Wild American Bison are captive?

I noticed that a user is going through flagging a ton of American Bison observations as captive, including some I took in Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota. I messaged to ask why and he said that there are only a few truly wild bison herds on earth and the rest are fenced or managed. I am curious about whether this is the intended use of the captive tag. Basically any endangered species is managed in some way, does that mean they should be flagged captive as well? Or is this user incorrect? Thanks for any insight!


I agree that seems like quite an overreach on the term “captive”. If the animals are free-roaming and not in an enclosure of any kind I don’t know how one could call that captive. Would he consider free-flying California Condors as “captive”? Managed maybe, but not captive. “Managed” itself is also problematic because anything in a Wildlife Management Area…under his apparent definition…would also be captive. Perhaps he has a clearer definition of what he considers as captive and I would be interested to hear it!


I can see how in some cases it would be considered captive and others not. It sounds like your observation potentially shouldn’t be marked as such (I’m not familiar with their history there), but there are definitely a lot of ranched bison that aren’t necessarily fenced but I also wouldn’t call them wild. Where I live they are owned by a ranch but they are not in enclosures, in which case I would probably consider them captive.


Sound problematic to me, yes they’re managed, but as long as they’re not being farmed for meat, I’d say they’re wild.


If there’s no fence they should be ok for being wild.

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I agree that fenced in or privately owned animals would count as captive, but animals managed by the government I would think don’t count. Otherwise there’d be no “wild” California Condors, as the above poster mentioned. Either way, I flagged mine as wild, which brought them back to research grade, but looking at the area, he flagged almost 250 other bison observations as captive, so i suppose I will go flag them as wild too. Thanks guys!


@chalon9 I went through your bison observations and marked them all as wild.

What this person doesn’t seem to understand is that even wildlife in Africa is managed. In eastern Africa, wild animals, from elephants to lions are treated for injuries etc. In southern Africa it is very common practice to manage the small populations of large predators and megaherbivores in the innumerable nature reserves and national parks as a ‘meta-population’, where these scattered isolated populations are managed as one single population: individuals are regularly transferred between reserves to promote the genetic health of the species and to prevent any one area from becoming ‘overpopulated’ (compromising the ecosystem in the area).

This person has an overly strict definition of what is “wild”.

As I discussed in this thread (Are restored ecosystems wild or cultivated?), mankind has been changing habitat and engineering ecological impacts for the benefit of itself for thousands of years ever since we mastered the use of fire. Does that mean that the creatures we “cultivated” by creating habitat favourable for them were not ‘wild’? Under the overly strict and simplistic sense, perhaps. However, as these animals do not live in association with man (even less than synanthropic species [rats, house sparrows, etc] that nobody has an issue with being wild), breed under their own control, and are key parts of ecosystems, they should be considered wild enough.

For the purposes of iNaturalist, if the offspring of an organism are able to spread/reproduce outside of human control, it is considered wild. This applies even to feral domestics that have escaped captivity (cats, goats, ‘razorback’ pigs, etc).


Welcome to the Forum! I can’t add much more to what has been said already. This topic (wild vs captive) keeps coming up. I believe the last paragraph in @capeleopard 's post sums up the consensus. The person who changed the status seems to be somewhat overzealous.

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All or nearly all bison in New Mexico are classified as livestock and not wildlife since the various herds are privately-owned or owned by tribal governments and managed. Most are free-ranging up to a point, just as cattle are free-ranging within fenced ranches. There may be one or two small feral herds also. So classifying all or the majority of bison in my state as captive is technically not wrong.


To those mentioning that they should be considered wild if they aren’t fenced in, I think the point of whoever marked these observations captive is that they probably are fenced in. It would be a very large enclosure, but they’re likely still surrounded by a fence. As @capeleopard mentioned, the same is true for many parks and reserves in Africa and I’m sure other places.


In the U.S., there are fenced-in game parks in which elk, deer, and other ungulates are brought in and managed for hunting. There are places in my state where there are native (or reintroduced) elk on the outside of the fence and elk on the inside of the fence. The former are wild and are not owned by any individual, the latter are captive and are privately owned.

The concept of captive vs. wild for iNat purposes can get complicated, in part due to the legal classification of animals which is often a gray area. Feral horses are another example where there is often debate as to whether a particular herd is truly feral or is owned by someone but just poorly managed. We have some “semi-feral” horse herds in my area which might be hard to classify in an iNat record.


