With more than 22,000 acres newly opened up to the iconic mammal, the release of bison onto new turf is a profound thing to see.
For ages, tens of millions of bison roamed the plains, but as westward expansion developed, their populations plunged to perilously low numbers. By 1877, there were only 512 of these majestic mammals left. Thankfully, conservation visionaries were able to halt the near extinction. Now there are some 21,000 plains bison alive today.
In times when habitat destruction and fragmentation is de rigueur – and happening with increased frequency under an administration obsessed with building walls and opening up land to resource extraction – seeing territory increase for a species is a rare thing. But that is exactly what has happened for the bison in South Dakota's Badlands National Park, thanks to an extraordinary fundraising effort by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and partners, including the National Park Foundation, Defenders of Wildlife, The Nature Conservancy – supported by Badlands Natural History Association and the Badlands National Park ConservancyAlison Henry writes for WWF that, "Over 2,500 WWF donors and those from partner organizations raised nearly $750,000 to build 43 miles of new fence that extends bison habitat in the park from 57,640 acres to 80,193 acres—an area more than one-and-a-half times the size of Manhattan Island. Almost 1,200 of these extraordinary animals live in this space."
This is people power in action; bison now have an additional 22,553 acres in which to roam – habitat that the animals have not stepped hoof in since 1870.
The effort began with a land swap in which a parcel of private land inside the park was exchanged so that the bison's boundaries could be expanded. More work was required, like an environmental assessment and the fundraising – and it has all miraculously come together.
In the video below, you can see the first four bison released, as a crowd of onlookers encourage and welcome the animals home. It is such an incredible thing to see, the bison take to the land as if they know it by heart. In a natural world that feels increasingly wrong, this feels incredibly right.
This video, posted on Facebook by Badlands National Park, is the extended version, with commentary by a worker involved in the release..
“Bison are North America’s largest and most iconic mammal, and WWF is thrilled to be part of an effort to create the second largest herd in the National Park system,” says Martha Kauffman, managing director of WWF’s Northern Great Plains program. “The project has touched the imaginations of people across the US, and the matching dollars that WWF has provided wouldn’t have been possible without the generosity of our supporters.”
(And while we are at it, here's a great gift idea: A bison adoption kit.)