Conservation of the Badlands Bison

April 25, 2019Katherine RivardNPF Blog
NPS Photo / Dakota McCoy

Though smaller creatures rightly enjoy admiration and protection in national parks (e.g., the Devils Hole pupfish, cutthroat trout, Kemp’s ridley sea turtles), the biggest ones require targeted conservation efforts too. Bison, one of America’s national animals, are the largest mammals within Badlands National Park in South Dakota. These giant beasts, weighing anywhere between 900 and 2,000 pounds, are part of a fascinating ongoing wildlife conservation effort at the park.

There was once a time when bison roamed freely in huge numbers across the Great Plains. An estimated 30 million bison in the 1500s dwindled dramatically to less than 1,000 on the continent by the late 1800s. Conservation efforts in Badlands National Park began when 50 bison were reintroduced to the park during the 1960s, followed by an additional 20 bison in the 1980s. Today, the population has reached approximately 1,200 bison.

Bison tagging at Badlands National Park

Bison tagging at Badlands National Park

NPS Photo / Brian Kenner

Badlands National Park is working to expand the bison’s range within the park. To accomplish this objective, the park worked in conjunction with the U.S. Forest Service and other partners to secure a land swap with its neighbor, the Don Kelly Ranch, freeing up land for bison migration. This project will add an additional 22,000 acres, providing the bison more than 80,000 acres to roam within the park.

The project also provided fencing to ensure that cattle on nearby ranches do not intermingle with the bison. An old boundary fence will now be replaced with woven wire bison fence and cattle guards will be installed along the roads. Funds for the project were appropriated by Congress and made available to the National Park Service for its 100-year anniversary. These grants were then met with the required 50% match from private funding, including $255,000 from the National Park Foundation.

Now that the bison population is close to 1,200, the herd is officially above the necessary number to be considered a “conservation herd.” This classification indicates that the population should be able to reproduce and increase their numbers naturally.

Bison with calf at Badlands National Park

Bison with calf at Badlands National Park

NPS Photo / Brian Kenner

As bison repopulate the prairie, the ecosystem flourishes. These massive feeders constantly graze on the native grasses, creating areas that prairie dogs prefer for their colonies. In turn, these prairie dog habitats attract endangered black-footed ferrets, coyotes, and large birds that prey on the prairie dogs. By ensuring that the largest of creatures are thriving, the park can more safely guarantee the health of the entire ecosystem.

These giant beasts are a reminder of our nation’s history and their connection to both the land and Native Americans. The National Park Foundation proudly continues to preserve habitats and culture so that future generations will be able to continue to #FindYourPark / #EncuentraTuParque and understand the natural and cultural traditions of this land and its inhabitants.  


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