On the trail of the buffalo
Last updated 9/26/2023 at 9:49am
“The morning was fair and the plains looked beautifull . . . . The air was pleasant and a vast assemblage of little birds which croud to the groves on the river sung most enchantingly. . . . Proceeded with the party across the plain to the white bear Islands . . . through a level beautifull and extensive high plain covered with immence hirds of buffaloe. It is now the season at which the buffaloe begin to coppelate and the bulls keep a tremendious roaring we could hear them for many miles and there are such numbers of them that there is one continual roar. our horses had not been acquainted with the buffaloe they appeared much allarmed at their appearance and bellowing. The missouri bottoms on both sides of the river were crouded with buffaloe I sincerely belief that there were not less than 10 thousand buffaloe within a circle of 2 miles arround that place.”
— Meriwether Lewis, Corps of Discovery.
The American Buffalo seems to be “trending” lately. Maybe I’m just more alert to tatanka’s shaggy presence because I spent a day recently in Wyoming’s Cody Center of the West, named for William F. Cody, who made his name — Buffalo Bill — by killing buffalo to feed workers on the Kansas Pacific Railroad in the late 1860s.
No… we’re actually hearing the thunder of the herd.
Last week, new bipartisan legislation to boost buffalo conservation was introduced in Congress:
WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) introduced the bipartisan Indian Buffalo Management Act, legislation to create a permanent buffalo program at the U.S. Department of the Interior and help promote and develop Tribal capacity to manage buffalo.
The Indian Buffalo Management Act provides secure, consistent funding for Tribes and Tribal organizations that have an established buffalo herd and management program, as well as provides resources for Tribes that would like to establish new herds.
Next month, on Monday, October 16, PBS will air a two-part documentary by Ken Burns titled “The American Buffalo”:
“The American Buffalo, a new two-part, four-hour series, takes viewers on a journey through more than 10,000 years of North American history and across some of the continent’s most iconic landscapes, tracing the animal’s evolution, its significance to the Indigenous people and landscape of the Great Plains, its near extinction, and the efforts to bring the magnificent mammals back from the brink.”
There is no more potent symbol of the West than the American Bison — more commonly referred to as buffalo. Native peoples of the Great Plains had built a culture and way of life around the vast herds long before Lewis and Clark beheld them in awe as they crossed the continent.
There were an estimated 30 million buffalo — maybe twice that many — ranging from Canada to Texas at the beginning of the 19th Century. By century’s end, there were fewer than 1,000 left. Overhunting started early, among both native and Euro-American hunters, as a big trade in buffalo robes developed. Habitat disruption due to climate change and migration across the Oregon Trail threatened populations, and they became vulnerable to disease. After the American Civil War, Americans began hunting buffalo on an industrial scale, an activity encouraged by the U.S. Army and government as a means of undermining the independence of the Plains tribes by eliminating their commissary.
The catastrophic collapse of the great buffalo herds is — along with the extinction of the once sky-darkening flocks of Passenger Pigeons — perhaps the most telling example of the ecological damage wrought by the explosive expansion of the American frontier. The story of the buffalo is also, as the Burns documentary promises to recount, an example of pulling back from the edge of total destruction, as hunters-turned-conservationists, scientists, and native peoples saved remnants that were the seed stock for a remarkable comeback.
Despite it all, the buffalo still stands on the prairie, a symbol of the West that was, the West that is, and the West that may yet be.