America just can’t seem to make up its mind about bison.
The buffalo is the official National Mammal of the United States and a lost icon of the West, to borrow from Steve Rinella’s book on the topic. Yet we are stuck with a strange double-vision when it comes to this massive, if inconvenient, beast.
A conservation group is pushing the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife to classify bison as a big game species—a move they say is essential if that state ever plans to restore bison to a wild, free-ranging, and huntable population.
But there’s a nebulous question at the heart of this issue. What is a bison? Is it livestock, like an Angus cow? Or is it wildlife, like an elk?
The question is more complex—and important to the bison’s future—than one might imagine. The root of question is cultural, not biological. It’s not really about what a bison is, but rather, what do we want to do with them?
Trevor Pellerite, director of Grasslands Unlimited, petitioned Colorado Parks and Wildlife to declare any bison that wander into the state from neighboring Utah be officially recognized as big game animals. That petition was denied on March 9, but the movement continues.
At the heart of this issue is a herd of about 600 bison that inhabit the Book Cliffs of southeastern Utah, near the border with Colorado. Bison are great roamers, so it’s no surprise they sometimes cross the boundary into the Centennial State.
The trouble, according to Pellerite, is that while bison are classified as big game in Utah, they are legally classified as livestock in Colorado. They lose any conservation status as soon as they meander over the border, even though no one technically owns them and they’re roaming on public BLM ground. Pellerite said the animals simply disappear, as they are seen as unwelcomed competitors with livestock.
“These animals represent a tremendous opportunity for Colorado,” Pellerite told MeatEater. “These animals are true wildlife in every sense—not bound by fences or any other boundary.”
But if bison are wildlife by logic, they may not be wildlife by the law. At least not in Colorado and several other states.
This issue illustrates a conundrum of the North American Model of Wildlife Management that seems peculiar to bison. To understand it, let’s review a bit of history.
Roaming Back in Time As recounted in many history books, tens of millions of bison roamed North America before European settlement. Bison ranged far and wide, but were particularly numerous in the Great Plains, where they supported Indigenous peoples for thousands of years.
When we built railroads across North America after the Civil War, the tables quickly turned against bison. Market hunters quickly wiped out the great herds. By the 1880s, only a few scattered animals survived in the remote wilds of Canada and in Yellowstone National Park. Colorado, like most everywhere else, was bereft of bison.
Bison weren’t alone in the slaughter. Market hunting wrought similar devastation on elk, bighorn sheep, deer, and pronghorn. However, starting in early 1900s, hunters and wildlife agencies set to work restoring these wildlife populations. Over the next century, elk, deer, bighorn sheep, and pronghorns were restored to relative abundance, along with waterfowl and turkeys.
Public or Private? Under the North American Model, wildlife is generally not considered private property. Rather, they are considered owned by the public, held in public trust, and managed by individual states.
But bison are different. Ironically, the plight of the bison helped launch the modern conservation movement, yet bison are the only big game animal of North America that we’ve failed to restore to significant portions of its native range as true wildlife.
Keith Aune, a biologist with more than 50 years of experience with bison, noted that famous conservationists like Theodore Roosevelt and William Hornaday were spurred into action by the plight of the bison. At the turn of the 20th century, they made saving the bison a national cause, like saving the whales and spotted owls of our time.
“The bison was the first species that was put on a restoration track,” Aune told MeatEater.
Cattlemen were among the pioneering conservationists who corralled the last few bison, protecting them from market hunters but subjecting them to captivity. Complicating matters genetically, many of those early cattlemen bred bison with cattle, polluting bloodlines.
“The only conservation model they had was the agricultural model,” Aune said.
As a result, Aune notes that today between 300,000 and 500,000 bison are owned as livestock on private ranches in North America. By comparison, probably fewer than 14,000 roam the wild in herds managed by states and federal agencies. Most of the truly wild bison exist in only two places: Yellowstone National Park and Alberta’s Wood Buffalo National Park, their last refuges from the extinction threat that plagued them more than 100 years ago.
