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Are There Still Bison in the Wild? (And How Many?)

Bison is an animal that represents strength and tenacity, so it’s no surprise that it was picked as America’s national mammal. However, several factors threatened these mammalian species’ extinction in the nineteenth century. Since then, countless people have been asking the question, “Are there still bison in the wild?” 

Read on to learn more about the current state of these animals and the factors that led to their situation in the first place.

Are there still bison in the wild?

Bison are still found in the wild today, even though their population has experienced enormous shifts over the course of history. It’s estimated that only around 20,000 of the 500,000 bison still alive today live in the wild. 

Key Takeaways:

  • Between plains bison and commercial herds there are around 500,000 bison existing today.
  • The main cause of these species being so close to extinction was hunting.
  • Yellowstone National Park and Badlands National Park are some locations where you can see them.

How many bison are left in the wild? 

Bison herd
Bison herd | Image by David Mark from Pixabay

It’s a saddening reality that once roaming the great plains in large numbers, bison now find themselves in an unstable situation. The population of these creatures is estimated to be somewhere around 500,000, making them an endangered species.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there are about 20,500 bison in the wild that live in protected areas like National Parks, and these animals are considered to be truly wild. 

To survive, the remaining individuals of this species have adapted to a new way of life, one that involves strict supervision and management, which is why you may see them in ranches or in conservation areas. 

What made bison almost extinct?

The bison population suffered a severe decline and was on the brink of extinction for a variety of reasons, some of which are listed below: 

Disease 

Bison necropsy
Bison necropsy | image by USFWS Mountain-Prairie via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

These animals were a common sight in North America, symbolizing the continent’s wide open areas and wild places. They were always on the move as animals that travel long distances to find food and a good place to live. But when people put steel lines in the ground, they changed the way they moved as the railway owners started killing them once they got near the steel lines. 

Because of this, they came into contact with cattle being moved to Texas, which exposed them to new diseases like brucellosis and tick fever. The infections quickly spread through the bison herds, causing sickness in many individuals and resulting in the death of a large number of them. 

Human 

Along with the illness that spread quickly, people also continuously took advantage of their herds. They grew increasingly interested in killing them out of greed, particularly as horses and guns made bison hunting much easier for them.

Hunters killed them in numbers that had never been seen before, ranging from 25,000 to millions of bison each year. The rise of leather production is one of the main reasons for this, as it makes their hides very valuable for trading.

This species experienced a very hard time from 1820 to 1880, and people even termed it “the Great Slaughter” due to the high number of bison killed during that time. This significant drop in the number of bison nearly made these well-known animals extinct.

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Current Bison Populations

Yellowstone National Park 

Bison in yellowstone prairie
Bison in Yellowstone prairie | image by Zac Fox via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Thousands of American bison roam freely in Yellowstone National Park, where the species have been living since prehistoric times. The recovery of this species from the brink of extinction more than a century ago is an achievement for conservation. However, they’re still getting infected by those that carry brucellosis, which they can pass to other animals like elk and cattle. 

Because of this, authorities of this park are making their way to manage this challenge. By the summer of 2022, there were roughly 5,900 bison in Yellowstone, split between two main breeding herds. The greatest places to see them are the grasslands in the summer, hydrothermal areas in the winter, and the Hayden and Lamar valleys at any time of the year.

Badlands National Park

Bison in Bandlands National Park
Bison in Bandlands National Park | image by Murray Foubister via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

The Badlands National Park in South Dakota is another place with numerous bison populations and is another place where people go to see these creatures. Its large grasslands are home to nearly 1,000 bison, making it one of North America’s largest federal bison herds. 

This herd was established in 1963 when 50 bison were relocated from Theodore Roosevelt National Park to the area. Plans are in the works to increase the range to protect these animals, improve their health, and provide better experiences for visitors, all in accordance with the Department of Interior (DOI) Bison Conservation Initiative.

How the bison were able to come back?

The numbers of this species dropped a lot in the 19th century, but conservation measures, both public and private, slowly brought them back up. Their numbers have grown a lot in the last 40 years, but even with this growth, there are only about 20,000 wild bison in the U.S. today, which is less than 1% of what there were before.

Several things made it hard for these animals to get better, including loss of habitat and small herds, which could cause health problems due to inbreeding. Ironically, industrial breeding did more to increase their number because more than 95% of them are privately owned. Their meat led to an expanding bison market, which grew from 18,000 in 2000 to about 50,000 in 2007. There are now about 400,000 commercial bison in the U.S.

Final Thoughts

Because of rampant overhunting and illness in the late 19th century, bison herds were alarmingly near to extinction forever. However, they have made a remarkable comeback thanks to a combination of public and private conservation programs.

Sources:

  • “What really happened to the bison?”, R. Colnar, Tri-State Livestock News, March 8, 2017, tsln.com
  • “What brought bison back from the brink of extinction?”, C. Conger, How Stuff Works, October 2, 2008, animals.howstuffworks.com