The seven bison on display in a fenced enclosure here hardly evoke the teeming hordes that once stretched to the horizon. But some ecologists hope that they can reintroduce bison to the wild in parts of the American West.
CHICKASAW NATIONAL RECREATION AREA, Okla. -- The seven bison on display in a fenced enclosure here hardly evoke the teeming hordes that once stretched to the horizon.
But some ecologists hope that they can reintroduce bison to the wild in parts of the American West.
"It is viable to return bison to at least part of its ecological role ... though obviously not on the scale of the past," said Kent Redford, a scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Redford is among those taking part in a conference on the ecological future of the bison, which starts Monday in Denver, Colorado.
It will bring together over 100 scientists, ranchers, policymakers and representatives from Native American groups who will explore ways to give bison more freedom to move.
"In several western states, including Kansas, Iowa and Oklahoma there are areas that currently support small bison herds, and could be sites for bison reintroduction," Redford told Reuters by telephone from the WCS office at the Bronx Zoo in New York.
But bringing the big animals back to the plains will be no easy task and the obstacles highlight the environmental changes that have been wrought since the days of the old "Wild West".
BACK FROM THE BRINK
Bison numbered tens of millions in North America before the westward thrust of the railway brought them into a fatal embrace with a frontier society.
Hunted on an industrial scale for their pelts and leather, they were slaughtered wholesale in the 19th century. Much of their habitat was taken over by expanding cattle farms.
The bison extermination was also part of a deliberate government policy of genocide against native Americans, some historians say.
A century ago their numbers had crashed to around 1,000.
In 1905, the New York Zoological Society obtained bison from a small number of private herds and began lobbying the U.S. government to establish preserves to protect the species.
The majority that currently exist -- close to 400,000 in the United States and Canada -- are offspring of that effort.
Most of them are in private hands on fenced-off farms and many are raised for their meat, a fast-growing industry. According to the National Bison Association, a record 35,000 bison were processed in federally inspected plants in the United States last year, a 17 percent increase over 2004.
Only a few actually roam the wild. The biggest wild herd in the lower 48 states is in the famed Yellowstone National Park and numbers about 3,900.
But much of that herd has been exposed to brucellosis, which can be spread to domestic cattle and is transmissible to humans as undulant fever. Animals that wander outside the park are therefore not welcomed by nearby cattle ranchers.
Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash said the state of Montana and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are working on a project to come up with a small number of animals from Yellowstone that are free of brucellosis.
"Those animals then could serve as the start of a wild, free-range population that could be reintroduced," he said.
Other obvious obstacles to bison restoration include the agricultural land and urban development which has taken over much of the animal's old range and the highways that crisscross it.
With America's human population officially hitting the 300 million mark this month, there is no longer room for 30 million bison.
LIKE VIEWING CATTLE
Viewing fenced-in bison today, like the seven in Chickasaw, is about as exciting as watching cattle. On a recent weekend a pair of sparring white-tail bucks clashing antlers offered far more entertainment.
Still, WCS and other groups have hopes that more bison can enjoy some Yellowstone-style freedom.
This would include fulfilling some of their old ecological roles, such as being prey for large carnivores like grizzly bears and providing carrion to scavengers like turkey vultures.
Grazing bison also help to contain the damage caused by fires, because undisturbed grass burns easier and hotter, inflicting more harm on other plants and animals.
Alaska, where wood bison were hunted out about a century ago, is one intriguing place where restoration may be feasible -- though for reasons which may be not be good for other animals.
"Alaska may have been marginal habitat for bison in the first place but climate change there may benefit them. It may be bad for polar bears there but good for bison," said Redford.