New DOI Secretary’s Order Directs Investment in Bison Restoration

New DOI Secretary’s Order Directs Investment in Bison Restoration

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland signed Secretary’s Order 3410 on March 3, 2023 directing all Department of the Interior (DOI) bureaus to enhance efforts to restore wild and healthy populations of American bison and prairie grasslands, with an emphasis on engaging Native American Tribes. S.O. 3410 establishes an Interagency Bison Conservation Working Group (Working Group) to accelerate implementation of the Department’s Bison Conservation Initiative (BCI). The DOI has allocated $25 million in Inflation Reduction Act funding to support this initiative. Success of the BCI will depend on collaboration among the DOI bureaus, state wildlife agencies and tribal governments. As previously reported by WMI, some states may balk at federal efforts to increase the number and distribution of bison herds.

Bison in the snow

State, federal, and tribal wildlife managers have restored many of the species decimated in the 19th century including white-tailed deer, elk, wild turkeys, and pronghorn antelope. For some other species, the road to recovery has been more challenging. Arguably, efforts to restore American plains bison have been at least as controversial as efforts to restore wolves, grizzly bears, or mountain lions across their historic range. Issues associated with bison restoration include concerns about competition for forage, the potential to spread diseases to livestock (or from livestock to bison), damage to fences and other private property, and even danger to human safety. All these factors are accentuated by the need for bison to range over relatively large areas of grassland in a nation where most of the native grasslands have been converted to cropland.

With over 20,000 bison in wild conservation herds and over 420,000 bison in privately owned commercial herds, the species overall is not at risk. Nevertheless, in response to petitions filed by environmental groups, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently conducting a status review of the Yellowstone bison herd to determine whether it is a “Distinct Population Segment” that warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act. Regardless of the decision on the Yellowstone herd, the number of wild bison remaining are a small fraction of the 30 to 60 million bison that once ranged from the Appalachian Mountains to the Rockies and from central Canada to Mexico.

In addition to their historic role as ecosystem engineers across North America’s grasslands, bison were an essential cultural and food resource for indigenous peoples. With the decimation of bison—driven in part by government policy designed to starve certain tribes into submission—the cultural and nutritional ties between bison and indigenous people were severed. Over the past several decades, restoring those connections has come to be recognized as equally important to the ecological benefits that could be derived from increasing the number and distribution of wild, healthy bison herds.

The DOI developed its first BCI in 2008. That initiative called for development of a DOI bison metapopulation strategy and stewardship plan, improved and expanded mechanisms to support ecocultural restoration of bison, and adoption of low stress capture and handling practices. Over the following 12 years, progress was made in several areas, in particular improving communication and coordination among federal bureaus and some stakeholders. DOI updated their BCI in 2020, retaining the five key goals of increasing the number of large, wild, healthy bison herds; restoring effective gene flow across the metapopulation; developing shared stewardship of bison with states, tribes, and other stakeholders; restoring the role of bison as ecosystem engineers of native grasslands; and restoring the cultural connections of bison to indigenous peoples. The 2020 BCI also focuses on the same primary actions specified in 2008. The DOI currently manages or co-manages 16 herds of bison across their historic range from Iowa to Montana and Arizona, as well as one introduced herd in Alaska. Of the 16 herds in the conterminous states, five are free-ranging and 11 occur inside fenced enclosures.

With the availability of significant funding from the Inflation Reduction Act, DOI identified the potential to accelerate implementation of the BCI. By allocating $25 million of IRA funding to the BCI, Secretary Halaand is providing the federal agencies financial support for bison restoration. This funding will go toward a variety of projects and initiatives, including establishing new bison herds, supporting bison transfers to Tribes, and entering into co-stewardship agreements with Tribes for bison management. The funding will also help improve the quality of grassland ecosystems, restore native plant communities, and support prescribed fire efforts.

“The American bison is inextricably intertwined with Indigenous culture, grassland ecology, and American history. While the overall recovery of bison over the last 130 years is a conservation success story, significant work remains to not only ensure that bison will remain a viable species but also to restore grassland ecosystems, strengthen rural economies dependent on grassland health, and provide for the return of bison to Tribally owned and ancestral lands,” said Haaland in a release. “New historic funding from the Inflation Reduction Act will help support the Department’s efforts to restore this iconic species and integrate Indigenous Knowledge into our shared stewardship goals.”

Regardless of the infusion of IRA funds, making progress on DOI bison restoration efforts faces major challenges. In Montana, for example, where the FWS has expressed its intention to move forward with assessment of the potential to reintroduce bison to the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, the Montana legislature is currently considering a Senate Resolution to oppose that action and the administration of Governor Gianforte signed a settlement agreement in 2021 that precludes the Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks from even discussing restoration of bison in the state for 10 years. How these state actions will affect implementation of the BCI will play out in the coming months.

Photo Credit
Susan Drury, Flickr
March 13, 2023