This Thanksgiving, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Wind Cave National Park (WCNP) are marking the 100-year anniversary of one of the great milestones in the modern conservation movement: the transfer and restocking of 14 bison from the Bronx Zoo in New York City to WCNP in South Dakota. The transfer, which was completed on November 28th, 1913, marked the second successful reintroduction of Bronx Zoo bison, and was a crucial part of a larger effort to save the species from extinction.
In 1905, officials at WCS (then the New York Zoological Society), and others convened a group of diverse stakeholders at the Bronx Zoo in New York City and formed the American Bison Society (ABS). With President Theodore Roosevelt as its honorary president, ABS set out to preserve and increase the number of bison in the United States by establishing a number of small herds in widely-separated parts of the country.
The WCNP transfer was described in the following excerpt from the American Bison Society Annual Report of 1914:
“On Monday, November 24 , the herd, fourteen in number, was crated, and fourteen crates were placed in two steel express cars and shipped on the 25th by the New York Central and the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific route to the station at Hot Springs, South Dakota, at an express charge of $850. The herd, which was fed and watered on the way, arrived at Hot Springs at 9:30 on Friday morning, November 28, in excellent condition. The animals were carted in their crates overland some eleven miles, and turned loose in their new home on the new National Game Preserve at eleven o’clock on the evening of the same date.”
WCS Executive Vice President of Public Affairs John Calvelli said, “We are proud to be marking the anniversary of this historic effort with Wind Cave National Park. Our two institutions will forever be joined by the bloodlines of our bison and by our shared pride in playing a part in this conservation milestone for the species and for our nation. It’s fitting the anniversary falls on Thanksgiving.”
“This reintroduction effort shows the power of partnerships with nonprofit organization and the tremendous benefits that can be achieved as a result,” said Wind Cave National Park Superintendent Vidal Davila. “The arrival of the bison changed the park’s mission and expanded its role in conservation by helping protect a national icon.”
Currently, WCNP’s bison herd numbers around 450 animals with roundups held every few years to maintain a population in balance with available forage. Since the park began shipping surplus animals in 1987, over 1,500 bison have been sent to a variety of agencies, nonprofits, and tribes throughout the county to help establish, or augment, existing herds. In 2009, the park shipped 23 animals to Mexico.
Dr. Patrick Thomas, Bronx Zoo General Curator and Associate Director, said “The joint effort of the Bronx Zoo and Wind Cave National Park to save the American bison from extinction helped shape the future direction of the zoo and the Wildlife Conservation Society, which has evolved into a global organization that today manages four zoos and an aquarium in New York and over 500 conservation projects worldwide.”
Two hundred years ago, bison roamed the grasslands and shrub steppes of the American West in the tens of millions and were key ecological drivers of the landscape: their grazing patterns influenced grasses; nutrient cycling; natural fire regimes; and prairie habitats for birds, insects, and small mammals. By the early 1900’s, bison numbered less than 1,100 individuals.
Today, bison number in the hundreds of thousands across the United States. Despite being found in state and national parks, wildlife refuges, and on tribal and private lands, however, they exist mostly as livestock, are absent from most of their former range, and are threatened with ecological extinction. Experts estimate that only 7000 plains bison are fulfilling their ecological role on American grasslands. WCNP is home to about 450 wild bison and offers visitors the opportunity to see wild bison as they once were.
The American Bison Society was re-established in 2005 to work with stakeholders to build the social and scientific foundations for the ecological restoration of bison. The ABS Council includes non-governmental organization-, tribe-, agency-, and producer-partners. Its long term vision is that ecological recovery will be achieved when multiple large herds of plains and wood bison move freely across large landscapes within their historical ranges, interact with native species and systems, and again inspire and sustain human cultures.
In mid- September, ABS hosted its 2013 conference and workshop in Big Sky Montana, bringing together more than 140 participants from various backgrounds to discuss models of bison restoration in North America.
“The restoration of bison at Wind Cave National Park over a century ago is a significant chapter in the remarkable story of wildlife restoration in North America,” said Keith Aune of WCS’s North America Program.“Despite incredibly difficult challenges, early conservationists brought a keystone species from the brink of extinction and preserved a sample of America’s great prairies for future generations. Wind Cave National Park represents one of the model efforts to save a homeland for American Bison and speaks to us today about continuing efforts to restore wildlife and to save the remaining wild places in North America before it is too late.”
Logo courtesy Wildlife Conservation Society