Interdisciplinary Minor in Global Sustainability
Senior Seminar
University of California, Irvine June 1997 

Restoration of Bison onto the American Prairie

by Moneil Patel

Restoration of the Bison is something that has been going on for the past two decades. As a matter of fact, several Native American tribes have come together to form the Inter Tribal Bison Cooperative (ITBC) which has been set out to bring bison back onto the American plains in the midwest. Bison have an intimate relationship in the traditions and rituals of Native Americans. The importance of bison within the culture has made bringing back the bison an important issue in the preservation of wildlife. However, some of the arguments made by the ITBC show that the bison's economic value should be the main factor why they should be brought back. Yet others involved in this cause suggest that buffalo restoration could be an alternative to failing rural areas in the prairies. Opposition to this proposal comes mainly from those who reside in the affected areas. This topic does involve parties that have different interests in buffalo restoration.

Bison were considered a main part of the American economy. Prior to the Civil War, hunters would trade and sell buffalo hide. Although some were killed for meat, buffalo hide was in higher demand. However, after the Civil War, the extensions of the railroads made it easier to transport hides. The main desiccation of the bison came with the industrial revolution (Manning, WWW). Since machinery became a mainstay in factories, part of maintenance required belting. The demand of hide of bison, therefore, increased since buffalo hide could be used as belts that would drive the machines (Manning, WWW). Within a few decades only a thousand bison were left, after the slaughter of 50 million. The depletion of bison did however spark an interest in conservation and protection of wildlife. This new movement to preserve wildlife caused a law to be passed in which harsh market hunting of wild animals would be illegal (Manning, WWW).

One of the basic arguments for the restoration of bison back onto the prairies involves the economic benefits. Five of the nations ten poorest counties are located on Indian reservations (Manning, WWW). With decreasing beef prices and increasing land values, the margin of profit continues to narrow. A majority of the cattle industry that once was present in the midwest have sought greener pastures east in states such as Florida, Tennessee, and Kentucky (Popper, D). Another possible opponent, the Forest Service also no longer seems to focus on maximizing their timber yields in the midwest, but rather in northern California, Oregon, and Washington (Popper, D). Bison offer a plausible solution due to their low cost (about half as much as cattle). Bison are also better adapted to the environment and produce the same amount of meat which is higher in protein, lower in cholesterol and fat, compared to cattle. In terms of land usage, bison graze and then move while cattle remain where they are thus damaging the soil. Bison also eat a greater variety of grasses, something which lacks with cattle. A proposal made by conservationists suggest that, "Ranchers can easily switch to buffalo and sell hunting rights, meats, hides, horns, and skulls at healthy prices (Popper DE, 1994)." Care of bison is also simple because unlike cattle, bison can withstand plains' winters. Land value also increases when it offers game (hunting) and tourism, rather than just agriculture (Popper DE, 1994). Bison also play a large part in the Native American culture.

Bison is the main supply of food for the annual Sun Dance. This dance, which was recently resurrected played an important role in the history of the plains tribes (Manning, WWW). Not only were bison used for as the meat but hides were used for drum heads. The ceremony also uses the bleached bison skull as the alter. In other tribal feasts including the sun dance, the bison is the traditional food served. "Buffalo Help Heal the Spirit", as the Native Americans say. This importance of buffalo in the Native American culture has brought the individual tribes closer together.

The Inter Tribal Bison Cooperative was formed in 1990 by a coalition of tribes with the intention to reintroduce the bison into the plains. Currently the ITBC consists of 28 tribes and own 3500 bison (Welker, WWW). The reintroduction of bison involves many prairies across the United States and into Canada, thus the ITBC does not concentrate on one particular area. Fred DuBray, president of ITBC, does however discuss the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, South Dakota The ITBC is funded through public and private grants and donations and is a non-profit Tribal organization. The board of directors consists of one Tribal representative from each member Tribe. Native Americans are not the only ones involved with this effort.

