By Mark Kenyon
When I heard this week that the American bison (aka buffalo) was about to be named the national mammal of the United States, my mind immediately flashed back to a summer evening, five years ago in South Dakota’s Badlands National Park.
My wife and I had just hiked up over a hill and now, as we looked across the valley to the opposite ridge, we took in a sight that seemed straight off the pages of the Lewis & Clark journals. Strewn across the hillside, silhouetted against the tawny brown grasses, were dozens of slow moving large dark masses. Buffalo. The scene was magical and even in that very moment, I knew I was witnessing something special. A relic of a bygone age. And I stood hypnotized, listening to the far off groans of the herd, frozen in place, transported back in time.
In the years since, I’ve become increasingly fascinated with these animals and what transpired between those days of Lewis & Clark and where we stand today. And what I found was that this story was even more relevant to me, as a self-identifying hunter-conservationist, than I ever thought.
Other than Native Americans, there’s no group of people in America who are more intertwined with the story of buffalo than hunters. In many ways, the history of the buffalo is the history of American hunters. And so in turn that story is also our legacy, whether we like it all or not.
So now as the buffalo is back in the spotlight and about to become our national mammal, I’ve got to thinking that if anyone should care about the story of buffalo, it should be us hunters – all hunters.
And if anyone can write the final chapters of that story, it should be us hunters as well.
You likely know the basics of the buffalo story, but bear with me for a very brief recap.
When Euro-Americans first started exploring the West, a population of some 25-30 million buffalo were believed to be roaming the great plains and beyond. But over the first 80 years or so of the 19th century, a series of factors led to that population dwindling down to nearly to nothing.
While no single variable was solely responsible for the near extirpation of bison, market hunting was most definitely the final and most extreme straw that broke the camels back. And that story, of course, is what’s most relevant to hunters today.
With a belief that buffalo were an inexhaustible resource and rife for converting into riches, thousands of young men ventured west in the mid-1800’s to make their fortune by way of killing buffalo. And over the course of several decades, with increasing efficiency, these hunters did just that. With no restraint, no concern for “fair chase” and no thought to sustainability, market hunters chased the famed buffalo herds across the great plains and sold their tongues, hides and occasionally meat to whomever would pay. According to Dan Flores, many of these hunters came to see buffalo as nothing more than “walkin’, bellerin’, gold pieces.”
By the early 1880’s, those millions of buffalo had been hunted down to likely just a few thousand, and eventually, some believe much lower. This fate was not unique just to the buffalo either, as unregulated market hunting led to the near extirpation of deer, elk, antelope, bighorn sheep and almost all of the other large mammals roaming the continent at the time.
One of the greatest spectacles of wildlife in the entire world had been obliterated over the course of a few short decades and much of the responsibility for that fell on our hunting predecessors.
But, from this nadir, buffalo and most of those other species were brought back from the depths. And again, remarkably, this was in large part because of hunters. But this now was a group of hunters with a new vision, a longer term outlook, and a full understanding of the responsibility that hunters must carry.
Men like George Bird Grinnell, William T. Hornaday and Theodore Roosevelt, the founding fathers of the hunter-conservationist movement, fought to protect the few remaining buffalo, they preserved habitat, they established the groundwork for new regulations that would end market hunting, and they ushered in a new era of sustainable fair-chase hunting.
Why Does It Matter?
And this story, of both the greatest sins of the hunting legacy and of our greatest redemptive actions, is one that all of us hunters need to better understand.
Through the history of the buffalo we can see ourselves, hunters, at our best and at our worst. The story of the buffalo shows very clearly what happens when hunters operate without a moral and biological compass, and yet it also demonstrates what can happen at the opposite end of the spectrum, when hunters work for a greater good, when they respect wildlife, and hunt with restraint and ethics.
The tragedy of the buffalo is worth studying, because as they say, those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it. But it’s also worth our time because of what that tragedy spawned and the impact that this new conservation ethic has had across the future generations.
The Irony of Our National Mammal
Unfortunately, the story of the buffalo’s tragic fall and eventual redemption still has a very prominent asterisk attached to it.
Of all the animals that hunter-conservationists saved from extinction in the late 1800’s and eventually recovered, only one today is managed more like livestock than wildlife, only one is hazed and slaughtered if it roams outside set borders, only one is relegated to a few small “preserves” across the country, and only one does not roam free of its own accord as a wild animal should.
And that’s our soon to be named national mammal.
Buffalo, while certainly saved from the brink of extirpation, have not enjoyed anywhere near the wild recovery that’s been experienced by elk, whitetail deer, moose, turkeys or any of the other wonderful species that we enjoy and hunt across wide-ranging areas of the country. Instead, the vast majority of buffalo alive on this continent, about 96% of the remaining animals, are now livestock living on ranches and sold as food. In fact there are just a few small wild populations of buffalo across all of the US, and even those “wild” herds largely cannot roam free.
The largest of those “wild” populations in the US is the Yellowstone herd which numbers somewhere around 5,000, and while this herd is thriving and could expand it’s numbers and range, up until just recently, if those animals migrated outside of the park during the winter in search of food, they’d be rounded up and slaughtered (with very few legitimate opportunities for hunters). Last year some 900 buffalo endured such a fate. And while public pressure is mounting for this to change, to this point the natural expansion of buffalo herds to other areas has been largely prohibited.
