Publication Date


Date of Final Oral Examination (Defense)


Type of Culminating Activity


Degree Title

Master of Science in Biology



Major Advisor

Matthew Williamson, Ph.D.


Marie-Anne de Graaff, Ph.D.


Jen Cruz, Ph.D.


Intense anthropogenic pressures on the natural environment have created the need for implementing strategies that promote or restore habitat connectivity. The ability for animals to move between habitat patches allows animals to find mates, access resources, and shift their range in response to the changing climate and ensures that ecological and evolutionary processes persist. Connectivity conservation typically focuses on biophysical barriers to animal movement, but for many species reintroductions, establishing and maintaining connectivity often requires overcoming both ecological and socio-political barriers. Despite the need to navigate complex socio-political landscapes to implement connectivity conservation plans, datasets depicting those conditions are rarely used in the connectivity models that underlie connectivity conservation plans. In this research, I demonstrate an approach for leveraging social, political, institutional, and ecological datasets to model long-term connectivity for reintroduced Plains bison (Bison bison) in part of the Northern Great Plains, where no habitat connectivity currently exists.

Efforts to reintroduce bison, both for cultural and ecological reasons, have been ongoing since their near extirpation in the late 1800s due to colonial forces. There are currently more than 20 international, federal, non-profit, and Tribally-led efforts to reintroduce bison to parts of Plains bison expansive historic range. These reintroduction efforts have occasionally been met with intense socio-political backlash highlighting the need for conservation interventions that address important socio-political obstacles in order to achieve long-term connectivity. Some of the socio-political barriers that practitioners seeking to restore bison face are a lack of social acceptance, political opposition from the Republican party and cattle ranching industry, and the need to navigate complex jurisdictional boundaries across a large landscape.

I analyzed the impacts of these specific barriers by using responses from an international wildlife governance preference survey, republican voting trends, cattle sales, and parcel density as a measure of jurisdictional complexity. I integrated these datasets with spatial surfaces depicting bison habitat suitability and human modification to develop a suite of resistance surfaces that depict both the challenges of a bison moving through the landscape and the challenges of conserving important movement pathways for the species. I used these resistance surfaces to compare the costs and probabilities for implementing a variety of connectivity conservation plans. My results highlight where social-ecological mismatches and fit occur throughout the landscape. The analysis shows that the most ecologically ideal pathway is also socio-politically costly, and that choosing a slightly less ecologically valuable pathway may cost less in terms of socio-political resistance.

I also analyzed the potential spatial footprints of three commonly used interventions for promoting conservation outcomes by manipulating the socio-political resistance to reflect three hypothetical conservation interventions using the wildlife governance preference survey. I explored the interventions of creating public land tolerance zones (e.g., shift in jurisdictional complexity), economic incentives aimed at promoting social acceptance, and a Tribal and First Nations governance intervention given the cultural importance of bison to Indigenous people in North America. I found that the economic incentive did little to shift the probability of implementing a connectivity plan for bison when compared to the public land tolerance zone and Tribal and First Nations governance scenario, suggesting that those strategies may have a greater impact on bison’s long-term connectivity in the region. This approach can help conservation managers make more informed decisions regarding where to implement bison connectivity plans, as well as what levers may lead more successful conservation outcomes. My approach could be applied in research for other wide-ranging, reintroduced, or otherwise controversial species to characterize the potential trade-offs involved with different conservation interventions and ultimately lead to conservation plans that have a higher probability of successful implementation.