Bison make a comeback

Steve Tarter

The largest land mammal in North America may be getting a little larger in numbers.

In places like Peoria, Ill.’s Wildlife Prairie State Park, visitors can still view a herd of 24 bison from a distance — along with other North American animals like coyote, badger and deer.

“The bison roam in an 80-acre pasture,” said Kerri Budde, the park’s marketing director. “Don’t call them buffalo. Those are found in Asia and Africa,” she said.

No matter what you call them, Budde is happy to have them.

“They’re such majestic creatures. I’m just in awe of their size and power,” she said.

Bison used to number in the millions until annihilated by man shortly before the turn of the 20th century, noted the Washington, D.C.-based Defenders of Wildlife, a group that considers the bison “ecologically extinct.”

But bison are making a comeback in the U.S. and Canada. As many as half a million — some crossbred with cattle — survive in parks and on ranches. Only about 5,000 are genetically pure and free-ranging, with about 4,000 of those found at Yellowstone National Park, the center of the resurgence movement as well as controversy.

In past years, when bison wandered out of Yellowstone, they were fair game for hunters, a practice that was encouraged by the state of Montana. Then the Buffalo Field Campaign arrived to monitor the activity.

“We’re on the front lines. We document all action against the buffalo,” said Stephany Seay, a Montana resident who’s been a campaign member for nine years.

The campaign is based just outside the park in southwest Montana.

“We focus on wild animals. We oppose the way Montana has been mismanaging the buffalo,” said Seay, whose group has brought national attention to the annual buffalo hunts near Yellowstone.

The PBS show “Facing the Storm” included scenes of buffalo sympathizers thwarting hunters by putting their bodies between the bison and hunters’ guns.

What Seay and other bison supporters want is for buffalo to roam freely again, but they face resistance.

A number of ranchers and farmers in Montana oppose the concept of free-ranging buffalo.

“The problem is that when the bison are moved, someone has to be responsible for them, someone has to deal with the fences, the feeding, the ongoing maintenance and, if bison get out, how do you get the animals back in, how do you pay for the damage they caused?” Cory Swanson, an attorney who represents ranchers and farmers, said on a TV newscast in Great Falls, Mont.

Ranchers are also worried about bison carrying brucellosis, a disease that causes cattle to miscarry, but Seay says fears about the problem are overblown.

“Elk also carry it (brucellosis) and they’re free to come and go. There’s a prejudice against the buffalo. Why can’t they roam?” she said.

The recent move of 63 bison from Yellowstone to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northern Montana (after a lengthy quarantine) has brought the issue of the free-ranging bison to the attention of national media. The transfer of the animals in March also received the blessing of the state’s governor.

“In 100 years, this herd will still only grow to a few thousand, and we have 3 million cattle in Montana. I think there’s room for them to coexist,” said Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

The move also drew the support of the Colorado-based National Bison Association.

“Our members consider themselves as stewards of the species that was nearly lost to extinction 120 years ago. The restoration of the bison on private lands is one of the brightest chapters in the remarkable restoration of this species,” said Dave Carter, the association’s executive director.

But Seay wants to see more bison make a move. She suggests the repatriation of bison to Horse Butte Peninsula, west of Yellowstone, an area that sits in a basin surrounded by rugged mountains and Hebgen Lake, a region populated by a variety of wildlife.

While no one expects to see vast bison herds return to the plains, the buffalo have a growing legion of supporters.

“There’s more sentiment for the bison. I see a shift happening,” said Seay, who says she’s in it for the long haul.

“Just like the buffalo, we press on.”