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    Federal effort underway to conserve American bison

    Ten-year initiative provides framework for conservation goals

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    Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt in a statement last week said the Bison Conservation Initiative was launched in a new effort to coordinate conservation strategies and approaches for the wild American Bison over the next 10 years.

    American Bison

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    An initiative has launched to conserve the iconic wild bison, the national mammal of the U.S. Photo courtesy of USDA/Wikimedia Commons

    “The Department of the Interior and its partners have been successful in restoring the populations of the American Bison and supporting healthy herds,” reads the statement. “With unprecedented interest and cooperation among partners — including states, tribes, nations and non-governmental organizations — bison conservation is well equipped to move beyond the confluence of strong analytical assessments and toward coordinated conservation action.”

    “Interior is uniquely positioned to lead the way for shared stewardship of this iconic American species,” said Bernhardt. “This 10-year plan will guide our collaboration with states, tribes, private conservationists and managers across public lands to advance conservation efforts and honor iconic wild bison.”

    Bison were hunted to near extinction in the late 19th century. Today, there are about 11,000 plains bison in 19 herds on 4.6 million acres of public land across 12 states because of successful public-private conservation partnerships, according to the department. In 2016, Congress recognized the importance of the American Bison to the country’s history, celebrating it as our national mammal.

    “We are doing something that has never been done. It shows what is possible when business, philanthropy and government work together to create multiple bottom line initiatives supporting the environment, people, fiscal responsibility, and Native American nation building,” said Rosebud Economic Development Corporation’s CEO, Wizipan Little Elk.

    “The bison looms large in the culture and traditions of Native nations,” said Carter Roberts, president and CEO of World Wildlife Fund. “This announcement matters for several reasons: it represents a homecoming for this iconic species, and it’s also a reunion with the communities who lived with them for centuries in a symbiotic relationship. We are honored to be partners in this effort with the Rosebud Economic Development Corporation and the U.S. Department of the Interior, and we look forward to seeing the bison return to the Rosebud Reservation later this year.”

    “We are living through unprecedented challenges; times that demand new ideas, new strategies, and deeper and more diverse partnership. Our collaboration with the Department of the Interior’s Bison Conservation Initiative embodies this and represents a pivotal approach to the conservation of a species that is vital to both our ecological and cultural heritage. Launching a collaborative strategy for the ecological and cultural recovery of our national mammal, a symbol of unity, resilience and health, could not come at a better time for the American people and our unique natural heritage,” said Cristina Mormorunni, director of U.S. Conservation for  Wildlife Conservation Society.

    The DOI Bison Working Group is comprised of representatives from the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Geological Survey and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The group has worked with its partners to strengthen resource coordination, institute a conservation genetics framework, and publish investigations into metapopulation management and herd health.

    The BWG will now develop and launch a DOI bison meta-population strategy; develop and implement a DOI bison stewardship plan; improve and expand mechanisms to support ecocultural restoration of live bison; and adopt low-stress capture and handling practices

    These actions will be organized around five central goals.

    One goal is to sustain wild, healthy bison herds, and a commitment to conserve bison as healthy wildlife.

    Genetic conservation is another goal. A commitment to an interagency, science-based approach to support genetic diversity across DOI bison conservation herds is being sought.

    A commitment to shared stewardship of wild bison in cooperation with states, tribes and other stakeholders is a further goal.

    A commitment to establish and maintain large, wide-ranging bison herds on appropriate large landscapes where their role as ecosystem engineers shape healthy and diverse ecological communities is another goal. 

    A commitment to restore cultural connections to honor and promote the unique status of bison as an American icon for all people is another goal. 

    As one of the department’s first actions, Bernhardt announced that two bison transfers will take place later this year, demonstrating the focused direction toward enhanced intra-departmental cooperation and partnership, the agency stated. The transfer of bison among the department’s herds and across bureaus maintains genetic diversity of wild bison populations, especially for smaller herds that are managed in isolation. These transfers will support ecological and cultural restoration of bison, officials say. 

    The Parks and Fish and Wildlife services will collaborate on the transfer of wild bison from the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Colorado to Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. Translocated bison will be included in an ongoing NPS genetics study to measure the extent of their integration into an existing herd.

    For the second transfer, the department commits to donate wild bison to support the establishment of a new bison herd on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, officials say. The Wolakota Buffalo Range will support ecological restoration, cultural practices, economic development, food security and public education on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation. The new tribal herd is enabled by a cooperative project with the Rosebud Economic Development Corporation and the World Wildlife Fund. 

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