Once almost extinct, the American bison is back
In the classic folk song, “Home on the Range,” buffalo roam with deer and antelope in a pristine wilderness. The familiar song helped to make the American bison, more commonly known as the “buffalo,” a quintessential symbol of the American West. But this iconic and majestic species (males can weigh up to 2,000 pounds and stand six feet tall) isn’t merely emblematic of the West—the bison holds an important part of our country’s history, too.
Bison once roamed North America in vast herds that grazed on rich grassland known as the “great bison belt.” About 12,000 years ago, this fertile belt stretched from Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico and bison were plentiful. Scientists estimate that 30 to 60 million bison once flourished on these grasslands. Remarkably, by 1889, humans had reduced the robust bison population to a few hundred.
The near extinction of the bison was caused by many factors, such as forestry, agriculture and the introduction of guns and horses. But the primary cause of the bison’s disappearance was the U.S. government’s efforts to remove Native Americans from the Plains and colonize the West. The government knew that without bison— which provided them with food, clothing, shelter, tools, weapons and an important part of their spiritual heritage—the Plains tribes would perish. So, the government launched a massive effort to exterminate bison and hundreds of thousands a year were slaughtered. By the end of the 1800s, they had accomplished their mission: Bison no longer roamed the grasslands and the Plains tribes were pushed onto reservations.
This dark period in U.S. history had a devastating impact on Native people, bison, and even the ecosystem, because bison grazing played an important role in plant diversity. But thanks to recent bison restoration efforts, the future is changing for the bison, and hopefully for tribal people, too. The U.S. government, tribal governments, conservation organizations and others are working together to return bison to public, tribal and private lands. As a result of these efforts, today there are approximately 500,000 bison in herds throughout the U.S.
The restoration of bison to tribal lands has special significance for the tribal nations, for whom the bison represented sustenance, abundance and the sacred interconnectedness of life. According to the Inter-Tribal Bison Cooperative, an organization focused on restoring bison to tribal lands, the “reintroduction of the bison to tribal lands will help heal the spirit of both the Native people and the bison.”
Hopefully, with continued restoration efforts by stakeholders from all corners, a small part of what was lost will slowly be returned—to the bison, the Native people and the land that sustains us all.
WHERE TO WATCH BUFFALO ROAM
After more than 100 years without bison, it’s once again possible to watch the largest mammal in North America graze, stampede and care for their young on grasslands throughout the West. To help you plan a bison-watching trip, we put together a short list of places where the public can see bison in their natural habitat. Please bear in mind that bison can be dangerous if provoked, so keep your distance, and familiarize yourself the rules and regulations of each location before visiting.
Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming, Montana and Idaho)
Yellowstone’s bison, the largest herd in the country, are descendants of bison from the late 1800s, and one of only a handful of herds that have not been hybridized through interbreeding with cattle. The two best viewing locations are Lamar Valley in northern Yellowstone and Hayden Valley in central Yellowstone.
Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve (Oklahoma)
More than 2,000 bison roam this preserve, managed by The Nature Conservancy. You can see the bison herd, as well as other wildlife, along a 10-mile driving loop.
Custer State Park (South Dakota)
One of the world’s largest publicly owned Bison herds (close to 1,300) can be found at Custer State Park. The annual Buffalo Roundup and Arts Festival is scheduled for September 2020.
American Prairie Reserve (Montana)
Located in one of the most remote areas in the lower 48 states, this reserve is home to roughly 850 bison. Due to its off-the-beaten track location, the American Prairie Reserve offers hut accommodations at a base camp on the Reserve.
BELINDA RECIO, recipient of the Humane Society’s Award for Innovation in the Study of Animals, owns True North Gallery (truenorthgallery.net) in Hamilton, Massachusetts, where she exhibits art that connects people with animals and the natural world.