Get the Big Picture on Bison on “Independent Lens” This Week

Bison in Yellowstone.

On April 26, 2012, PBS’s Independent Lens will air “Facing the Storm,” an episode on the history, mismanagement, and future of wild bison.

Historically, as many as 25 to 30 million bison wandered the Great Plains. Today, only a fraction of this wild herd remains, including 3,500 genetically pure wild bison in Yellowstone National Park and 250,000 in conservation herds across the West.

To say the 19th and 20th centuries were bad for bison is an understatement. However, as we learn from our past and continue to move forward in a manner that increase our tolerance for bison on the landscape, we can make up for some of the damage done when our predecessors settled in the West.

As depicted in the show, each year Yellowstone bison leave the park seeking snow-free winter habitat. While elk, moose, pronghorn antelope, and other wildlife pass freely between Yellowstone and the snow-free lands outside the park, bison have historically been captured and shipped to slaughter by the thousands, or hazed back into Yellowstone’s unforgiving cold and snowy high country.

Unfounded fears over transmitting the disease brucellosis from bison to cattle has been the main reason for capturing and killing bison outside the park; however, bison have never transmitted brucellosis to domestic cattle in the wild, and brucellosis is not the real issue. Competition for grass between cattle and bison and intolerance for wild bison on the landscape are the real underlying concerns.

Thankfully, the 21st century looks a bit brighter for wild bison. For the past decade, NPCA’s Yellowstone Field Office has been working to expand habitat and help humans learn how to coexist with these animals outside the park. Since the filming of “Facing the Storm,” two significant events have moved bison restoration forward:

  • On March 19, 2012, 63 bison from Yellowstone National Park were released into the wild on Montana’s Fort Peck Reservation, reuniting bison with tribal members who have a deep historical, cultural, and spiritual connection to wild bison.
  • 75,000 acres of Park Service, state, and private land north of Yellowstone National Park in Montana’s Gardiner Basin have been secured as habitat for bison, allowing bison to move from Yellowstone to points north during winter months.

NPCA’s Yellowstone Field Office continues to work with landowners north and west of the park to help ensure that wild bison and people can safely coexist. We continue to advocate for additional lands outside the park where bison can roam. We remain hopeful that when people look back on the 21st century, they’ll say it was good for bison.

Get more information on the show and TV listings at the Independent Lens website. Learn more about NPCA’s bison program on our website and by downloading our fact sheet (PDF).

About the Author

Patricia Dowd is former program manager for NPCA's Yellowstone Field Office.