On October 11 last year, the World Wildlife Foundation tweeted a video of four bison being released into Badlands National Park. They spill from the trailer at the top of the hill and tumble down into the snowy expanse below, urged on by the ululations of the staffers above. If bison can look happy, these four do. They’d soon link up with the existing Badlands herd of almost 1,200 fellow bison; like cows, they are very social creatures.
Typical WWF videos get 3 to 4 million views. This one received 15 million. The discrepancy is an encouraging sign for conservationists and bison lovers. Bison are the unlikely recipients of a grassroots affection typically reserved for the pandas, elephants, and tigers. But the online love for the creatures also points to a conundrum: How does one take all that love and channel it to save America’s national mammal?
Though Teddy Roosevelt led a push to bring back bison in the early 1900s, for the last half-century the constituency for returning massive herds of bison to the Great Plains has largely been limited to the nonprofit world and Native Americans. Conservationist groups such as the WWF have expertise and money to burn: more than $2 million in the past five years. They work largely with indigenous groups, for whom bison can have spiritual, social, and economic value.
But the political forces arrayed against rewilding are many, and they make reasonable points. In an age when buying a new home is still easiest in recently developed areas, why restrict land from being turned to profitable use? And no matter how financially successful small- or medium-scale butchering becomes, it will be difficult to compete with the cattle conglomerates that supply the nation’s supermarkets with cheap beef. Moreover, many proposals to repopulate national parks would require closing grazing land that is currently leased to private interests.