Threats And Dangers To Bisons: Are They Going Extinct? (And What Are the Causes?)

There are as few animals as fascinating and culturally significant to North America as the mighty bison. For hundreds of years, these great beasts have roamed the continent’s plains and overcome countless hardships, even coming back from near extinction. 

Today the bison population has bounced back in a big way and is currently stable. For that reason, they have become a success story and symbol of environmental conservation. As impressive as this recovery might sound, there are still several persistent issues that can bring down the species numbers. 

Join us in Floofmania as we talk about our giant friend, the bison, and the threats the bison species faces. 

Are Bison Endangered In Any Way?

As of now, bison are listed as “near threatened” by the WWF. Animals under this category are considered stable for the moment but face issues that can leave them endangered in the near future. 

Even a century after the first conservation efforts, our bovine friends still face several persistent threats. Common issues such as habitat loss, global warming, and illegal poaching affect them like many other animals. But some problems unique to the bison such as heavy commercialization and a decreasing genetic diversity leave them especially vulnerable.

Are Bison A Protected Species In North America?

As with any endangered species, laws and regulations have been adopted that make it difficult for someone to hunt bison. 

Bison Protection by Country

Each country in North America has protections for the bison to a certain degree, though how much they enjoy depends on the place you visit.

Bison Protection in the USA

As of now, bison are not protected on a national level, meaning it is up to each state to decide whether or not to safeguard bison. Thankfully it seems like local governments are strict regarding hunting bison.

Most states have made it illegal to hunt bison, with only five states; Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Arizona, and Alaska allowing bison hunting. Even among these five states, laws are in place that limits hunting to certain times of the year and require hunters to provide tags and permits.

Aside from these five states, the only exception to bison hunting ranches with private herds.

Bison Protection in Canada

Up north in Canada, strict laws are also in place that protects bison from being hunted. These rules limit bison hunting to only a select number of herds, and even then, hunting is still heavily regulated by the government.

Bison Protection in Mexico

Compared to its northern neighbors, Mexico has unfortunately not fared as well in its conservation efforts. 

Bison are now practically extinct in the wild in Mexico, with about a hundred bison left in the wild. Outside of that, the US government has sent small groups of bison to nature reserves in Mexico. They hope to repopulate the bison population, which is considered critically endangered in the country. 

The silver lining to this is that it also means hunting bison is now banned in Mexico.

Are Bison Growing In Numbers?

One of the best ways to tell how healthy a population is is if the numbers are still increasing. In that regard, our large friends are still on their way to recovery. So far, their numbers are continuing to grow at a considerable rate, with some herds growing by 10% per year. 

Even bison living in the wild are still seeing some growth which is another important sign to look out for. If wild bison are thriving, it means the species still has a chance, even without human intervention, though this doesn’t mean we should stop doing our part.

How Many Bison Are There In North America?

Bison have come a long way since the early 1900s when they were nearly wiped out from the face of the earth. Today, hundreds of thousands of bison roam the continent’s plains once again.

What is the Bison Population Today

Today the bison population is the largest its been since the 1900s. There are now hundreds of thousands of bison roaming around the USA, Canada, and Mexico. While this is an impressive comeback, these numbers are not evenly distributed and there is still a lot of work needed to properly reintroduce bison.

Bison LocationBison Population
Wild Bison in the USA20,000 Bison
Bison in Private Ranches in the USA500,000 Bison
Wild Bison in Canada2,200 Bison
Wild Bison in Mexico80-130 Bison

Bison Populations in the US

In the US, bison are now plentiful and with a stable population divided into two categories. The smaller group is maintained by conservationists and used as a basis to repopulate the species. These numbers are somewhere around 20,000 individuals.

The second group of bison is those that belong to private ranches. These aren’t necessarily used for conservation, as many of these ranches also use bison commercially. Despite that, they have far more bison at an estimated 500,000 bison across all the ranches in the US.

Bison Population in Canada

Thanks to cooperation with conservation groups, Canada has repopulated four bison populations across the country. There are now an estimated 2,200 plains bison and 11,000 wood bison in all of Canada. 

