The plains buffalo officially recognized for contribution in American history
By Julian Gothard
The recent passage of The National Bison Legacy Act through Congress looks set to install the Tatanka – aka the American Bison (Bison bison) – as the “Official U.S. National Mammal.” When President Obama signs the act into law, the four year effort by a coalition of more than 60 organizations will finally have paid off. The coalition – led by the Inter Tribal Buffalo Council, National Bison Association, and Wildlife Conservation Society – set out to officially recognize the ecological, cultural, and economic contribution of the plains buffalo in American history.
Some 30 million bison once roamed across the North American continent, but the rapid westward expansion of settlers, homesteaders, hunters and trappers coincided with a concerted effort by the U.S. government of the day to exterminate the species and thus destroy the very fabric of Native American existence.
“Historically the buffalo had more influence on man than all other Plains animals combined. It was life, food, raiment, and shelter to the Indians. The buffalo and the Plains Indians lived together, and together passed away. The year 1876 marks practically the end of both. . . .” [Walter Prescott Webb – The Great Plains]
The bison – North America’s largest land mammal – was an integral part of the natural ecosystem. Foraging, fertilization, trampling and other activities helped shape the vegetation and landscape. Several bird species even adapted to or co-evolved with types of grasses and vegetation structures that had been, for millennia, grazed by millions of free-ranging bison from Alaska to Mexico, from Oregon to New Jersey, and south as far as Georgia. But inevitably mankind had other plans.
“The primary cause of the buffalo’s extermination, and the one which embraced all others, was the descent of civilization, with all its elements of destructiveness, upon the whole of the country inhabited by that animal. From the Great Slave Lake to the Rio Grande the home of the buffalo was everywhere overrun by the man with a gun; and, as has ever been the case, the wild creatures were gradually swept away.” [William T. Hornady – The Extermination of the American Bison – 1889.]
By the turn of the 20th century bison numbered in the hundreds rather than the millions and the species would have passed into history were it not for the survival of two dozen buffalo in what came to be known as Yellowstone National Park. In 1907, President Teddy Roosevelt and the American Bison Society shipped 15 animals by train from the Bronx Zoo to Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, and soon after, bison were transferred to South Dakota’s Wind Cave National Park.
This early campaign to spare the few remaining bison gradually spread to other states (bison now exist in all 50 states in public and private herds) like South Dakota, Montana, and Oklahoma which ultimately spawned today’s 2,500 privately ranched herds of bison that provide meat, wool, and leather to growing markets. Although less than five percent of bison truly run free, wherever they roam they help recover lost grasslands and restore ecological biodiversity.
Perhaps most importantly, the re-establishment of bison herds on tribal lands across the Great Plains has restored the buffalo’s sacred and spiritual role in Native American culture from South Dakota and Oklahoma to New Mexico and Montana.
“What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset. [Crowfoot of the Blackfoot.]
About the author:
Julian Gothard operates Gothard Photography (GP) a small family-run business based near the old gold rush town of Black Hawk in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. The company produces a selection of custom photographic gifts – including photo slates, greetings cards and canvas prints – that showcase the beauty of the Colorado Front Range, the Centennial State and beyond.
Julian’s photography has been featured in a number of state, national, and international publications – including the Denver Post and the Weekly Register-Call – and his articles have appeared in print and electronic magazines in both Great Britain and the United States.
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