Vulnerability assessment of the multi-sector North American bison Bison bison management system to climate change.

Published online
22 Oct 2021
Content type
Journal article
Journal title
People and Nature

Martin, J. M. & Zarestky, J. & Briske, D. D. & Barboza, P. S.
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Publication language
North America


Bison Bison bison are a keystone of a conservation system, but that system is vulnerable to the effects of a changing climate projected to alter land use through the 21st century. The current bison population of North America is approximately 400,000 animals and is maintained by a self-assembled bison management system (BMS) of various stakeholders focused on bison conservation and production. The BMS is comprised of public, for-profit private, Tribal and not-for-profit non-governmental organization (NGO) sectors, with complementary values, attitudes and practices that contribute to a robust conservation footprint for the species. Currently, the majority of grasslands (90%) and bison (85%) are privately owned which justifies the need for robust private land conservation strategies to maintain this iconic species and its grassland habitats. We assessed vulnerability of the BMS to 21st century consequences of climate change with a vulnerability scoping diagram that emphasizes exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity, as well as environmental values, attitudes and practices. We surveyed 132 bison managers within both the private and public/NGO sectors. Respondents were predominantly educated white males located in the northern and central mixed grass prairies who manage bison herds of, on average, 51-100 animals. Overall, the BMS is moderately vulnerable to climate change. While the public/NGO and private sectors differ in adaptive capacity, specifically in measures of information exchange, external revenue, use of management plans and access to grazing leases, the sectors act as partners for exchanging bison and rely on sustained interchange of bison; dimensions of exposure and sensitivity appear similar between public/NGO and private sectors. The complementary, shared environmental values and attitudes of the private and public/NGO sectors shape the foundation for enhanced collaboration among the multi-sector BMS. But it is the sharing of diverse practices and respective consequences that will lead the BMS to discover credible, scalable adaptive solutions to climate change. This may lead to the bison community to decide whether to form a 'bison coalition' to seek solutions to adapt to climate change.

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