The history of plains bison in North America is both astonishing and sad. Before the late 1800s, there may have been 60 million bison, but after European colonization of the west, bison were almost extirpated in very early 1900s. Some suggest that there were less than 1,000 bison at this time. Since then, conservation organizations and federal policy together have made it possible for bison numbers to increase. By 1970, there were 30,000 plains bison in North America, although only half of these are in public herds. Today, there are more than 20,500 in 62 conservation herds, but another 400,000 reside in private commercial herds.
There are a variety of conservation issues that make restoration of this species difficult, including disease and agricultural damage. The most important issue in bison restoration is that although numbers are increasing, the populations of ecologically relevant herds are not. In other words, our current conservation regime is adding more and more small populations of bison that are not ecologically significant. If societies’ goal is to restore bison to an ecologically significant level, we need to continue developing the conservation herds that we currently have, providing more habitat and more protection, instead of adding more and more small herds across North America.
My research focuses on our ability to predict and understand the process for which these bison populations will expand. Namely, we want to know, from a behavioral perspective, the decision-based process behind exploration of new areas. If we can understand why an animal chooses to move to an area never visited, instead of going back to familiar territory, we can better understand and predict what will happen to free-ranging bison populations as they increase in size. With a clear picture of the future, conservation directives can be developed to minimize conflict and unexpected costs in the future.