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Gland, Switzerland, Tuesday 2 March 2010 (IUCN) – The next 10 to 20 years could be extremely significant for restoring wild populations of American bison to their original roaming grounds. But for this to happen, more land must be made available for herds to roam free, government policies must be updated and the public must change its attitude towards bison. A new publication by IUCN, ‘American Bison: Status Survey and Conservation Guidelines 2010’, reports on the current status of American bison, in the wild and in conservation herds, and makes recommendations on how to ensure that the species is conserved for the future.

“Although the effort to restore bison to the plains of North America is considered to be one of the most ambitious and complex undertakings in species conservation efforts in North America, it will only succeed if legislation is introduced at a local and national level, with significant funding and a shift in attitude towards the animal,” says Simon Stuart, Chair, IUCN Species Survival Commission.

Five hundred years ago, tens of millions of American bison roamed free on the plains of North America, from Alaska to northern Mexico. Now the American bison – which includes both plains and wood bison - is listed as Near Threatened on IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species™. As of 2008, there were approximately 400,000 bison in commercial herds in North America, some 93 percent of the continental population. But little progress has been made in recent decades to increase the number of animals in conservation herds, which are managed carefully for their genetic diversity and ecological roles. In 2008, there were 61 plains bison conservation herds in North America containing about 20,500 animals, and 11 conservation herds of wood bison, containing nearly 11,000 animals.

“While substantial progress in saving bison from extinction was made in the 20th Century, much work remains to restore conservation herds throughout their vast geographical range,” says University of Calgary Environmental Design Professor and co-editor of the study, Dr. Cormack Gates, who is also co-Chair of the IUCN/SSC Bison Specialist Group. “The key is recognition that the bison is a wildlife species and to be conserved as wildlife, it needs land and supportive government policies.” 

The survival of bison populations is affected by many factors, including limited habitat and severe winters. Yet the greatest challenge is to overcome the common perception that the bison, which has had a profound influence on the human history of North America, socially, culturally and ecologically, no longer belongs on the landscape.

“The decimation of the American Bison in the late 1800s inspired the first recovery of bison and an entire conservation movement that protected wildlife and wild places across North America,” says Keith Aune, Senior Conservation Scientist, Wildlife Conservation Society. The IUCN Status Survey and Conservation Guidelines provide a new framework for inspiring a second recovery of bison and restoring functional grassland ecosystems.”

Bison have the best chance of full recovery as wildlife by being allowed to roam freely across hundreds of thousands or even millions of hectares. Making this possible poses one of the biggest challenges for restoring bison herds as both public and private landowners will need to give their support.

“The bison is the largest land mammal in North America, and yet it is perhaps the most neglected icon,” says Steve Forrest, WWF Northern Great Plains Manager for Conservation Science.

“These guidelines provide a roadmap for bringing the bison back to its rightful place as a keystone of the great plains." 


Editor’s notes:

American Bison: Status Survey and Conservation Guidelines 2010  was edited by Cormack Gates, Curtis Freese, Peter Gogan and Mandy Kotzman, and is the product of more than three years of cooperative effort by numerous contributors.

The production of the report was made possible with funding from several non-governmental organizations and government agencies including the World Wildlife Fund, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the University of Calgary Faculty of Environmental Design, the American Bison Society, the US Geological Survey and the US National Parks Service.

PDF version of the report and photos available at:

Media team:

Nicki Chadwick, Media Relations Officer, IUCN, t. +41 22 999 0229, m +41 76 771 4208, e

Vanessa Ferreira, Media Relations, the University of Calgary Faculty of Environmental Design, t. +1 403-210-6854, e 

Mara Johnson, Media Relations, World Wildlife Fund, t. +1 406 585 3022, e

Stephen Sautner, Director of Communications, Wildlife Conservation Society, t. +1 718 220 3682, e


About IUCN
IUCN, International Union for Conservation of Nature, helps the world find pragmatic solutions to our most pressing environment and development challenges.

IUCN works on biodiversity, climate change, energy, human livelihoods and greening the world economy by supporting scientific research, managing field projects all over the world, and bringing governments, NGOs, the UN and companies together to develop policy, laws and best practice.

IUCN is the world’s oldest and largest global environmental organization, with more than 1,000 government and NGO members and almost 11,000 volunteer experts in some 160 countries. IUCN’s work is supported by over 1,000 staff in 60 offices and hundreds of partners in public, NGO and private sectors around the world.

About University of Calgary Faculty of Environmental Design

About World Wildlife Fund

About Wildlife Conservation Society

About The American Bison Society

About US Geological Survey

About US National Parks Service


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