. Baily’s new Book, American Plains Bison – Rewilding An Icon | Courtesy Farcountry Press

While some of the trait differences between domesticated bison and wild bison are genetic, one physical difference is unusual horns, which are due to mixing cow and bison genes.

In 2010 and 2011, Bailey set out to visit bison herds from Texas to Montana, including the National Bison Range in Moiese. What he found illustrated the importance of maintaining a wild bison herd.

One group of bison he studied in Texas had mixed genes and poor reproductive abilities and easily fell victim to disease. Bailey said it was an “extreme” case.

Bailey says the best way to protect wild bison is to establish large grassland reserves where the animals could be left alone to live and rebuild their numbers independent of human intervention. He identifies six public areas large enough to handle such a reserve in the book and said it would also benefit other prairie animals as well.

“We owe it to future generations to preserve the wild bison,” he said.

Bailey’s new book, “American Plains Bison: Rewilding An Icon” is available from Farcountry Press for $19.95. For more information visit www.farcountrypress.com.