Since the beginning of the twentieth Century, diverse social groups, including early conservationists, bison producers, and regional planners, redefined (with greater or lesser success) the position of bison within the modern American landscape. Through their actions, networks were established that facilitated the transportation, redistribution, and privatization of bison within the United States. This research project will examine these social networks affecting the geographical distribution of bison in America. The research has four primary objectives. First, it will define the practical goals and personal motivations of early conservationists who worked to conserve bison. Second, it will quantify the interconnections between public and private bison herds, in particular specifying the role the former has played in the growth of the modern bison industry. Third, it will delineate the social, material, and informational networks that comprise the emerging bison industry. Fourth, it will examine perspectives on the privatization and commodification of bison, emphasizing their potential impact on material relations with bison and the degree to which these processes affect symbolic aspects of the species. To achieve these goals, the project will employ three research methods: mail surveys, interviews, and analysis of archival materials, government documents, and popular literature. Mail surveys will be sent to bison producers, representatives of bison associations, and managers of public bison herds. Individuals selected for interview include bison producers, bison association representatives, bison meat distributors, and other individuals with alternative perspectives on bison. Quantitative data will be analyzed using basic statistical techniques to identify population and regional growth patterns, trends within the emerging bison industry, and distinctive subgroups with the bison industry. Qualitative data will be coded and analyzed using computer software to examine the diversity of opinions concerning bison and bison management practices. By utilizing these methods, this research will provide an accurate description of human relations with bison during the last century.
This project will generate information with which to evaluate the current status of bison, and enable a re-examination of several larger themes in geographic and environmental theory. At the most basic level, this project will fill a gap in academic research that has resulted from the narrow focus on the near-extermination of bison and the commensurate lack of consideration given to the species' recent demographic resurgence. More generally, this research will determine whether economic, cultural, or environmental factors have played a dominant role in facilitating the species' re-population of the American landscape. Due to the relative youth of the emerging bison industry, research on modern bison also provides an ideal opportunity to investigate the methods by which a given agricultural product/practice is diffused throughout a region. Although diffusion and agriculture are traditional topics of interest within the discipline of geography, rarely do circumstances permit an empirical examination of the diffusion of agricultural practices at an early stage of their growth. The spread of most agricultural products predates modern geographic theory on the subject. While bison production certainly exhibits distinct attributes, some of the general findings revealed by this research may provide valuable insight into the growth and diffusion of other agricultural products. Looking toward the future, the data contained in this project will provide a baseline of information for other researchers that may wish to revisit this topic in subsequent decades. Lastly, this research will provide an indication of the factors that enable and constrain modern society's ability to coexist with other species. Such information will likely become increasingly important in the future. Recognizing the various options available, as well as the diverse benefits and drawbacks of each approach, will assist in forming a sustainable, yet ethical, relation between society and nature. As a Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement award, this award also will provide support to enable a promising student to establish a strong independent research career.