Professor Frank Popper at Rutgers University says that within the plains, a federally subsidized settlement and cultivation has produced a boom that has led to overgrazing and overplowing (Popper FJ, 55). Thus, the soil is dry, eroded, and the land has lost its value. Many counties have already lost their last doctor, banker, or farm-implements dealer. The graduating high school classes do not reach double figures (Popper DE, 144). Since the rural parts of the prairies have been losing population over time, a proper solution would be to bring the bison into those areas. Although it would be beneficial to our ecosystem, as well as improve the soil, it seems unlikely that this would happen. The Poppers do however have a list of five warning signs of areas that are in distress. These five include a decreased population, poverty level, average age, population density, and soil condition. In terms of population, a town like Mobridge which lies near the North Dakota border, has lost 25 percent of its population over the past fifteen years (Nikiforuk 1993). In terms of population density, a majority of the midwest including Alaska has less then six people per square mile (Popper, D). Frank and Deborah Popper have found counties in 10 states in which bison restoration would be more beneficial than their current conditions (Popper FJ 1994). With this large amount of counties in distress, it is likely that the government would play a role. The government, however, will not intervene and help the depopulation due to likelihood that the people of the affected areas would not be pleased. Like any issue, opposition to buffalo restoration comes from those who reside in the plains.

When the Poppers' suggested converting over one hundred thousand square miles of bankrupt soil into an ecological restoration, many "short-grass dwellers" concluded that Deborah and Frank were "Stalinists" (Nikiforuk 1993). Initially residents felt that intentions were to buy the land, and kick people off thus bringing back the buffalo. Although that is not the case, residents have said "that buffalo taste as tough as a truck tire" (Nikiforuk 1993). Bison can not compare to what cattle has done for the past 100 years, which is sustain a high demand. Many doubt that bison will be able to do the same as cattle in the long run. Another major concern from bison is their affect on cattle currently.

Some bison carry a disease called brucellosis which if passed to cattle is believed to cause them to abort their calves (Robbins 1997). For this reason, many bison have been slaughtered in the Yellowstone area. In fact, about 500 bison have been killed over the past few years (McMillion 1997). Although the Greater Yellowstone Coalition is attempting to prevent further slaughtering, it is obvious that the main battle here is between the safety of cattle versus the parks. The Agriculture Department is in charge making sure that the bison do not spread this disease while those in the Interior Department want to preserve the bison as wildlife. This battle leaves conservationists on the outside looking in.

The Buffalo Commons, as it is called by Frank Popper, bridges conservation, culture, economics, and ecology (Walters 1996). The opposition to this proposal has died down in some areas due to more awareness within the residents that this could work economically. Residents in these towns are now mostly merchant shops, and for a buffalo restoration to take place, the people would have to adjust their products. Some positives of bison restoration is that it brings a physical relationship for Native American cultures, provides better meat, and improves the land. A major negative is that brucellosis could wipe out the cattle industry if bison were introduced in large numbers as well as the demand for its meat would not be as high as cattle. At Montana State University, a Bison studies program is currently in effect. MSU does have a few references to the Ecological Economics. More works regarding biological conservation, wildlife and range management, and landscape ecology.


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Center for Bison Studies, MSU-Bozeman. "Current Literature on Culture, History, and Other Issues Regarding Bison" World Wide Web. January 8, 1997:

DuBray, Fred. "Bringing Back the Buffalo: Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, South Dakota" Newsweek via World Wide Web. May 29, 1995:

Goodstein, Carol. "Buffalo Comeback" Amicus Journal. Spring 1995: 34-37.

Lang RE, et al. "Progress of the Nation: The Settlement History of the Enduring American Frontier" Western Historical Quarterly. Autumn 1995: 289-307.

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Manning, Richard. The Buffalo is Coming Back: Part Two. World Wide Web:

McMillion, Scott. "When Buffalo Roam" Bozeman Daily Chronicle. January 7, 1997: 1,10.

Nikifouruk, Andrew. "Where the Buffalo Roam" Harrowsmith Country Life. July-August 1993: 22-31.

Popper DE, Popper FJ. "The Buffalo-Commons: A Bioregional Vision of the Great Plains" Landscape Architecture. April 1994: 144.

Popper DE, Popper FJ. "The Reemergence of the American Frontier" Studies in History and Contemporary Culture. Forthcoming: 11 pages.

Popper FJ, Popper DE. "Great Plains: Checkered Past, Hopeful Future" Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy. Winter 1994: 89-100.

Popper FJ, Popper DE. "Where Buffalo Roam" Sciences New York. May-June 1991: 55.

Robbins, Jim. "Groups Unite to Save Bison: Yellowstone escapees sought for seed stock" Denver Post. January 21, 1997.

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Walters, Mark J. "Can Bison Claim The Range?" Animals. May-June 1996: 15-19,33.

Welker, Glenn. "Buffalo Help Heal the Spirit" World Wide Web. January 7, 1996:

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