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Our keystone species: Bison and their restoration

I’m reading a book that, for the first time for me, pops to life what it meant that there were 60 million Bison here before the white man arrived.

Bison bison, the survivor amongst many large mammals that became extinct in North America, were tough and well suited for this continent.  Surviving -50 degree winters, summer droughts and waterless days where he could drink prickly pear juice if needed.  They lived long and remained fertile into old age, were sure-footed and could swim if needed.  They lived at sea level, on the high plains, and in the high mountains.   A keystone species, their roaming and fertilizing of the soil conditioned it for native grasses as well as provided food for the bears and wolves that freely lived amongst them.

When the Spanish arrived, they found Buffalo north of the Rio Grande and inward into Florida.  Bison covered the continent from Canada to Mexico north.  Bison were in Georgia, along the Mississippi, in Pennsylvania and along the Niagara.

When spring ice floes began, Bison that had fallen through the cracks while crossing the river drowned and were carried downstream.  Thousands of carcasses floated down western rivers.  One trapper counted over 730 until he got tired and stopped counting. Rivers were a continuous brown flow and these carcasses formed complete dams.  Bodies of Bison flowed day and night in the spring.  Grizzlies waited for these spring ‘run-offs’.

Calf loss of Bison was set around 50%.  With 15 million new calves born each year, that meant 7 1/2 million calf carcasses strewn across the country.  Audubon’s party camped on a low island on the Missouri covered with dead Bison calves.

The Bison were so thick that people didn’t count them by individuals.  Instead they counted them by how many days it took to pass one point.  One trapper counted 5 days before the herd passed a point completely.  One man wrote that while traveling up the Arkansas 15 miles a day and able to see for 15 miles on each side of the trail, in 3 days he’d seen about 1350 square miles of land entirely covered with Buffalo.  The herds were “in such immense numbers as to defy computation.”

"Thick as gnats" was one expression used. Native Americans called the country "one robe".

When the buffalo were reduced to only bones covering the plains, people were making money collecting and selling them for fertilizer or glue or for sugar factories.  Railroad cars filled to the brim operated day and night hauling bones.

A few Bison escaped the slaughter by holing up in Yellowstone National Park.  In the early days of the Park, even these few animals were being poached.  By 1902, only 25 or 30 Bison remained in the herd.  An intensive protective breeding program brought these last genetically wild Bison back from the brink.

Controversy remains today.  Bison leaving the Park are subject to slaughter over brucellosis.  Only 3000  of the once 60 million of the wild herd remains, confined within Park boundaries.  If this isn’t a definition of an American tragedy…

Bison footprint

Memory is short.  I suppose it could be touted as a conservation success story, saving the Bison from extinction, running them through a very narrow genetic bottleneck to pop out with 3000 in the Park in 2010.  But what of the other many millions?

An apology from the government is long overdue to the Bison.  A presidential pardon.   And then a place, a very large place in the mid-west they can call their home, should be granted to them, to let them live again and build their numbers as they please.  This idea isn’t new.  Its’ been floating around since the late 1980’s when Drs. Frank and Deborah Popper proposed The Buffalo Common, an area set aside where dying farming communities are.  The Poppers were given a lot of grief over their ideas, but it seems that, with the shrinking of family farms and many towns in the Mid-West folding up, this idea is now being considered as not only realistic, but money making (the key to everything capitalistic!).

There is not one national park in the mid-west.  Imagine herds of thousands of Bison roaming their old habitat.  The short and tall grass prairies would be restored, the soil would sing again, and tourists would come from all over the world to see these magnificent animals, found no where else on earth,  just as they now come to Yellowstone. 

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