The July wildfire that destroyed 76,242 acres along Nebraska's Niobrara River left a trail of losses, including to critical grazing lands for one of the state's largest herds of bison.
Before the fire, about 840 head of bison grazed in two herds across a pair of pastures at the Nature Conservancy of Nebraska's Niobrara Valley Preserve.
Because fire destroyed nearly all of one bison pasture and about a third of another, the conservancy sold 126 head to a South Dakota rancher last week.
Mace Hack, executive director for the conservancy's Nebraska chapter, said he expects more sales. Certainly, he said, the typical fall culling will occur with the still-intact western pasture herd. But if rain doesn't begin rejuvenating the remaining drought-stressed pastures, further sales are likely.
Hack said the damage from the fire is equivalent to about a third of the conservancy's annual operating budget. About 80 miles of fencing were damaged, and the organization has lost income that it normally gets through grazing cattle that belong to neighboring ranchers.
Still, he said, he expects the two herds to rebound from this year's aggressive sales. It may take a while, he said, because free-ranging bison reproduce more slowly than domesticated cattle.
The Nebraska herds are part of a larger effort by the conservancy to restore bison to North America.
Hack said the conservancy has Plains bison on 10 native grassland preserves in the Dakotas, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma.
Of those, all but one are owned and managed by the conservancy, he said. Those nine herds totaled 5,656 overwintering head (not calves) in 2009, he said. The 10th is owned by a university but grazes on conservancy land.
After the federal government and ranching mogul Ted Turner, the Nature Conservancy owns more native bison than any other landowner in the Great Plains, according to Hack.
The more than 800 head at Niobrara (overwintering and calves), are an important part of the conservancy's efforts. Hack said the forced sale of bison after the fire is a setback, not a permanent blow, to efforts to protect the bison.
Many members of the public are familiar with another, smaller herd, the bison that reside at Fort Robinson State Park. That herd numbers about 150 head.
Matt Wagner, a spokesman for the World Wildlife Fund, said there are about 20,000 head of bison in herds intended simply to conserve the species. About 500,000 head are in ranching herds, he said.
Wagner is well familiar with Nebraska. He's an Omaha native and a Westside High School graduate.
“Bison conservation as a whole is doing well in North America,” Wagner said. “It can always do better, but it's doing well.”
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