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Poised to be a dreamer for bison

Bison are on my mind.

A tiny slice of what once was

A tiny slice of what once was

There is already a lot written about Yellowstone Bison being hazed, killed, confined and abused. Our last remaining wild herd, a mere 3000 out of 60,000,000! And it is hugely controversial.

Calves and moms

Calves and moms

In my own mind, Yellowstone is not the issue. This controversy is small  (and I don’t mean to minimize it at all) compared to the largeness of what should be being addressed. I suggest the real issue begins with restoration of wild bison to larger tracts of land, rather than the confinement to a zoo-like existence.

I hike the mountains to the East side of Yellowstone and encounter old Bison bones, teeth, and sometimes skulls. This was their habitat—the mountains, valleys, and plains. It’s easy to imagine chance encounters with these beasts in the woods, or roaming the valleys where the summer herds of cattle presently reside. I watch the cows. Their presence doesn’t move me. There is a dim hint of intelligence there and no magnificence.

I move cautiously through a herd of cattle grazing on Forest Service land. Today a huge mama stood her ground on the trail, swinging her head back and forth as if to warn me not to get too close to her baby. I chided her and she sheepishly moved away into the watershed below, a product of centuries of breeding the wild out of her. A bison on the trail would have been something formidable, nothing to mess with. It would have chided me and I’d have given him large berth. Meeting a bison, my wild yet cautious nature, instead of my hubris, would have stepped forth. That is the kind of contact that serves me well, serves my depth of being.

A modern day Bison walking the road

A modern day Bison walking the road

Lewis and Clark talked of seeing 10,000 bison in one glance, at times so unfamiliar with humans that they’d come right up to investigate. One entry noted how a calf was following them back to camp. Our land grew up with bison. The bison educated the bunch grasses. Their wallows were important sources of seed banks. Their tough hides and instincts served them well in the blizzards of the Plains. Their meat fed the peoples, their skins and hides warmed them and were their shelters.

They are adapted to survive the cold of the plains

They are adapted to survive the cold of the plains

When Europeans came here, they brought what they knew, their wheat and cattle. They renamed places to remind them of their homes—New England, New Hampshire, New York. They almost brought the bison to extinction in order to exterminate the Native American population.  One hundred and fifty years later, amazingly, we are still defending our cattle instead of restoring what belongs here, what has evolved here with the grasses, the weather, the wildlife, the watersheds. We spend time, effort and money restoring damaged ecosystems, but fail to include the keystone species of the Plains. After 150 years, I am amazed that we still defend our injustices and our cattle, instead of publicly apologizing and making a way for the bison.

Footprints

Bison Footprint

Once someone has visited the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone (or even seen a working ranch of bison) and watched the bison, they can’t tell me that they have the same pleasure sitting and watching cattle graze. There is something so primeval, so basic and ancient, in hearing the mysterious grunts and sounds of the herd, seeing a buffalo paw through snow for food, or a herd lined up following a leader making track through deep snow. This is a pleasure that needs to be reinvigorated, expanded. We can begin to make up for old transgressions and reinvigorate our connection to wild nature at the same time. We can begin a new conversation.

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