Why We Should Bring Back the Buffalo

In 1805, when the Lewis and Clark expedition reached the border of what is now North Dakota and Montana, they found herds of American buffalo so numerous, “the whole face of the country was covered” by them, Meriwether Lewis wrote. Less than a century later, in 1889, the nation’s most majestic animal (whose scientific name is Bison bison) had been reduced from practically uncountable numbers to an easily countable 541, and the species teetered on the edge of extinction.

The story of what happened to the buffalo was a triple tragedy: for the animals, who were mercilessly slaughtered by the millions to feed an insatiable industrial demand for their hides; for the vitality of the Great Plains ecosystem that depended on them; and perhaps most profoundly for Native people, who were simultaneously dispossessed of their homelands, confined to reservations and deprived of the animals that had fed their bodies and nourished their spirits for untold generations.

But that heartbreaking tale has another chapter, too, that shows how Americans can change direction and pull back from the brink. In the early 1900s, a diverse and unlikely collection of individuals set about preserving small herds of bison in an effort that finally coalesced into a national movement that saved the species from oblivion. Today, more than 350,000 bison can be found in the United States — a notable success, but really just a start. More is still needed to correct one of the most grievous mistakes of our nation’s past.

Most of today’s bison are being raised as livestock, confined like cattle, fattened in feedlots and trucked to commercial slaughterhouses. Only 20,000 of them are protected in federal and state preserves in what are called conservation herds. Meanwhile, some ranchers and nonprofit environmental organizations are trying to provide buffalo with something closer to the habitats they once knew: more room to roam and native grasses to eat. Under those conditions, the bison can reclaim their former role as the “keystone” species of the prairies, improving conditions for all other species to thrive.

Native tribes — whose lives had been physically and spiritually intertwined with the buffalo for more than 10,000 years, before their sacred connection was so abruptly severed more than a century ago — are doing the most significant restoration work. The InterTribal Buffalo Council, whose membership now includes 83 tribes in 23 states, has already returned approximately 20,000 buffalo to their ancestral homelands.

If anyone doubts that the trajectory is now pointing in the right direction, consider this. One hundred and fifty years ago, during the hide hunters’ final frenzy of annihilation, Columbus Delano, who was then the secretary of the interior, proclaimed that the buffalo’s eradication would be a good thing for the nation, principally “in its effect on the Indians.” Now the bison has been officially designated our national mammal, and the department’s top official, Deb Haaland, is a Native American with ambitious plans to restore larger herds on more reservations. Her $25 million initiative will also support projects that combine bison restoration with grassland restoration, making large swaths of the prairies healthier and helping them store more carbon to combat climate change. Other federal agencies, like the Forest Service and the Department of Agriculture, are also supporting the revival.

We are having trouble retrieving the article content.

Please enable JavaScript in your browser settings.

We are confirming your access to this article, this will take just a moment. However, if you are using Reader mode please log in, subscribe, or exit Reader mode since we are unable to verify access in that state.

Confirming article access.

If you are a subscriber, please log in.

Related Articles

Back to top button