CITES Issue: Wood Bison

SCI and SCI Foundation (collectively Safari Club) are addressing several of the key issues surrounding the upcoming 2017 CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP17) this fall in Johannesburg, South Africa, in an ongoing “CITES Issues” blog series. This week’s article focuses on a positive proposal on a species that also highlights our successful wildlife conservation program: Wood Bison.


Issue Explained

The Bison bison athabascae, known in North America as wood bison, was originally listed on Appendix I in 1975 before updated listing criteria were adopted by the Convention. (For a refresher on CITES terminology, read this Q&A list.) In 1997, the species was transferred to Appendix II due to a rapidly growing population and strong management structure.

In preparation for the CoP17, Canada has submitted a proposal to delist wood bison, removing the species from its current status under Appendix II. The three basic factors that warrant a CITES listing – small population size, restricted area of distribution, and a declining population – do not apply to wood bison. More importantly for CITES, trade in wood bison is not a concern for the survival of the species and illegal trade is not an issue.

Based on these facts, Canada proposes that the wood bison does not satisfy the criteria for an Appendix II listing. The minimum monitoring period from the 1997 transfer has long been exceeded, paralleled by a significant growth in wood bison numbers. Canada adds that wood bison will not qualify for listing in the foreseeable future, thanks to the proper protection measures and management plans in place for conservation.

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Science & Management

Newly published research shows that wood bison and plains bison are not genetically distinguishable subspecies. Plains bison are not listed on the CITES Appendices, only furthering the argument for Canada’s proposal.

The most recent population estimate for wood bison in Canada is about 9,000 individuals, with the majority being mature adults. Active recovery efforts have led to a 47% population increase since 2000. Today, there are nine distinct herds across Canada, and one in Alaska, that are considered wild and relevant for wood bison conservation.

Wood bison are protected in Canada. Hunting and other management activities are controlled independently of CITES. Individual bison are culled to control herd size, limit the spread of disease, prevent contact with captive herds, and manage human-bison conflict.

A small herd of around 130 wood bison exists in Alaska and is considered wild by the United States. For decades, the wood bison was considered extirpated in the U.S. Restoration efforts required the species to be reintroduced from Canada, proving difficult because of their foreign endangered listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. However, wood bison were down-listed to threatened status in 2012. Two years later, a federal rule allowed the release of 100 bison in Alaska, designated as a nonessential experimental population. This restoration effort was supported by SCI Foundation, SCI Chapters, and the state of Alaska. Hunting is not currently permitted but is anticipated in Alaska’s management plan.


Safari Club’s Position and Conservation Legacy

Safari Club strongly supports Canada’s proposal to delist wood bison from Appendix II and is an active supporter of wood bison conservation.

In 2015, SCI Foundation and the local SCI Chapter network celebrated the birth of the first wood bison calf born on Alaskan soil in over a century, the culmination of a 15 year reintroduction project. The herd has since wintered well and is expecting 50-60 calves to be born this year. SCI Foundation looks forward to continuing its support of wood bison conservation and the implementation of a sustainable harvest in Alaska as part of the state’s adaptive management plan.

Bison grazing serves an important ecosystem function, making them a keystone species. The recovery of bison is one of North America’s greatest conservation success stories, and having bison back on the Alaskan landscape is a major accomplishment for SCI Foundation and wildlife conservation.

SCI Foundation’s professional videographer was recently in the field, capturing the newly wild herd up close in the Innoko and Yukon Rivers area. For more updates and video content on the Alaska wood bison reintroduction project, follow our First for Wildlife blog. As always, stay tuned to SCI Crosshairs for future CITES-related articles, including the next edition of our CITES Issues series. Don’t forget to read the last issue on African lions here on First for Wildlife or on SCI’s website.

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Twice a week, SCI Foundation informs readers about conservation initiatives happening worldwide and updates them on SCI Foundation’s news, projects and events. Tuesdays are dedicated to an Issue of the Week and Thursday’s Weekly Updates will provide an inside look into research and our other science-based conservation efforts. Like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter and Instagram for more SCI Foundation news.SCI Logo_picture file


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