This population remains small and vulnerable, though researchers are optimistic that they can repopulate these gentle giants with continued effort. 

Bison Population in Mexico

The bison of Mexico have fared far worse than their northern neighbors, with their numbers reduced to an estimated 80-130 individuals in the wild. Efforts are underway to begin repopulation, but they depend on the US, sending small groups to Mexico to help the population recover and increase the gene pool.

Did There Use To Be More Bison?

While the population of bison today is rather large and healthy, it is still only a tiny fraction of what the bison population used to be. Today we measure the bison population in the hundreds of thousands. A little over a century ago, though, bison numbers were counted in the millions.

At their peak, there might have been as many as 30-60 million in the 1800s. To put that into perspective, that would have been double the US population during the American Civil War!

How Did The Bison Almost Become Extinct?

The question of how the bison nearly became extinct could be an article in and of itself. The long story short, though, is that as the US industrialized, the need for raw materials grew. Aside from coal and minerals, animal materials were also in high demand.

While Native Americans have long hunted bison, these tribes have always done so sustainably. They understood the need to maintain balance with nature and hunted bison in small numbers and only took what they needed.

As the American frontiers pushed westward, though, the settlers took the place of the natives, and they escalated bison hunting to unsustainable levels. 

In particular, bison were a handy source of materials for American markets. Their meat was a popular source of food while their fur and leather were used for clothing, and horns were used to make decorations. Thousands of bison were killed yearly without considering long-term sustainability. By the turn of the century, less than 100 bison roamed the wild.

One man who did see this issue was President Theodore Roosevelt, who founded the American Bison Society intending to protect and regrow the bison population. 

Might Bison Become Endangered In The Future?

While the number of bison in the continent is growing, they are not out of the woods yet. Several issues can push bison back into the endangered species list.

  • Habitat Fragmentation
  • Lack of Genetic Diversity 
  • Predators
  • Human Interference
  • Climate Change
  • Dependence on Conservation

Habitat Fragmentation for Bison

With the bison population at over half a million, it might seem like the mission to repopulate is accomplished, but look a bit closer, and you will find some issues. These half a million bison are divided among thousands of ranches across the country.

This system is essentially a form of habitat fragmentation. These bison herds will spend their whole lives fenced off from the outside world and unable to interact with other herds or animals. While food and resources might not be a problem, the setup can cause further issues, such as inbreeding.

Loss of Genetic Diversity Among Bison

Probably the most persistent issue in the bison population is the steady loss of genetic diversity. Since each bison herd is effectively cut off, this limits their gene pool to just individuals among their herd.

With a system like this, things can only go on for so long before issues arise. It severely limits the gene pool and leads to inbreeding, as every bison becomes related over time. 

The loss of genetic diversity leads to problems for future generations as they tend to be physically weaker and more susceptible to diseases.

Thankfully it seems like conversation groups are starting to realize this as new breeding programs are in place that can hopefully expand the gene pool. It can take years before the issue can be fully corrected.

Predators That Hunt Bison

These powerful animals are among the largest creatures on the continent, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have predators. Many animals, from wolves to grizzly bears, sometimes make a meal from bison. That was as true a hundred years today as it is today.

While adult bison can defend themselves, calves and old bison remain vulnerable and can be easy targets for predators. Predators can be a problem for our giant friends, as losing too many calves can affect the future generation.

How Climate Change Affects Bison

Like any other animal, bison suffer from the effects of climate change, but there is an unusual side effect among our bovine friends. Climate change is causing bison to shrink, as studies show that bison today are smaller than they were a hundred years ago, which is attributed to warming temperatures.

As the Earth’s temperatures rise, it becomes more difficult for plants such as grass to thrive. These had gotten used to a certain temperature range, and increases in it affect how much moisture they absorb. This, in turn, leads to bison having less available food, making it harder for them to reach their normal size. 

While an interesting phenomenon, it can have serious implications for the bison population.

