Po­lit­i­cal An­i­mal

Af­ter years of fierce de­bate, the West’s great­est sym­bol will again roam the Plains

Smithsonian Magazine - - Prologue -

THIS WIN TER , IF ALL GOES AS planned, a car­a­van of live­stock trucks will carry dozens of Amer­i­can bi­son out of Yel­low­stone Na­tional Park on a 500-mile jour­ney into the past. Un­like their ranched cousins, which are mainly the re­sult of 20th-cen­tury at­tempts to cross bi­son with cat­tle, the Yel­low­stone animals are wild and ge­net­i­cally pure, de­scen­dants of the orig­i­nal herds that once as­ton­ished vis­i­tors to the Great Plains and made the bi­son the sym­bol of Amer­i­can abun­dance. Un­til, that is, ram­pant hunt­ing made it a sym­bol of mind­less eco­log­i­cal de­struc­tion.

When the mass slaugh­ter of 30 mil­lion or so bi­son fi­nally ended at the turn of the 20th cen­tury, just 23 wild bi­son re­mained in Yel­low­stone, holed up in Pelican Val­ley. To­gether with a small num­ber of animals saved by ranch­ers, that mea­ger herd be­came the ba­sis for the re­cov­ery of the en­tire species, Bi­son bi­son, which has been nur­tured back to strength in the park.

Yel­low­stone has done its job so well, in fact, that the herd now con­sis­tently ex­ceeds 4,000 bi­son, a num­ber large enough to pro­voke fears of over­graz­ing in the park and of bi­son roam­ing be­yond its bound­aries. Park rangers have thus had the dis­heart­en­ing an­nual job of round­ing up “ex­cess” bi­son for slaugh­ter or watch­ing some step across the park’s north­ern bor­der into a hunt that crit­ics de­ride as a fir­ing squad. Re­lo­cat­ing the animals would be the hu­mane al­ter­na­tive, ex­cept for a scary prob­lem: Ranch­ers and oth­ers have long main­tained that bi­son spread bru­cel­losis, a bac­te­rial in­fec­tion that is dev­as­tat­ing to cat­tle. A 2017 study by the Na­tional Acad­e­mies of Sciences, En­gi­neer­ing and Medicine, how­ever, de­ter­mined that every case of bru­cel­losis in cat­tle in the re­gion over the past 20 years came from in­fected elk, not bi­son. That find­ing has made it harder to ar­gue that wild bi­son shouldn’t be al­lowed out of the park.

The park ser­vice will ship the bi­son to the Sioux and Assini­boine tribal na­tions at Fort Peck Reser­va­tion, in north­east­ern Mon­tana. A small herd of Yel­low­stone bi­son has been thriv­ing there since a mod­est 2012 fea­si­bil­ity ex­per­i­ment. The plan is to build up that herd and to cre­ate a bi­son pipe­line, says Rob­bie Mag­nan, the reser­va­tion’s fish and game di­rec­tor. As more animals ar­rive from Yel­low­stone, the Fort Peck tribes will grad­u­ally ex­port bi­son—com­monly called “buf­falo” on the reser­va­tion—to start pro­tected herds on other reser­va­tions and con­ser­va­tion lands.

On a prac­ti­cal level, the re­lo­ca­tion pro­gram is sim­ply a way to keep the Yel­low­stone pop­u­la­tion in check. But it is also much more than that. The move be­gins to re­store wild bi­son to the Great Plains and the Plains In­di­ans, who de­pended on them for food, cloth­ing and shel­ter. “It has a real spir­i­tual mean­ing for us,” says Mag­nan. “The buf­falo were tak­ing care of Na­tive Amer­i­cans from the be­gin­ning of time, and now we need to help them.” The fates of in­dige­nous peo­ple and bi­son have long been in­ter­twined in the eyes of the gov­ern­ment, too: Fed­eral agents 150 years ago pro­posed ex­er­cis­ing con­trol over the Plains Indi-


ans by erad­i­cat­ing the bi­son, in what Gen. Wil­liam Te­cum­seh Sher­man called “one grand sweep of them all.”

Re­newed in­ter­est in the fu­ture of wild bi­son—in­clud­ing its 2016 des­ig­na­tion as the U.S. na­tional mam­mal—comes as the con­ven­tional ac­count of their near ex­tinc­tion is fac­ing fresh scru­tiny. The story that eye­wit­nesses and his­to­ri­ans have told since the 1870s is that the de­struc­tion of the bi­son, al­most overnight, was the work of ruth­less white hun­ters ar­riv­ing by rail­road and armed with the lat­est weaponry. But that ac­count may be too sim­ple.

Cit­ing fur trade records, ar­chae­o­log­i­cal data and con­tem­po­rary ac­counts, en­vi­ron­men­tal his­to­ri­ans such as An­drew Isen­berg at the Uni­ver­sity of Kansas and Dan Flores at the Uni­ver­sity of Mon­tana ar­gue that white hun­ters ad­min­is­tered the crush­ing fi­nal blow—but only af­ter a cen­tury of en­vi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges and Na­tive Amer­i­can over-hunt­ing. The spread of horses on the Great Plains in 1680 on­ward gave tribes a new, highly ef­fi­cient means of pur­su­ing their prey. More Na­tive Amer­i­cans were also ek­ing out a liv­ing from the fiercely vari­able Great Plains en­vi­ron­ment, as set­tlers dis­placed them from tra­di­tional ter­ri­to­ries, and com­mer­cial de­mand meant a huge mar­ket for bi­son hides.

Other re­searchers worry that this con­trar­ian ver­sion of his­tory will in­vite mis­un­der­stand­ing. “Peo­ple hear only ‘In­di­ans were in­volved, too,’ ” says Philip Delo­ria, a Har­vard pro­fes­sor of Na­tive Amer­i­can his­tory, “and that has the ef­fect of let­ting the oth­ers off the hook, and of let­ting the ex­plicit mil­i­tary strat­egy of de­stroy­ing Na­tive Amer­i­can re­sources off the hook.” Delo­ria ar­gues that the Na­tive Amer­i­cans’ cul­ture, based on the idea of sub­sis­tence, pre­vented them from an­ni­hi­lat­ing the bi­son in the same way white mar­ket hun­ters did.

It’s tempt­ing to see a happy end­ing to this story in the restora­tion of the Amer­i­can bi­son: Peo­ple work­ing to­gether can pull a species back from the brink; to­day bi­son are con­sid­ered “near threat­ened” by the In­ter­na­tional Union of Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture. But an­other bat­tle over this shaggy, snort­ing sym­bol lies ahead, as ranch­ers face larger fears about a resur­gent bi­son herd—com­pe­ti­tion for grass, water and other lim­ited re­sources vi­tal to their own un­cer­tain fu­ture.

Buf­faloes at Rest re­calls a time when bi­son were plen­ti­ful. When the print was cre­ated in 1911, only about 1,350 re­mained.

Sci­en­tists be­lieve wild bi­son have in­hab­ited the Yel­low­stone re­gion con­tin­u­ously for at least10,000 years.

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