Interview of the Week: Dennis Jorgensen on Reintroducing Bison on the Great Plains

Dennis Jorgensen is the Bison Initiative Coordinator of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).  Last week, after working with Dennis and WWF, the Rosebud Economic Development Corporation (REDCO), the economic arm of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, committed nearly 28,000 acres of native grassland for the creation of a new plains bison herd of 1,500 animals, which will make it North America’s largest Native American owned and managed bison herd. We caught up with him right after the announcement.  Here are some excerpts from our interview.  To watch the entire interview, click here.

MK:  Why is the creation of the new preserve a “homecoming” for bison species? Why is it so important for the species?

DJ: In the late 1800s, bison were reduced to less than a thousand animals in the U.S. and Canada and prior to that, they had numbered between 30 and 60 million animals. Their numbers were reduced due to westward expansion and also in part to subjugate tribes…For the Plains Tribes, the bison were central to their economy, to their culture, to their spirituality.  That loss left them in a different world.  And now with the return of buffalo or bison to tribes we believe and hope and expect that it can restore prosperity, identity and connection to the animals and the land….World Wildlife Fund is really excited to support these efforts to bring bison back….Tribes have been doing that for many years but they were under-resourced…We are working with the communities to establish programs that are economically and culturally sustainable….

MM:  How is the project going to work?  Where will you get the bison and how will you be ensuring their sustainability?

DJ:  …Even though National Parks and the Dept. of Interior have done a wonderful job of restoring bison to parklands and refuge lands, there are not a lot of places where you can restore bison on a large scale in the U.S.  The Rosebud Economic Development Corporation, which is the economic arm of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, was really interested to secure a lease (of land) that was becoming available on the Reservation.  And we said we can help find the resources to secure that lease.  The World Wildlife Fund has been involved in the establishment of bison herds with tribes and we thought we could bring some expertise to that and we could bring some ability to secure resources…I feel confident that we will be able to help REDCO to establish this herd of 1500 bison.

MK:  Has there been a hit to the genetic diversity of bison?  Does that complicate creating a larger, unified herd?

DJ:  That was actually one of the more exciting aspects of this for the Department of Interior.  They were looking for a place to blend the various herds…REDCO is open to receiving bison from any DOI population so this will be a site where all the herds can be blended and so the expectation is that it will be a very healthy herd….Overall, the World Wildlife Fund’s goal is to establish five herds of at least 1000 bison by 2025.  The reason for that is that 75% of the herds managed for conservation number less than 400 animals…by establishing larger herds it ensures that the long term genetic health of the species will be preserved.

MM:  How important is the bison to Western Americans, to all Americans. Why do you think conserving these magnificent creatures matters?  

DJ:  Bison are the national mammal of the United States….Not that many people have the opportunity to see them as wild animals and a lot of people are thrilled when they get the opportunity to go to places like Yellowstone National Park and see them in essentially their natural setting and in the largest numbers that you can see them anywhere in the continental U.S.  Bison were our first conservation success story globally.  There was a conscious decision to save the species. They could have been lost and they were not….We are seeing bison restoration now in the communities where it belongs…This project is a perfect way to demonstrate how a tribe can thrive by bringing bison back….

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