If there is less food to go around, it can affect not just the size of individual bison but the population as a whole. With less grass, it becomes more difficult to sustain large bison populations.

How Do Humans Threaten Bisons?

Of course, there is little doubt that humans are the biggest threat to bison. We were the ones responsible for their near extinction in the first place. And while we did help recover the population, many of the current issues with the bison survival can still stem from our actions.

Is Bison Hunting Still A Problem?

The chief culprit for population decline is undoubtedly hunting. We have hunted bison for centuries and almost depleted the populations of wild animals. Even today, hunting bison still exists in a limited capacity. Despite government attempts to control it, illegal hunting still occurs all over the country. 

People often hunt our large friends for food or to harvest their fur and horns. These remain valuable commodities that entice anyone to go after these gentle giants. 

Other times, people decide to hunt bison simply for the thrill of it. Some people don’t hunt these animals for material purposes but for sport. Private ranches also sometimes allow hunters to hunt their herds on their private property.

Bison Habitat Loss

Another major impediment to bison repopulation is habitat loss. Unfortunately, many of the vast plains that bison roam around in don’t exist anymore, or at least not how they used to. Much of the grassland that bison inhabited is now used for housing or farmland, limiting the range used for bison. 

While some plains remain in their original form, they are much smaller and cannot support a large bison population.

Bison Commercialization

It wasn’t just hunting that nearly wiped out the bison; it was their commercialization. People began seeing bison as resources they could harvest instead of living things. Hunters would take their horns and fur without considering how it affected the species or the wider environment.

That part has not changed even today. The vast majority of the bison now spend their lives not in the wild or in reserves but on commercial ranches. While they are indeed protected, they are also still harvested. Many of these ranches often use bison as a source of meat.

Unlike other animal conservation, where hunting or harvesting is off limits, thousands of bison are still harvested yearly to sell their meat. This system can affect how much the population grows, because most living bison belong to them, and they will consider their bottom lines.

What Might Happen If Bison Went Extinct?

Although it is troubling to think about, we do have to consider the worst-case scenario when learning about conservation. If (god forbid) the bison go extinct, how might their loss affect the rest of the ecosystem?

It turns out that aside from being giants in size, the bison’s impact on the environment is equally giant. In the past, bison would migrate across the great plains, and some herds still do today. On that journey, they would contribute to the environment to make it more hospitable for other animals.

Birds would use bison fur to make their nests, while the weight of the bison’s hooves would pack loose soil on the ground and create depressions in the earth called wallows. These wallows would form small pools when it rains and become places for amphibians to live in and land critters to drink.

The most famous way bison help the environment is by acting as natural seed carriers. Seeds often cling to bison fur and are carried long distances before sliding off to the ground, where they begin to grow.

If we lost the bison, there would be no animals to accomplish these things in their place. For animals, it will lead to the loss of easy water supplies and building materials for shelter, while plants will have a harder time spreading across the great plains.

Have Some Bison Already Gone Extinct?

Thankfully not yet. While there were some very close calls at the turn of the century, the two main species of bison in the US, the plains bison and forest bison, both have healthy and growing populations.

Are Bison Extinct In the Wild?

Much of the bison population mentioned above belongs either to wildlife preserves or private owners. A consistent issue with the bison conservation effort is that it focuses too much on growing the population in captivity and not in the wild.

There is some truth to it as of the hundreds of thousands of bison today, nearly nine-tenths of them live in commercial ranches. A few conservation groups are going as far as to label bison as ecologically extinct, meaning that their numbers are so low that they place almost no role in the larger ecosystem.

However, this seems to be an extreme view as there are still thousands of bison that roam the great plains. These bison continue to do their part to the ecosystem as they have a hundred years ago, though to a smaller degree. 

How Did Bison Come Back From Near-Extinction?

The story of how bison made their recovery is remarkable and has taken many parties working together to accomplish.

During the early 1900s, the bison population hovered under a thousand individuals, but eventually, efforts were put into place to fix it. Within a few years, groups like the Bronx Zoo and Yellowstone natural park began taking in bison as part of their conservation efforts. These animals were protected from hunting and were encouraged to breed and repopulate. 

