Want to see bison back in the North American landscape? It's not only possible but could be achieved in only 100 years, says a coalition of scientists, conservationists, ranchers, and Native Americans/First Nations peoples. Bison are a keystone species in this continent's natural history and could repopulate large areas from Alaska to Mexico, including grasslands, prairies, mountains, taiga and deserts. The continent-wide assessment, published in Conservation Biology, is based on a "conservation scorecard" evaluating the availability of existing habitat. The goal is ecological restoration of bison, defined as large herds of plains and wood bison moving freely across extensive landscapes within historic ranges, interacting with other native species (elk, bear, wolves, prairie dogs, birds), as well as inspiring, sustaining and connecting human cultures. It will likely take a century, says the Wildlife Conservation Society, and will only be realized through collaboration with a broad range of public, private and indigenous partners.
Bison once numbered in the tens of millions but were wiped out by commercial hunting and habitat loss. By 1889 fewer than 1,100 animals survived. Of the estimated 500,000 bison alive today, 20,000 are wild, the rest live on private ranches— awaiting liberation back into the wild.
Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.