Where the Wild Ones Are A few scattered places in the Lower 48 host wild, free-roaming bison. Utah is lucky enough to have two such herds. One in the Henry Mountains near Hanksville and the other in the Book Cliffs further north.
The Book Cliffs are about a million acres of sandstone bluffs and juniper canyons. In the 1980s, the Ute Indian Tribe reintroduced bison on reservation lands in the region. Those bison thrived and today there are about 600 of them, mostly descended from those releases that have expanded beyond the reservation.
The Ute Tribe, the BLM, and the Utah Division of Wildlife manage these animals as wildlife, subjected to hunting seasons and regulations. However, when these bison cross the line into Colorado, they lose that status.
Bison management is complex and controversial. Part of this is because bison weigh up to a ton apiece, brazenly ignore property lines, and can cause expensive headaches for ranchers. They compete for grass and could potentially spread diseases like brucellosis, which can make cattle abort fetuses if infected, all while trampling expensive ranch infrastructure like fences.
Congress officially declared bison the national mammal in 2016, joining the bald eagle as a national emblem. But the real decision-making power comes down to state legislatures.
Who’s in Charge? State by state, lawmakers decide how to classify bison. “It comes down to who has authority over these animals—the state department of wildlife or the livestock agency,” Aune said.
Different agencies have different mandates and different internal cultures. Wildlife agencies tend to prioritize bison as wildlife and hunting opportunities. Agriculture agencies, on the other hand, tend to focus more on the threats and problems bison might pose for the livestock industry.
“The waters get muddy pretty quickly,” Aune said. Some states define bison as livestock, others as wildlife, but still others declare bison as extinct.
In Montana, bison are defined as both livestock and wildlife. The Montana Department of Livestock oversees disease management, while the Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks oversees hunting and managing bison numbers. Montana’s management of whatever bison leave Yellowstone National Park in the winter is a perennial challenge.
There is irony in Big Sky Country. For example, the conservation group American Prairie has been pushing a controversial plan to restore bison in Montana’s High Plains. AP has been buying up former cattle ranches and grazing allotments and bringing in bison. Even though the group’s goal is to restore bison as wildlife, their bison are still legally considered livestock.
In Wyoming, lawmakers split the state geographically when it comes to bison. In counties surrounding Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park, and the National Elk Refuge, bison are considered game animals and are hunted. But beyond those counties in Wyoming, bison are managed by the livestock agency and are less welcomed.
Other national parks have scrambled to manage bison herds within park boundaries. National Parks are generally off-limits to hunting. However, some have bison herds and find those herds require management. One example is Grand Canyon National Park, which finds itself with more bison than it has range to feed. There, NPS worked with the state wildlife agency to identify hunters willing to help cull the herd.
Looking Forward In theory, Congress could pass laws to increase the role of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to engage more in bison management. Congress did that in the case of the bald eagle. If bison were ever listed under the Endangered Species Act, the USFWS’ role would increase. But so far, America seems relatively content with the current patchwork of regulations. While these rules are complicated and cumbersome, they do allow for local flexibility.
In addition, about 60 Native American Tribes and Canadian First Nations have bison of their own, totaling perhaps 15,000 animals. Much of the growth in bison conservation these days is happening on tribal lands, as evidenced by the Book Cliffs herd. These efforts provide opportunities for both indigenous and non-indigenous hunters, while also providing food security for some remote and impoverished communities.
Pellerite said his goal in petitioning wildlife officials in Colorado was to get some kind of dual status for bison there, similar to Montana’s example.
Pellerite is an attorney by training and says the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife has the legal authority to define free-ranging bison as big game. But even if he one day succeeds, given the web of rules and bureaucracy that seems to follow bison, don’t be surprised if it gets more complicated from there. But we need to take steps forward to go anywhere, even if they are small steps.