Plains Bison

Facts

  • Status
    Near Threatened
  • Population
    20,504
  • Scientific Name
    Bison bison bison
  • Weight
    701 to 2,000 pounds
  • Length
    7-12 ft.
  • Habitats
    Grasslands
illustrated silouettes of bison standing in in front of an illustrated sunset

Learn more h

Prior to European colonization plains bison are estimated to have numbered between 30million-60 million animals and were the widest-ranging large mammal in North America. Bison were (and remain) central in the lives and traditions of many Native nations and an umbrella species for many plants and animals sharing its habitat. By 1889, only 512 plains bison remained after the ravages of westward expansion, market demand, and a deliberate effort by the US Government to eliminate the bison in order subdue the Native people that relied so heavily upon them. In response to their tragic decline, conservationists and Indigenous peoples successfully brought the plains bison back from the brink of extinction.

Thanks to their efforts, by 1935 the population had risen to approximately 20,000 bison, and many were restored as wildlife to refuges and parks throughout North America. In honor of the role that this majestic species plays as an icon for the lands and people of the United States, the bison was formally designated the national mammal in 2016. However, much work remains much work to do to see bison restored where they are embraced. In fact, the number of bison held in “conservation herds” is currently no greater than it was in 1935.

WWF partners with Native communities seeking to restore bison to their lands. Our goal is to support bison restoration efforts that foster community benefits such as increased access to bison, and ecological and economic sustainability. Currently, WWF works closely with partners such as the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, Fort Belknap Indian Community, and the Sicangu Lakota Nation in support of the expressed values, needs, and aspirations of these communities. Additionally, WWF works with the US National Park Service and Parks Canada on bison restoration efforts. 

Bison help to restore grasslands

The Wolakota Buffalo Range demonstrates the benefits of utilizing traditional ecological knowledge and Western science for grasslands restoration.

Wide shot of two people standing on a fencing overlooking a herd of bison grazing

Why They Matter

  • Historically bison were the dominant grazer on the Northern Great Plains landscape. This dominance shaped the landscape by affecting the pattern and structure of the grasses and vegetation that grew. Expansive areas of native grasslands allowed animals to flourish along with many species of other prairie wildlife.

Threats

  • Population 20,504
  • Extinction Risk Near Threatened
    1. EX
      Extinct

      No reasonable doubt that the last individual has died

    2. EW
      Extinct in the Wild

      Known only to survive in cultivation, in captivity or as a naturalised population

    3. CR
      Critically Endangered

      Facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the Wild

    4. EN
      Endangered

      Facing a high risk of extinction in the Wild

    5. VU
      Vulnerable

      Facing a high risk of extinction in the Wild

    6. NT
      Near Threatened

      Likely to qualify for a threatened category in the near future

    7. LC
      Least Concern

      Does not qualify for Critically Endangered, Endangered, Vulnerable, or Near Threatened

Plains Bison

Habitat Loss

The plains bison is the largest land mammal in North America with some adult bulls weighing in excess of 2,000 pounds. Tens of millions of these iconic animals once roamed across much of North America. Today, the largest remaining wild herd of approximately 4,500 individuals can be found in Yellowstone National Park. Large North American grazers including the plains bison traditionally roamed across millions of acres, which kept the grasslands and herds healthy and diverse. However, early settlement and current land use by present-day communities have redefined where these large animals are able to roam. WWF’s Northern Great Plains Program is working with National Parks, native tribal communities, and its ranching partners to find common ground on returning bison to suitable intact prairie landscapes.

Genetics

bison and calf

An overall population of just over 20,000 plains bison managed as wildlife in North America and small herd size among them contributes to the ongoing loss of genetic diversity. Therefore long-term conservation of existing diversity is at risk. Early 20th century experiments to interbreed bison and cattle with the goal of producing heartier livestock has also had an impact on population viability. At present, there are only believed to be two public bison herds that have not shown evidence of interbreeding with cattle to date; Yellowstone NP, and Elk Island National Park in Canada. Conservation groups have been working hard to establish additional herds elsewhere to safeguard these valuable genetics should a catastrophic event (e.g. disease outbreak) threaten these source herds.

Social & Political Support of Bison Reintroduction

A limited constituency for public bison herds in rural regions of the plains where opportunities for restoration on intact grasslands at scale are most feasible makes a universal strategy for reintroduction challenging. In addition, there is narrow support for restoring bison as wildlife within the sporting community because broad exposure to bison as wildlife has been limited over the past century. Both affect progress in the political arena. For this reason WWF seeks opportunities with partners and communities who embrace the reintroduction or expansion of bison populations including Tribes and National Parks.

What WWF Is Doing

bison in fog

WWF is identifying opportunities and creating places where bison can thrive in large herds (numbering over 1,000 bison) on vast landscapes in the Northern Great Plains, the heart of the plains bison’s historic range. We are partnering with the Oglala Lakota to create the nation’s first tribal national park and restore a herd of bison to ancestral homelands. We work with Fort Peck Reservation, Fort Belknap Reservation, and Yellowstone National Park to conserve the genetically important bison from the Park by supporting the movement of animals into new landscapes where they are welcome. We also engage in research and public outreach activities aimed at reminding the American public why bison, symbols of strength and determination, are so critical to the restoration of the American prairie.

Experts

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