Sunday, April 12, 2009

A Grand and Noble Beast

Last week’s essay on the arrival of the cherry blossoms and springtime here in Washington certainly resonated with many of you. Your responses were gratefully received and appreciated and I always enjoy hearing from folks. So please feel free to drop me a line whenever.

I am very sorry for the delay in posting this essay on the American bison. I have been promising it for the past month or so, but it took longer than I expected to get it down on paper. Now it’s time to share it with you. Also, check out the recommended links where I have listed some bison-related websites. Happy reading!

Like most Americans, I grew up hearing stories of how the bison herds of yesteryear covered the prairies from horizon to horizon. As a child I occasionally saw one or two - we called them buffalo back then - in a small enclosure at one zoo or another. I also recall seeing small herds of bison - a couple dozen head at most - pastured and grazing among the wheat fields of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta as I drove across the Canadian prairies during my first major road trip during the summer of 1970. Not anywhere close to the numbers I read about when I was younger, but for an American city boy their numbers were impressive enough. Still, I never really thought much about bison and their place in the pantheon of iconic American symbols. In many ways they have become, perhaps, the most iconic of all. So it is a national shame what we have done to them.

I never encountered bison in the wild until the early autumn of 2004 when my wife and I first visited Yellowstone National Park. We entered the park at West Yellowstone, Montana and after crossing into Wyoming we immediately began to see evidence of the awesome destruction wrought by the 1988 North Fork Fire which consumed much of the timberland in the Madison and Gallatin mountain ranges in this northwestern quadrant of the park. We drove along the Madison River for several miles and soon came across a herd of what I estimated to be 30-40 bison quietly grazing along the river bank. As long as we did not venture too close, they did not seem to pay much attention to us. Bison in Yellowstone may look docile and slow moving, but one should not be lulled into a false sense of security. They may appear to be ambling along, but should one or all of them decide to run, they can clock out at 30-40 mph from almost a dead start. Strong leg tendons also allow them to jump vertically to a height of six feet, and 14 feet horizontally. We saw proof of this a few days later, but during this first encounter we ended up just sitting there for quite a while and watching them as they slowing sauntered along the river. I almost forgot that this stretch of the river is one of the premier trout fishing waters in this area, so fascinating are these wonderful animals.

We also encountered a large herd wandering the grasslands and neighboring hillsides of the Lamar River valley, in the eastern section of the park. Here we roamed the trails around Soda Butte where we found evidence of wallows where bison either bedded down or rolled in the dirt to rid themselves insects and other nuisances. We glassed the surrounding hills and spotted a small herd moving single-file along a deep cut trail above the river. It was beginning its autumn trek from higher to lower elevations where food and shelter would be more abundant during the fast-approaching cold weather months (in the spring they will return to the higher elevations). In the valleys they would gather into larger herds in which rivalry among the bulls would surface.

Probably our most impressive encounter came while wandering through the thermal fields near Old Faithful. Here we chanced upon two small rival herds whose bulls were challenging one another for supremacy. This is a frequent occurrence in late summer and early autumn, during the peak mating season and later when the bulls are protecting their harem, and this encounter provided a few anxious moments. While the heifers and adolescents stood by on the sidelines, several bulls began to tangle - jumping up and down, grunting loudly, charging one another and butting heads. Usually it did not take long for one or the other to retreat, but there were two bulls that would not give up. As they continued to struggle they moved ever closer to where we were standing and watching. Unfortunately there was no place for us to go hemmed in as we were by the active geysers and thermal fields. Fortunately, the battle ended before they got too close and the defeated and bloodied bull walked right past us, oblivious to everything else.

After returning home from our trip to Yellowstone, I began to read a great deal on the history and plight of the American bison. Some of the information was contained in general and detailed studies on the Great Plains, North American wildlife, and wildlife and habitat conservation. To this day I try to read everything I can on the subject. Two books in particular stand out and I highly recommend them to anyone who shares my interest. The first is Dan O’Brien’s Buffalo for the Broken Heart (2002), a copy of which I picked up during a subsequent early spring visit to Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, including a return to the bison herds in Yellowstone National Park. O’Brien tells of his own effort to restoring life to his cattle ranch in the northern Black Hills of South Dakota by replacing his beef cattle with bison. Former Senator Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota) called O’Brien’s memoir a "poignant portrayal of our link to the land, and to each other." I also just finished Steven Rinella’s American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon (2008) which Jim Harrison calls a "boldly original and ultimately refreshing book." An understatement if I ever read one. I think Rinella captures my own feeling about the American bison. "I sometimes imagine that we saved the buffalo from the brink of extinction for the simple reason that the animal provided a handy mirror in which we could see our own innermost desires and failures, and our most confounding contradictions. Our efforts to use the buffalo as a looking glass have rendered the animal almost inscrutable."

