Some folks say that bison belong here, not the ’burbs. The great herds once covered the plains, shaping the prairie in their nomadic graze. They were a keystone species, holding the ecology of the plains in a state of equilibrium. Native Americans who lived on the plains depended on the bison for survival, using the animals as a primary source of materials and food. Hides were used as clothing and shelter, bones were used as weapons, tools, and farming impliments. It may have been the most healthy lifestyle on earth at the time, at least nutritionally, if height is a judge of health. These provided for nomadic tribes and agricultural settlements, alike. (For instance, a bison scapula, attached to a long stick, made a handy hoe for tilling tough, clay-thick prairie soils.) But the bison herds were not eternal.
The bison ruled the plains for some 200,000 years before the first European explorers arrived. Before the Bison bison (the ones affectionately called the American Buffalo,) there were bigger bison (Bison antiquus) and before them, there were wooly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius). With each succession of big game, humans arrived to kill them. Interestingly, there weren’t always great plains. When the first humans began arriving in North America, these vast swaths of land were forested. No one is certain about what really happened. (There are many untestable but entertaining theories, of course, such as this Cheyenne legend describing the origin of the buffalo. On the other hand, the bisons themselves may be the ones to tell the true story… their teeth recorded millennia of changes in climate, through the different grasses they chewed.) In any case, the climate warmed; the trees disappeared, with the exception of riparian corridors; the Mammuthus primigenius and the Bison antiquus went extinct; Bison bison arrived; humans arrived, hunted, built tools, and used fire.
Landscape painter and architect Philip Juras wrote about this complex interplay in his master’s thesis on pre-settlement North American savannas:
It is recognized that Indians may have been the major cause of fire, though in some cases fire from lightning may have been responsible for maintaining an open landscape. If one considers that by burning, humans were probably the most important agent in shaping the structure and composition of the presettlement landscape, then it might be appropriate to argue that any restoration of such a landscape would, in fact, be a demonstration of a cultural landscape, more so than of a "natural" one. In a way, this aspect of the presettlement condition brings the often diametrically opposed views of culture and nature closer together. (ch. VIII.)
Change happened–this much we know–but what caused what remains an enigma. It is rather doubtful that the humans alive at the time knew any better. Why waste time wondering about the role of fire in the dynamic equilibriums of an ecosystem, when you’re using all your energy just trying to stay warm and fed?
When explorers and pioneers of European descent arrived on the plains, some 12,000 years after those early hunters, survival still took priority over ecology. When Sarah Church and her husband were driving their first load of cattle to their settlement on the plains of Colorado in 1862, she expected to see herds of bison along the way. But she didn’t. "We wished so much to see the great herds of Buffalo we had read of, but only saw one half grown and partly domesticated," she wrote. It wasn’t as if they were travelling through an area unsuitable for bison. Sarah recalled that as they set out on their first trip west, some traveller had suggested they use dried bison chips to fuel their campfires. The dung was common… but what happened to the herds?
In part, it was sport. Shoot a bison, get a hide. C’mon, everybody’s doing it! Well, maybe not everyone. It only took a few hired guns, in the end. The railroad companies, expanding west, encouraged the mass slaughter of bison. Herds of bison wouldn’t move out of the path of an oncoming locomotive, which would be unable to stop in time.
They didn’t just shoot from the train, however. The railroads hired sharpshooters to seek out the herds as well. These practiced gunmen knew how to sneak up on a herd and start shooting rapidly, so hundreds of animals would die before the rest realized what was happening, and began to stampede.
Sarah Church would have realized what happened to the bison, eventually. Her husband was friends with one of the most famous of the bison killers of all time, "Buffalo Bill" Cody. According to the foreword of his autobiography, Cody killed 4,280 bison in a period of only 18 months. (The Adventures of Buffalo Bill Cody, pg ix.)
Despite his namesake, Cody was among those who first realized the bison were in danger of going extinct. By that time, he was more of a showman than a bison killer. Unfortunately, the American government decided it would be in its best interests to let the bison go extinct.
Not only did the bison herds threaten to harm railroads and compete with cattle
ranchers, but they were the pride of the government’s perceived enemy: the “dangerous native savages”. So, in hopes of forcing the native populations into European lifestyles, conservation efforts were intentionally suppressed:
"As [Valerius] Geist recounts in his book [Buffalo Nation], many high-ranking U.S. officials were explicit about their intentions. "The civilization of the Indian is impossible while the buffalo remains upon the plains," declared secretary of the interior Columbus Delano in 1873. Two years later, Gen. Philip Sheridan told a joint session of Congress that buffalo hunters had done more to settle what he called "the vexed Indian question" than the entire U.S. army. Sheridan urged the politicians to continue to support the hunters. "For the sake of lasting peace," he said, "let them kill, skin and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated."" —Brain Bergman (Maclean’s, February, 2004.)
The results were successful, or tragic, depending on your point of view. The bison nearly extinct, with only a few individual herds surviving, Native Americans on plains reservations were forced to use cattle in mock bison hunts:
The few remaining herds were fenced in, along with the rest of the plains.
By the turn of the 20th century, the free-roaming herds of bison were a thing of the past. They continued to symbolize the west, appearing as mascots (for instance, take my own school mascot, the CU Buffs) or in patriotic song. This photograph of "Charlford", a fancy manor house south of Denver, was taken sometime after the place was built in 1926. The artist wanted to depict the plains surrounding the house as they once were, and so glued a few bison right into the photograph:
This story isn’t altogether tragic. The bison did eventually make something of a comeback. There are approximately 300,000 bison alive today. Most are raised in private herds for consumption, although about 10,000 roam wild in national parks, like Yellowstone. Yet, without their original range, the bison have been unable to regain their role as a keystone species in the plains ecosystem. Cattle, or even fenced bison, make a poor replacement. They tend to overgraze, which leads to erosion, causing excess amounts of sediment to flow into the rivers. Other species which once followed herds of bison have now settled permanently in the suburbs, often with a negative impact. For instance, the cowbird, a obligate brood parasite (it lays its eggs in the nests of other songbirds, who unwittingly raise the baby cowbird as their own while neglecting their own young) no longer migrates, so the effects of its parasitism are not spread out, but localized.
Perhaps most bizzarre is not the loss of the bison to individual ecosystems, but the loss of identity of the bison themselves. Recent studies have shown that most bison living today carry a small number of cattle genes in their DNA. In the 18th century, ranchers hybridized cattle and bison, creating beefalo and cattalo. They hoped to take the disease resistance, intelligence, and hardiness of the bison and spread it to the population of cattle. Instead, they ended up spreading cattle genes into the bison population. Dr. James Derr of the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine has discovered cattle genes in all but a few herds of bison. Particularly, the herds in Yellowstone and Wind Cave National Parks, along with a herd owned by the state of Utah, and a herd owned by Ted Turner, have so far shown no genetic evidence of hybridization. In these cases, fences may actually save the uniqueness of the bison. Dr. Derr emphasized this in his closing remarks at the talk on "the Ecological Future of North American Bison" here in Denver in 2006:
Given all of this, for bison or any other species, for long-term conservation, one major consideration must be the preservation of their germplasm. If this germplasm is lost through extinction, genetic drift or diluted and contaminated through extensive hybridization it can never be fully recovered.
In a way, we can’t allow the bison to take up their previous range, without threatening their distinctiveness as bison. To maintain that uniqueness, we must keep them divided.