The newborn calves would, in turn, be transferred to other protected areas where the bison used to roam, such as Oklahoma. This system allowed the repopulation to spread across the area and increased the small gene pools of the herds living there.

Aside from the government, some private groups, such as ranchers, also pitched in. They would also take in bison populations on their personal property and encourage breeding, albeit for their own reasons. 

At the very least, these ranchers understood the need for sustainability, cut back on hunting and harvesting, and allowed the bison on their property to repopulate. 

Even the native Americans were invited to assist in the effort. Many tribal groups were tasked with maintaining and monitoring the bison populations. The bison is a sacred part of many Native American cultures, so the tribes took this job very seriously, and under their watch, the herds would grow to the tens of thousands. 

Perhaps the most significant contribution came from the most unlikely source, a former hunter (and future US president) named Theodore Roosevelt

Although at one point an avid hunter, shooting many animals, including bison, Teddy would come to see how hunting affected the population of these animals and would begin launching conservation efforts.

When he became president, Teddy often used his position to raise awareness and fight to protect endangered animals.  He would even help bring the first batch of bison to the Bronx zoo.

What Plays A Role In The Legality Of Hunting Bisons?

Hunting bison is a complex issue as, although many places have tried to control or outright ban its practice, hunting still exists in certain forms, both legally and illegally. Many factors can affect the legality of hunting bison.

Location Plays A Role In The Legality Of Hunting Bison

Depending on where you go, certain places in North America might have more relaxed laws regarding hunting. In the USA and Canada, hunting exists in a limited capacity, with certain states and local governments allowing hunting if hunters get the proper permits.

While that seems simple enough, another wrinkle is the use of private ranches. Most bison do not live in reserves or public land but on private property, where they are considered no different than cattle and sheep. 

The government has far less control over what people do with the bison in places like that. Some ranches allow hunters to visit these ranches and hunt some of the bison for sport. This gimmick enables ranches to supplement their income aside from using the bison for food.

Bison Hunting Paperwork

To discourage hunters from going after bison, many local governments that allow hunting requires hunters to submit paperwork. All the states that allow you to hunt bison also require permits and bison tags before you can start hunting. 

These requirements can be expensive as permits can cost up to $9000, which is enough to discourage most hunters. If someone were to hunt bison without a license, they would be breaking the law and could be labeled a poacher.

Some Bison Herds are Off Limits

Even if you do have the paperwork and live in a place that allows hunting, you can’t just shoot any bison you see. 

Some herds are wholly protected and cannot be hunted under any circumstances. These are herds that live in nature reserves or are managed by Native Americans. Hunting these bison can land you in some serious trouble.

Bison Culling

During extreme circumstances, conservation groups, and local governments might relax hunting laws for bison by allowing a culling. While this might sound counterproductive, the reason for an event like this is that some bison might be carrying contagious diseases like brucellosis.

Similar to how we sometimes cull chickens with bird flu or pigs with swine flu, conservationists do the same with bison to prevent them from spreading the diseases to healthy bison.

Authorities might call upon hunters to take down the infected animals. This is a coordinated effort, though, and requires government permission. Anyone who tries to take matters into their own hands can still find themselves in trouble.

A Designated Bison Hunting Season

To limit the effects of hunting, states also maintain a designated hunting season. These periods are the only times when it is considered legal to hunt bison (provided you get a license.) When the bison hunting season depends on the state, in Alaska it is February to March while in other states it is from October to November.

If you hunt bison outside of these time periods, it is considered illegal even if you have all your paperwork. The exception to this is private ranches which can have hunting all year round.

Author: Quade Ong

Hello there, my name is Quade. I have been a writer for three years but an animal lover for over two decades. I grew up in one of the most biodiverse areas in the world, which has given me the blessing of seeing all sorts of beautiful animals. Now I strive to learn not just about the animals I am from, but those all over the world!

Leave a Comment