So why are bison so damn fascinating? The American bison is the largest indigenous animal in North America. Often referred to simply as buffalo in common nomenclature following the American Revolution, it is believed that the earliest predecessors of today’s bison moved from Siberia across the Bering land bridge and dispersed throughout the continent. Its primary habitat, however, was the grasslands of what is today the Great Plains stretching from Alberta and Saskatchewan, in western Canada, to the Llano Estacado (the Staked Plains) between the Mescalero and Caprock escarpments of the Texas Panhandle. Francisco Vásquez de Coronado and his party were probably the first Europeans to venture forth on the Great Plains during the mid 16th century and his reports referred to immense herds of a strange breed of humpbacked cattle that ran wild and appeared to be indigenous to the region. "I found such a quantity that it is impossible to number them, for while I was journeying through these plains, until where I first found them, there was not a day that I lost sight of them."

The American bison, according to Theodore Roosevelt who had observed them in their native habitat from Texas to North Dakota and understood the threats they faced, is a "truly grand and noble beast, and his loss from our prairies and forests is as keenly regretted by the lover of nature and of wildlife as by the hunter." When the continent was first settled by the Europeans in the early 17th century, the bison roamed from coast to coast. The earliest English settlers along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay encountered herds of bison in the nearby forests. By the time of American independence, in 1776, much of the Eastern Seaboard had been settled and cultivated and the bison herds had moved westward, beyond the Allegheny and Appalachian Mountains, to an area between what is now Tennessee and Ohio. American settlers moving west frequently used the established "buffalo trails" to their new homes beyond the eastern mountains. At the beginning of the 19th century, most of these herds had been decimated or driven beyond the Mississippi River to establish what Roosevelt called "the most distinctive and characteristic features of existence on the great plains."

There was no real threat to the early existence of the bison on the Great Plains. There were adequate sources of food and water and these strong and vigorous animals were well designed to handle the cold and harsh winters. The Native Americans on the Great Plains came to count on the bison as a principal source of food, clothing, shelter, and tools. The meat is high in protein whether it is cooked, smoked, or dried. These tribes often fought to establish and defend supremacy over favored hunting grounds, but since the hunting was often done on foot and using only spears and arrows, the bison population was allowed to flourish.

Over two and a half centuries after Coronado first encountered the enormous bison herds on the Great Plains, the Lewis and Clark expedition made its great voyage of discovery from the Mississippi River, via the Missouri and other rivers, to the northwest coast where the Columbia River flows into the Pacific Ocean. Already in September, 1804 Lewis reported that the expedition had reached the confluence of the White and Missouri rivers along the Pine Ridge escarpment marking the beginning of the wide Missouri plateau (today south central South Dakota). It was here the expedition first encountered a huge herd of buffalo. "I do not think I exaggerate [sic]," Lewis reported. "I estimate the number of Buffaloe [sic] which could be comprehended at one view to amount to 3000."

With the westward settlement following in the wake of Lewis and Clark and other expeditions opening up the Great Plains, the Native American tribes found they had to protect their traditional hunting grounds not only from other tribes, but from white hunters and trappers who brought with them horses and new and modern weapons allowing them to hunt more efficiently and across a larger area. The Native American tribes also began to hunt with horse and guns, and employed the "pishkin," a Blackfoot term translated as "buffalo jump," where tribal members disguising themselves with bison skins snuck up behind a herd and forced it off a nearby precipice and on to the rocks below. Like their new competitors, these tribes operated under the misconception that the immense bison herds were a limitless resource. Yet, while the Native Americans continued to use as much of the animal as possible for food, clothing, shelter, and tools, the new settlers frequently took only the tongue (long considered a delicacy and much in demand) and the hide while leaving the rest of the carcass to rot on the prairies.

The Métis perfected the "industrial slaughter" of bison in order to sell meat and hides in the Dakotas and Montana, and the bison population decreased gradually until after the Civil War when settlers once again began to move west. But it was the coming of the railroads in the latter half of the 19th century that spelled doom for the American bison. The Union Pacific began in Omaha in 1865 and four years later it had extended to Utah where it joined another railroad from the west thus becoming the first transcontinental railway. In doing so, it split the bison population on the Great Plains into a northern and southern herd. The Santa Fe Railroad and the Kansas-Pacific branch of the Union Pacific further bifurcated the southern herd. Buffalo Bill, an almost mythical character in American history and popular culture, is reported to have killed over 4000 bison in an 18-month period in order to feed the railroad construction crews. The railroads also made it more economical to transport bison-related products to markets back east. Bison hides had been found to be a source of high grade leather and were much in demand in domestic and foreign tanneries. Bones became a source of fertilizer.

