The Wildlife Conservation Society is pleased to announce a transition in its Indigenous and community-driven conservation efforts in the Rocky Mountains in the U.S. After more than a century of groundbreaking work, WCS is transitioning its Indigenous-focused and community-driven programs, including its funding and assets, to its partners. WCS will remain steadfast in its conservation commitments in the US, including work to further restoration of the American bison (also known as buffalo), on climate adaptation, and conservation of priority species in the Alaskan Arctic, boreal, and New York waters.

This transition marks the achievement of a long-term WCS goal, a culmination of decades of work with Indigenous partners, colleagues, and friends to protect and restore their lands. WCS will continue to maintain deep ties with Indigenous and local partners, including with the Iinnii Initiative, which is centered in Blackfoot-led buffalo restoration across the Blackfoot Confederacy’s territory in the Northern Rockies. WCS’s Indigenous Led Conservation Initiative will live in a new program called INDIGENOUS LED, at The MICA Group

Said Cristina Mormorunni (Métis), Regional Director of the WCS Rocky Mountain Program: “Indigenous science and cultural practices have been inordinately successful; our lands constitute less than a quarter of the Earth, yet roughly 80 percent the world’s remaining biodiversity and 24 percent of carbon stores are found here. I am so proud of the step WCS is taking through this decision. It is a profound recognition that the survival of the planet depends on the scientific knowledge, sustainable management, and climate adaptation strategies actively being applied to Indigenous lands around the world.

“WCS Rockies’ commitment to and legitimacy on Indigenous and community-driven conservation can only be confirmed once WCS truly hands over to local partners and takes a step back. WCS leadership, as well as our partners are confident that this is the right move for our Indigenous-led and community-driven conservation projects in this geography.”

Said Willow Kipp, Iinnii Initiative Coordinator (Blackfeet and Shoshone-Bannock): “The partnership with WCS has been a supporting and positive journey in the Iinnii Initiative’s growth. It is now that we take reconciliation in the growth of the Iinnii Initiative as its intended purpose: leading conservation on Blackfeet lands, through Blackfeet eyes. I look forward to the new partnership role WCS can now take on with the Iinnii Initiative, and their efforts to aid the rise of Indigenous led conservation.” 

Ervin Carlson, Blackfeet Nation Buffalo Program Director -President, InterTribal Buffalo Council, (Blackfeet), said, “We are proud of our history with WCS and will continue to pass down their role in the Iinnii Initiative's story. However, it is long due that we as Blackfeet people tell our own story and narrate our own direction, as it is Indigenous lands and conservation efforts from which so much of this country’s wealth is derived. I look forward to WCS continuing their true partnership amplifying Indigenous-led conservation efforts and more so the possibilities of their future role with the Iinnii Initiative.”   

This next step comes after more than 100 years of WCS conservation engagement in the United States, marked by numerous wildlife and ecological research endeavors by a suite of WCS scientists who helped lay the strong foundations for this transition. From pioneering field studies of key species such as bighorn sheep, wolverine, black-footed ferrets, grizzly bears, mountain lions and bald eagles, to helping to create more than 30 U.S. parks and reserves, in the earlier decades, WCS (then New York Zoological Society) essentially funded most of the major individual conservationists in the Rockies.

For WCS, elevating and amplifying Indigenous-led conservation is essential because it is on Indigenous lands and in community hands that our planet’s wildlife and last remaining high integrity landscapes stand a chance. 

“For any organization that believes in the rights and efficacy of Indigenous-led conservation, there must be the recognition of self-determination of Indigenous peoples and a vision for true partnership, which must be defined, collectively, as appropriate to the local context,” said Joe Walston, Executive Vice President of WCS Global Conservation. “In the Rocky Mountains, after almost a century of groundbreaking work, we are humble yet proud to support a transition that has been co-designed with our partners and which they will now carry forward on the strength of their vision and leadership.”

The WCS Rockies’ Indigenous-Led Conservation Program is due to be transitioned to an Indigenous-led intermediary. Likewise, WCS intends to transition its Working Lands Initiative to a community-based conservation organization. WCS will continue to pursue its conservation commitment in the United States, including working to further the conservation of the American buffalo. WCS’s Bronx Zoo and its field conservationists have long been leaders in buffalo conservation and will continue those efforts in partnership with the Iinnii Initiative, the American Bison Society and others. Further, WCS will continue its other work in the United States, including programs focused on climate adaptation; marine, species and climate work in Alaska, including on wood bison; the New York Seascape Program focused on whales and sharks in the New York Bight; and policy and advocacy work on a variety of conservation issues with the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, government officials, and many other partners.

WCS, founded in 1895, runs four zoos and an aquarium in New York City (Bronx Zoo, Central Park Zoo, Prospect Park Zoo, Queens Zoo, New York Aquarium) and field conservation programs in nearly 60 nations around the globe. WCS has worked in the Rockies since its earliest days and was founded as the New York Zoological Society. One of its first projects was to prevent the extinction of buffalo in North America. Through the years, WCS has supported pioneering field studies of key species in the United States such as bighorn sheep, bats, wolverine, black-footed ferrets, grizzly bears, mountain lions, bald eagles, pronghorn, musk oxen, eastern hellbenders, and New England cottontail rabbits.