Wildlife conservation and concern about the environment aren’t the relative latecomers to activism that many of us imagine. There have been pockets of concerned citizens who have made it their missions to preserve the native creatures of our homeland.
One of the very first species to catch the attention of conservationists is the North American Bison, popularly called buffalo. These large animals were once a dominant part of the North American ecology and sustained a great many human inhabitants of the continent. They migrated among the prairies and grasslands from northern Mexico to well into Canada.
The bison herds were at the base of the ecosystems of plants, other herbivores, predators, and scavengers. It is estimated that at least 50-million of these animals roamed the continent before the arrival of European explorers and settlers. As the United States was formed and expanded, the numbers of bison steadily declined. Unregulated shooting by hunters armed with accurate, powerful rifles systematically wiped out the herds. Before the end of the 1800s, the bison population was on the brink of extinction, with numbers only in the hundreds.
Many historians have alleged that the US government encouraged the mass extermination of bison in efforts to starve the native people during the Indian wars. People of European ancestry were eager to settle the Great Plains and lands to the west, but the original nations were resistant to those efforts. Historians also point out that the railroad owners wanted to eliminate the herds because the bison were judged a nuisance. Sometimes large herd migrations crossing railroad tracks might delay trains for several hours at a time.
By the mid 1880s official encouragement of slaughter and sport shooters had brought the bison herds to their lowest population levels. The chief taxidermist of the US National Museum, William Hornaday became greatly concerned. Hornaday calculated that fewer than 300 bison remained in the entire United States. He advocated for the sheltering of breeding stock of bison and other endangered species. Hornaday was one of the first people who understood that the public needed to be educated about the fate of endangered species.
In December of 1905, Hornaday and Ernest Baynes founded the American Bison Society. The group grew under the endorsement of its honorary president, Theodore Roosevelt. In 1907, the organization shipped 15 bison from the Bronx Zoo to Oklahoma, to begin the very first animal reintroduction on the continent. The society’s next projects included the purchase of a herd for the National Bison Range of Montana in 1910. In 1913, they donated 14 of the animals to the Wind Cave National Park, located in South Dakota. The American Bison Society then disbanded for several decades, beginning in 1935.
In addition to the efforts of the society, one small herd of bison escaped detection of the hunters by finding refuge in a hidden, remote valley in Yellowstone National Park. After the “Great Buffalo Hunt” was finally halted, the discovery of this last band of wild bison led to a more robust repopulation effort.
By the mid-twentieth century, the numbers of North American bison had risen, fallen, and risen again to about 4,000. The figure was still considered to be a dangerously low number, especially given the very limited range of the animals. Bison could still be vulnerable to disease and poaching. On July 22, 1950, a new report was issued by the “Save the American Bison Campaign” to raise awareness of the plight of the animals across North America.
The report noted these totals, as of July 1950: Elk Island, Alberta, Canada had 500 bison; Henry Mountains of Utah had 500 bison; Wind Cave Park, South Dakota tallied 1,500 bison; and Yellowstone Park had 4,000 bison. These were the last four remaining genetically pure, free range bison herds, anywhere.
Since the 1950s, traditional conservation societies have stepped up efforts to save the bison. More importantly, Native Americans have become more involved in these efforts. Many of the First Nations people are reconnecting with their past and heritage. The gains in bison population have merged with a resurgence of Native American culture in symbiotic fashion. Just as the demise of the bison led to the near total collapse of Indian culture, the bison regrowth has brought along renewed interest in the human social structure.
These days, the traditional conservationists and the Native American groups have merged with the efforts of modern environmentalists to form a stronger coalition to preserve and maintain the integrity and strength of the still small herds of North American bison.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes Black Elk. “The bison were the gift of a good spirit and were our strength, but we should lose them, and from the same good spirit, we must find another strength.”