The Story of The American Bison and What We Can Learn From It
Updated: Nov 11, 2022
The Story of the American Bison (Bison bison) is one of triumph, recovery, wisdom, and a masterclass on the power of conservation efforts. The bison went from tens of millions to under 1,000, back to 350,000 (Nature Conservancy). While there is plenty to point fingers and blame for our past mistakes, we have an opportunity to learn - and prepare - ourselves for the upcoming conservation efforts that we will have to put forth to protect some dwindling species in the United States and across the globe.
Here is the story of the American bison.
When Columbus landed in the United States, an estimated 30 million American Bison roamed across the Great Plains of the United States. These bison were important to Native Americans. Bison provided the obvious food to the Native Americans; however, they also provided materials for shelter, tools, clothes, and more.
"These incredible animals were so iconic that they became a national symbol of pride for the seemingly endless resources of the newly found continent."
However, when European settlers started to expand West in the 1800s, they had a different plan for the American Bison population - and the Native Americans. The settlers began removing Native Americans from their land; one way to do this was to remove their primary food source: Bison. The military provided free ammunition to hunters to remove the bison. Eventually, hundreds of thousands were killed. This commercial hunting was ultimately devastating to the population.
In addition, the Great Plains had been facing a change in its climate. From 1800-1846, the Great Plains experienced above-average rainfall. This filled the plains with grass and other nutrients that the bison relied on. In 1846 however, a drought started to occur. The drought was enough stress for the buffalo; however, with the human implications that were put upon them, their population began to dwindle.
And dwindle it did. Eventually, there were only an estimated 835 wild bison and another 256 bison living in captivity, according to the Nature Conservancy.
"Sanctuaries, zoos, and parks were safe havens for these special animals and helped to sustain and increase their population size. The first national preserve for bison was founded in 1907 near Cache, OK and later became the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge."
Even with these small numbers, eventually, the American Bison was able to make a comeback. Their recovery can be attributed to protective measures such as hunting laws.
The population of bison today has healed.
"Approximately 30,000 bison live in public and private herds in North America; they are managed for conservation goals. Approximately 400,000 bison are raised as livestock however, wild bison are rare. "
Today the American Bison is only wild in national parks, reserves, and state parks. Yellowstone National Park will be your best bet if you want to find them.
American Bison travel in groups known as herds. These herds are separated into herds of males and females and their calves. Once summer comes around, the herds join together for mating - this is when males choose a mate, and you will see them fighting other males butting heads or using their horns.
The females will birth their calves, typically only one, in the spring to give them the best chance of surviving the winter. The cold weather and difficulty finding food tend to take a toll on bison - especially the young.
Bison typically live to around 20 years old.
What We Can Learn From It
This story reminds me of an article we just finished on Red Wolves (Canis rufus). The Red Wolves used to have territory from New Jersey to Texas. However, after years of hunting, only an estimated 15 red wolves are left in the wild. They can only be found in a handful of counties in North Carolina.
These wolves are fighting to recover their population. Even today, they still face a variety of issues. The species is in a highly vulnerable state from car collisions, illegal hunting, and breeding with coyotes. However, just like the American Bison, there is still hope. There is still plenty we can learn from their history.
There is Hope.
In the conservation world, it is easy to see an hourglass flipped upside down with only a few grains left before the clock runs out.
We shouldn't underplay the severity of extinction, especially since we are going through a mass extinction at the moment. However, plenty of extremely smart, driven, and capable organizations, companies, and individuals lead the conservation world in a powerful and optimistic direction.
Conservation efforts single-handedly saved our American bison from indigenous people and conservationists. National Parks, zoos, sanctuaries, and individuals were driven to conserve this species. They came together to establish hunting laws and safe havens for the bison - and eventually, they persevered.
The bison might not be in the same population they were before the start of their population decline, but progress has been made, and we are continuing to progress in the right direction. In 2016, the American Bison was designated formally as the United States National Mammal. We continue to honor the story that the bison has.
Education is important.
We have an opportunity to learn from our past mistakes. The story of the American Bison is not unique. More than 41,000 species across the world are currently under threat of extinction, according to the World Wildlife Fund. However, we have an opportunity unlike any other to learn as a species ourselves.
Just as the American Bison made a recovery, plenty of other species also have an opportunity. Education, awareness, and supporting the proper organizations leading the correct conservation efforts are paramount to the future of these 41,000 species.
We should act while we can.
Extinction is forever. There is no way to reverse a species from completely disappearing from the earth. We only have so much time to act before it is too late.
Today, you can connect and follow organizations and individuals doing inspiring work to protect wildlife from extinction. Awareness and knowledge of the situations around us are a step in the right direction.
Donating to these organizations, monetarily or with your time, can provide a much more significant impact than you would ever expect. There are extraordinary organizations worldwide making huge impacts on all kinds of issues - whether with the environment, wildlife, or human-related causes, you will be able to find an organization that speaks close to your heart.
Lastly, remember the story of the American Bison. The bison has been triumphant - in circumstances when it shouldn't have been. From tens of millions to just hundreds, The American Bison was able to recover with the help and protection that only a few organizations and individuals like what we are capable of implementing today.