It´s for sure a tricky matter and I am not sure how big of a role fences should play here. Kruger National park is totally fenced in…so are the animals within not wild? I dont think so.

The Garub horses in Namibia are feral horses living in the desert sind decades, without fences, free to go whereever they please… however, there have been and are intense efforts by some conservationists to save them from dying out due to droughts or even due to being hunted by hyenas that came back to this area… no fence, so wild?



I just wanted to point out, as I sometimes do, that when we are marking organisms here on iNaturalist, as being captive or not captive, cultivated or not cultivated, that choice is not at all dependent on one’s own personal opinion on what counts as wild and what counts as not wild.

We need to make all these judgements be consistent, and also have them align with the original intentions of the iNat staff about this.

Therefore our own ideas on what should be considered wild or not are pretty much irrelevant here.


I wouldn’t say irrelevant. There are gray areas – as iNat staff have admitted – where the opinion of the observer or reviewer can come into play.


I think the bison in Wind Cave would qualify as “wild” for iNaturalist purposes. Yes, this is a population established from introduced bison, but those we see now were born there. The population is managed, but not more so than the Yellowstone bison that are descendants of a population that never died out.

Quite a lot of important species are on the margins of wild and cultivated. Honeybees, for example. Nearly all come from some person’s beehive, but there are a few wild populations. (I can’t know where any particular bee I photo originated.) Most of western Oregon is dominated by our native Douglas-Fir trees which were planted, even in woods that “look” wild. (Some populations and many individual trees are definitely not cultivated.) The Festuca valesiaca (Volga Fescue) populations on our roadsides all originated from plantings and individual plants are long-lived enough that the ones I see are probably the original plants, though possibly not. And condors? Very few condors qualify as even technically wild, since most grew up in captivity. All are heavily managed. You can bet, though that if I ever saw one I would post it! In fact, I cling to the small uncertainty and post all these as wild, a position I can’t defend very far.

On the other hand, elk at an elk refuge near here live behind fences, are habituated to humans, and look as domestic as cattle, but are technically wild and occasionally they do hop over the fence and cross the road, which is risky for both the elk and the drivers.

I think posting these quasi-wild, possibly wild creatures on iNaturalist is valuable because they are data points in what may be migrating or expanding populations. However, that may be an example of excessive rationalization.


“Managed” is another concept that is a bit nebulous. Deer and elk are managed as game species in my state, but that management is at the population level (not individual level). California Condors, which are all individually tagged and radiotelemetered, are managed at the individual level. Black-footed Ferrets can have similar heavy-handed management down to the level of the individual. I would consider an observation of any of these species out in their natural habitat to be a “wild” sighting, although they differ in the degree to which humans are involved in maintaining them in a wild state.


I am the one who has been marking the bison captive. Not only are they managed, but they are also fenced in, which is what made me mark them as captive. I do not think management has anything to do with a population being wild or not, but I always say that’s the reason I’m marking things captive because people seem to get really mad when I point out that the bison are fenced (as in, I’ve been blocked for pointing that out).

I am well aware that much of Africa’s megafauna are also fenced and managed in this way, but I do not feel knowledgeable enough of when they are fenced in and when they aren’t to mark any African wildlife captive. If I was, yes, I would vote those captive too.

The only unfenced bison in the Lower 48 are the Greater Yellowstone herd, the North Kaibab herd, the Camp Pendelton herd, the Catalina Island herd, the Antelope Island herd, and the Henry Mountains herd. I have been trying to mark all bison in the Lower 48 except these herds captive.


The unfenced herds in Canada are the Primrose Lake herd, the Caribou Mountains herd, the Hay-Zama herd, the Wood Buffalo NP herd, the Pink Mountain herd, the Nordquist Flats herd, the Chitek Lake herd, the Mackansie Sanctuary herd, the Nahanni herd, the Slave River herd, the Prince Albert NP herd, Aishihik herd. The unfenced herds in Alaska are the Chitina herd, the Copper River herd, the Delta herd, and the Farewell Lake herd. I haven’t even begun to go through bison observations in Canada and Alaska yet, I never even finished the Lower 48.

I have no idea on the current status of American Bison herds in Mexico or Russia.

Man that sounds like a big project… I considered doing this for honey bees in Canada but figured it wasn’t worth the time and effort.

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Yeah, I’ve been slowly going at this for over a year now. The problem is that SO MANY of these observations have been voted “wild”, even on small ranches where the bison have less than an acre to roam.