The story of bison has been told time and again, in national parks and refuges, classrooms, in books and video, and on the Web. We learn how bison expanded to 60 million animals roaming across North America, then were driven to the brink of extinction in the late 1800’s before zoos and conservationists saved them. Today, they are a conservation success story.
Cue the sound of screeching brakes.
Even a brief peek behind the curtain tells you that the story is far more complex – and a lot more interesting. Starting with the Ice Age, you find that giant, strange animals were falling in a mass extinction event while bison evolved and walked away. Why?
No one knows how many buffalo there were when Europeans arrived. We didn’t have drones and tracking technology, just horses, compasses, and rudimentary calculations of what people saw. And they were likely counting during the summer, when herds congregated for breeding. You hear numbers all over the map: 10, 30, 60, 100 million.
Zoos, conservationists, and one renowned United States President did help save them. But they were not one-ply heroes. They were complicated people who faced internal conflicts and fought fiercely. Where is the Ken Burns documentary?
The first sanctuaries for wild bison were ranches, not parks and refuges. Nothing is more bone-chilling than imagining yourself as Mary Ann Goodnight. She would lie awake at night during the height of the Great Slaughter, listening to calves cry for their dead mothers. The Goodnights sheltered some of those orphans at their ranch; their descendants live at Caprock Canyons State Park in Texas today.
A half-Blackfeet rancher raised the largest buffalo herd in the United States at the turn of the last century. When the herd’s grazing lands faced settlement, the rancher offered Congress the chance to buy them. Congress refused and Canada snapped them up, embarrassing the U.S. government. International competition helped conservationists get a toe hold, not just grand speeches and florid proclamations.
We only scratched the surface retelling the bison story in “On the Trail of the North American Buffalo”. You can keep digging in books, visiting websites and watching videos, and – wait for it – talking to actual people. People who manage lands and bison, rangers and guides, historians and archeologists. People who live life in bison country.
Cue to everyone: enter, stage left
This is where we all come in. We are not done writing the history of bison, and we all have parts in the movie, whether we know it or not.
Bison are making a comeback, but they still face challenges: limited room to roam, historic and emerging diseases, genetic baggage, cultural intolerance, laws that impact them. Zoos, conservationists, and ranchers continue fighting for their future today.
What can you do? Don’t worry, there’s no need to empty your bank account or ditch your job and family for a life of worn soles, hair shirts and dry bread.
Visit the vast Great Plains, soaking up big skies and life in a sea of grass. Wander the badlands and the grasslands and the river valleys. Visit parks and refuges. Grab those snapshots, sure, but also slow down and take it in. Meet people and learn what they love about their homes, and the challenges they face in today’s world.
Get to know bison and their ways: read, watch, learn. Meet the people who work with them, whether they are rangers, scientists, conservationists, ranchers, or tribes. Go on a ranger walk, or take a workshop. Learn why these people are so passionate about bison, and all the ways they are working to protect grasslands and animals.
Walk in the footsteps of people thousands of years ago, and imagine yourself trying to survive on the Great Plains. Attend a Bison Festival. Visit an archeological dig.
This story needs retelling because it holds a mirror up to us as people, and it’s not over. The bison story tells us a lot about who we are as a people. Our history in North America speaks to our present and future. This story describes the village it takes to save large mammals and give them a healthy future in a modern world. Be part of that village.