National Bison Day November 1st
This could be a success story which gives hope for other threatened species.
In the early nineteenth century the Great Plains of America resounded to the thundering hooves of as many as 30 million buffalo (another name for bison although strictly incorrect as buffalo live in Africa), contemporary accounts describing the sight as a brown tide. The buffalo dates back to the Pleistocene era and many American Indian tribes had followed the buffalo for centuries, their lives intertwined.
The Indians hunted for food and used as much of their prey as possible for clothing, shelter, tools and many other purposes:
- hides for moccasins, leggings, tipi covers, shields and containers
- entire pelts for winter clothing, blankets and ceremonial items
- hair for ropes and yarn
- sinew for thread and bowstrings
- horns for bows and cooking utensils
- teeth as ornaments
- dung for fuel
- other body parts for glue and a base for paint.
The attitude of the Indians towards the buffalo is complex: there were ceremonies to “call the buffalo” and it was important to regard the animals with respect and acknowledge their gift of themselves to sustain the human population. Many stories were told of the origin of the buffalo, such as the Apache/Comanche account of how Coyote tricked their owner Humpback into releasing them:
As white settlers spread across America the territory of the buffalo was fragmented and powerful weapons enabled hunting in large numbers. In addition it was clear to the U.S. military that killing the buffalo would hasten the defeat of the Indians whose existence depended on them. It is estimated that between 1872 and 1874 some 7.5 million buffalo were slaughtered with this in mind.
This excellent map shows the historical range of the buffalo (brown) and how their numbers and territory had already diminished by 1870 (blue):
In 1889 only about 1000 buffalo remained, a population perilously close to extinction. William Temple Hornaday was horrified by their plight and dedicated himself to their preservation and recovery. He wrote of their near extermination: “It is a disgrace to the American people. It will cause succeeding generations to regard us as being possessed of the leading characteristics of the savage and the beast of prey – cruelty and greed.”
Two animals were acquired for the Smithsonian Department of Living Animals, later becoming the National Zoo. In its 125th anniversary year the Zoo acquired two bison in July: http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/buffaloes-gentle-giants-of-the-plains-return-to-the-national-zoo-after-a-decade/2014/08/26/91e4d0d0-2c58-11e4-9b98-848790384093_story.html
There may be as many as 500 000 bison today, many being farmed for their meat but at least part of a surviving population. Native Americans, to whom the bison were so precious, are leading the way in trying to restore the species as the free-roaming icon of the plains:
More about the Intertribal Buffalo Council here: http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/9/26/save-buffalo-montana.html
Please support the Wildlife Conservation Society’s campaign to make the bison America’s National Mammal: