At one time, bison were widespread from Alaska to northern Mexico. Now bison have been exterminated in the wild except in Yellowstone Park in Wyoming and Wood Buffalo Park, Northwest territory, Canada. The bison are gone in the prairie of the United States along with many of the ecosystem’s species. Deep scars mar the landscape where the soil has been swept way by water runoff. The life of the rancher and farmer is vanishing.
The body of the bison is huge. They are also tall animals and have two distinctive features, one being the shoulder hump and the other being their huge head. They are brown, their color varying slightly from the front and back of the animal. Their horns are black and curve upward and inward ending in a sharp tip. Their legs are short but firm. Bison are year round grazers. They feed primarily on grasses, but when food is scarce, the will eat other vegetation such as sagebrush. They require water every day. Females are sexually mature in two to three years . The breeding season begins in late June and lasts through September. Gestation is around 285 days, so the calving season in from mid-April through May. Bison are arranged in groups according to sex, age, season and habitat. Grazing takes place during several periods each day conducted in groups. When bison travel, they form a line. Their traveling pattern is determined by the terrain and habitat condition. Bison!
are good swimmers and runners. Bison can hear very well. They communicate vocally through grunts and snorts.
Bison were once a major source of meat and hides in the United States. Their population was once at 60 million. By 1890 the number was reduced to less than 1,000. Prior to the Civil War, hunters would trade and sell buffalo hide. Although they were killed for meat, their hide was in higher demand. The main reason the buffalo population declined was the industrial revolution. Buffalo hide was used as belts that would drive the machines in factories. Because of their depletion, interest in conservation and protection of wildlife caused a law to be passed who prohibited the hunting of wild animals.
The bison were considered sacred to some Indian tribes, such as the Lakota Sioux. They used the bison for food, clothing, shelter and spiritual sustenance. The bison flourished as once did the tribe’s livelihood. Now, there are people as well as organizations who believe the bison’s return to the prairie would be profitable and also a way to return to traditional practices. One such person is Fred DuBray of the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. He learned of the buffalo from his grandmother. She believed the buffalo saved mankind. She stated “They felt sorry for us and offered themselves so we could have life”. (DuBray, 1995). Today, DuBray is president of the Inter Tribal Bison Cooperative (ITBC) founded in 1990. The ITBC is funded through public grants and donations and is a non-profit organization. There are currently 37 member tribes. These member tribes own about 7,000 bison collectively. DuBray hopes one day the bison will be a source of income a!
nd a symbol of tradition for his people. Ted Turner also has a passion for buffalo. He bought the Flying D, 107,000 acre ranch in Montana six years ago. He now has 3,350 free running bison. He also has other ranches which total 657,000 acres and 7,500 bison.
Another person interested in the revival of Bison restoration is Deborah Popper of City University of NY, Staten Island. She states that during the last century the rural portions of the Great Plains have been undergoing a major depopulation that is opening up land which could be used for the Buffalo Commons. Her husband, Frank Popper of Rutgers University, NJ explains the Buffalo Commons would be an extreme example of a pattern found in other rural areas – the decline of traditional agricultural land use and the beginning of replacement by more preservation-oriented ones. He claims the soil of the prairie is dry, eroded and the land has lost its value. Some graduating classes do not reach double figures due to poverty and depopulation. A solution would be to bring the bison into these areas in distress to help their economy. The Poppers have a list of five warning signs of an area in distress. They are decreased population, poverty level, average age, population density!
and soil condition. The result will be the remaining residents will leave in search of more prosperous areas and there will be land virtually uninhabited by humans. These large, depopulated areas offer great opportunities both economically and ecologically. Their plan would employ multiple use of the plains. The Poppers basic questions is “What is the most economically and environmentally sustainable use of the Great Plains?” They coined the phrase “The Buffalo Commons”.
Pros to the restoration of the buffalo are their economic benefits. The land value would increase if it offered hunting and tourism rather than just agriculture (Patel, 1997). Outside investors are realizing the advantages of raising buffalo over cattle and are becoming interested in entering the buffalo industry. There are other contributions a buffalo can make besides just food. A bison hide tanned to make a buffalo robe costs around $1,200. Also, there is a market for buffalo skulls. At the annual Sundance festival, buffalo provide the food as well as their hides for drum heads and rattles and a bleached bison skull serves as the alter. Buffalo require less tending to than cattle and are less environmentally destructive. On average it costs about half as much to raise a bison instead of a cow. They have more protein, less fat than beef and less cholesterol than chicken (DuBray, 1995). Buffalo is said to taste good. Most people say buffalo is a very flavorful mea!
t with a sweeter and richer flavor than beef. It is tender and can be prepared the same as beef. At the moment, bison can be found in gourmet or the special meat category of your supermarket. It is a dense meat and is more nutritional than beef because it has more protein and nutrients (especially iron) with fewer calories and less fat. They are hardy and easy to raise. They adapt easily to their environment and they have efficient use of native grasses. They have a dense coat of hair with enables them to withstand bitter cold and icy winds. Buffalo will huddle together in the freezing weather for heat whereas cattle would freeze to death. In the snow buffalo eat the grass beneath and utilize the snow as a source of water. Their metabolism slows in the winter allowing survival on small amounts of food. Perhaps the greatest contributions the restoration of the bison would be the return of an entire ecosystem.
There are cons to the buffalo revival as well. Along with the expansion are concerns among buffalo producers that there will be mistakes made as there was in the cattle industry. There is the idea that “bigger is better” which intensifies breeding manipulation. High production costs and hormonal additives are also a concern.
Opposition to buffalo restoration comes from those who reside in the plains. When the Poppers’ suggested to convert over 100,000 acres into an ecological restoration, they were called “Stalinists”. The residents felt that intentions were to buy this land and kick the residents out. Another con to the buffalo is the disease some carry called brucellosis which causes them to abort their calves. This is the reason buffalo are shot if they leave Yellowstone Park. Of course, the biggest opposition to the buffalo are the cattle ranchers. They are opposed to bison because of their allegiance to cattle raising. However, Richard Manning, a Montana writer suggests the even a diehard cattle raiser may change their beliefs of buffalo raising. If we are to care for our land, Manning states, “Bison are better for the land than cows are”. BIBLIOGRAPHY
Society for Ecological Restoration 1996 Conference Abstracts Document. Ian Perkins. World Wide Web: nabalu.flas.ufl.edu/ser/Rutgers/Buffalo.html
Center for Bison Studies, MSU-Bozeman. “Current Literature on Culture, History, and Other Issues Regarding Bison”. World Wide Web. January 8, 1997: www.montana.edu/wwwcbs/histlit.html. Articles by Popper, Deborah and Frank.
National Bison Association on the World Wide Web, 1997. www/nbabison.org.
The University of Michigan on the World Wide Web, 1997. www/oit.itd.umich.edu.
The Great Plains Buffalo Association on the World Wide Web, 1997. www.gpbuffalo.org.
Newsweek, May 29, 1995 from the World Wide Web Newsweek archives. Bringing Back the Buffalo, Fred DuBray.
Defenders Magazine. Manning, Richard. The Buffalo is Coming Back. Part One – Four, Winter 1995/96. World Wide Web: www.defenders.org/manning.html