The demand for these items grew and as a result more bison had to be killed to meet these demands. The first of the large-scale extermination operations began near Dodge City, Kansas, in the early 1870s, and these soon extended into western Oklahoma and the Llanos Estacado of the Texas Panhandle where Teddy Roosevelt had his first lesson in the dangers facing the American bison. Even though there were traditional Native American hunting grounds in this area protected by treaty, the skin and bone hunters continued to kill millions of bison throughout this area. The two-year period of 1872-1874 marked the peak of the near total extermination of the American bison. By 1875 over 25 million bison had been killed - literally slaughtered for their hides - and the southern herd had been virtually decimated with only a few isolated small herds left in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Kansas. The last of the Llanos Estacado bison was killed in 1880. Five years earlier the herd had covered 50 square miles.

The Northern Pacific Railroad moved across the Dakotas and into western Montana, further dividing the northern herd. By 1881 it had reach Miles City, Montana which became a center for hunters seeking out this herd. By 1883 - just two short years later - there was only one remaining large herd, in the Black Hills of western South Dakota. That year the state passed a law protecting the herd . . . too little too late. A North American herd once estimated number over 30 million had virtually disappeared.

The last of the free-roaming bison in Canada was killed in 1883; in 1891 in the United States. The only moderate size herd - less than 1000 bison - left in North American were in Yellowstone National Park, established in 1872, and in a handful of other smaller reserves in western Montana. Samuel Walking Coyote, a member of the Pend d’Oreille tribe, saved a few orphaned calves and established the National Bison Range in the Flathead Valley of western Montana. Similar experiments saved the bison from extinction and over 12,000 bison lived in the United States and Canada by the end of World War I. Scions of this herd were later introduced to Yellowstone and it was their descendants that my wife and I watched with fascination during our visits to the park.

Today there is an estimated 500,000 bison in North America although only 4% are free-roaming on government and public land, and up to 10% of these wild bison succumb each year to disease (frequently water-borne vectors), accidents, predators and the weather. The remaining animals are all privately owned. Ted Turner’s half-million acre Vermejo Park Ranch in northeastern New Mexico is home to the only privately owned, genetically pure bison herd.

There are two bison farms only an hour or so north of where we live here in Maryland. Both are situated in the rolling farmland north of Baltimore and along the Pennsylvania state line. We have been visiting one of these - Twin Springs Bison Farm in Lineboro, Maryland - for the past few years in order to stock our freezer with various cuts of high-quality bison meat which contain only a fraction of the fat and calories found in beef. Now I better understand why the Native Americans honored the bison as a mainstay of their culture and traditions. This family-owned and operated farm was establish in 1999 and is now home to a 100+ head herd roaming over 300 beautiful rural acres. During a recent visit to Lineboro the owners told us about the annual bison auction sponsored by the Eastern Bison Association and held at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex, in Harrisburg. My wife and I marked our calendar and drove up to Pennsylvania on the appointed day.

Sally Ann grew up on Florida cattle ranches and whenever she smells the strangely fragrant odor of cattle country she constantly reminds me that "it smells like home." She had been to cattle auctions before, but the bison auction in Harrisburg was unlike anything I had ever seen before. No longer roaming the open range or pastures, here they were segregated into holding pens based on their size and gender. Before the auction tentative buyers (and those of us who were just curious) wandered among these pens to get a close-up look at the animals before the bidding began. Upon close inspection - close enough to feel the heat and moisture of their breathe - I was reminded just how magnificent these animals truly are. On the drive home that afternoon I thought back on the long and tortured history of the bison and I am thankful that they are finally making a comeback in the United States through sustainable livestock management programs. The American bison is a reminder of what Steven Rinella calls "a frontier both forgotten and remembered."

NEXT WEEK: Travels With John - Tales of Another Road Trip


  1. Eileen McLaughlinApril 12, 2009 at 6:48 PM

    The visual, iconic bison image may be preserved in livestock herds, while its genetic heritage is not. Thanks to extensive bison-cattle cross-breeding over many decades, today's bison in livestock and other casually managed herds are all of mixed heritage. Today, the herds with the highest genetic purity are held in federal herds in National Parks and National Wildlife Refuges. Some private herds such as Ted Turner's are also known to be managed toward genetic purity.

    The true, iconic bison had the genes to survive the continent's great extremes of heat and cold over millenia, producing the massive herds eventually described by European explorers.

    A correction: Samuel Walking-Coyote did not establish the National Bison Range. Its founding in 1908 was the result of efforts of the American Bison Society, based in New York City, persuading Congress to allocate funds to purchase land for the range. The Society used a public fundraising campaign to acquire funds for the bison purchase. Part of the bison thus acquired were from a herd that included descendents of Walking-Coyote's calves. The National Bison Range was the first land purchased by the federal government for the sole purpose of protecting wildlife. The legislation was signed into law by President Teddy Roosevelt.

  2. I enjoyed reading this article immensely. It is sad to hear about the plight of the great Bison. I never realized the role of the railroads in the destruction of this great animal until reading this article. It's great to see that they are making a comeback. Thank you very much.