For the most part, these arbitrary limits put on the recovery of buffalo have been because of the competition some worry they will present the livestock industry. Wild free roaming buffalo mean more critters trying to eat the grasslands that ranchers want their cattle or sheep to have first dibs on, as well as the potential for damaged fences and gates. Additionally, some in that industry worry that brucellosis, a disease that some bison carry, could be transferred to their cattle. Interestingly, elk can carry the disease as well, but they’re still allowed to roam free. And while these concerns should not be ignored, most wildlife experts and conservationists in the know seem to believe that there is room to meet in the middle.
Writing the Final Chapters
And this is where hunters once again have an opportunity to make a meaningful impact on the story of buffalo and conservation history in this country. We had a tragic hand in nearly eliminating these animals, we eventually fought to save them from the brink, and now, maybe, we can have a hand in restoring them finally as a wild, ecologically relevant, free ranging and hopefully even sustainably huntable species- just as we’ve done for elk and deer and so many other animals.
“Today, nothing prevents us from finishing the saga of wildlife restoration,” says Jim Posewitz, formerly of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and founder of Orion the Hunter’s Institute, “except the cultural will to just simply do it. We have the animals and we have a place for them. In addition, we have a moral responsibility to the buffalo. It has endured more abuse historically and in contemporary times, from what we call civilization, than any other species.”
Given the history we’ve discussed, this moral responsibility, in my belief falls on the shoulders of hunters more than almost anyone else. And fortunately we’re also better prepared for this task than most as well.
As a collective, hunter-conservationists have helped to revive viable populations of elk, deer, sheep, turkeys and so many other species across the country. And now we have one last crowning achievement ahead of us. What better way to conclude the epic tale of the buffalo than with hunters finally righting the wrongs committed generations ago by helping to restore wild buffalo across parts of their wider range.
Many of today’s hunters, including myself, have grown up in an era of wildlife abundance. We’ve never known a landscape without thriving deer herds, mountains full of elk, and ridgelines echoing with wild turkey gobbles. The work done by our forefathers have allowed us this privilege. But one piece of the North American wildlife puzzle has largely remained missing. Maybe by filling that gap we can create our own lasting legacy as a new generation of hunter-conservationists.
But How Can We Do It?
I firmly believe that the first step forward is simply to better understand the larger story of buffalo and the conservation movement that spawned from it. Knowledge is, in fact, power. Books such as American Buffalo by Steven Rinella, Last Stand by Michael Punke and American Serengetti by Dan Flores are terrific resources to explore further and I’d urge you to read them. They are both fascinating and inspiring.
But secondly, we sportsmen can become more involved in the efforts to “rewild” bison and expand opportunities for them to again roam free as well. Given the fact that hunting opportunities for buffalo have been close to zero for decades, there’s no Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation or National Wild Turkey Federation equivalent available to work on their behalf. But maybe we can change that someday.
There are two specific areas that, based on most accounts, have the greatest opportunity for increasing free-ranging bison herds. First, in the areas surrounding Yellowstone National park, where buffalo are already trying to expand out towards the national forests and other public lands, a long-standing buffalo battle continues to be fought. There’s been plenty of debate and some progress made here already, but the sportsmen’s voice could make a big difference in the future. Secondly, in Northeastern Montana a project has been in the works to create a large Yellowstone scale public reserve where large populations of buffalo could again roam freely. This area, being worked on by the American Prairie Reserve, is largely open to hunting, and if large-scale numbers of bison can be restored here, it could represent a terrific opportunity for free-ranging, truly wild and sustainable buffalo hunting someday down the line.
By keeping our ears to the ground about opportunities such as this, and jumping in with a sportsman’s perspective and our support when needed, we can make a meaningful difference.
A Wild Ending
Back to the Badlands, after watching the herd of buffalo the rest of that evening til dark, my wife and I headed back to our tent. And as I settled into my sleeping bag, I could hear the grunts and groans of the bison far off in the distance, acting as an ancient lullaby, putting me to sleep and filling my subconscious with dreams of long-ago times and wide open spaces.
But several hours later, I heard those sounds again, now much closer. And then the world began to shake.
After a moment I realized it wasn’t the world shaking, but our tent, as a buffalo was a mere few feet from my head, scratching his back on our tent poles. And with the realization that this thousand pound creature was just an errant step or two from crushing me like scrap metal, my body unleashed a chain reaction of uncomfortable physical effects. A torrent of adrenaline flushed my face, my heart audibly thumped in my chest, and a nervous sweat broke out on my brow and back.
That same rush is something I hope to someday experience again many years from now, in a very different circumstance. Hopefully I’ll again be up close with a bison, but this time whether I’m hunting or just watching, I hope to watch as hundreds of these seemingly prehistoric creatures wander aimlessly ahead of me on a boundless landscape, without roadside tourists or fences, truly wild and truly free.
And in that moment, I imagine I’ll enjoy a small taste of what it is to be wild and free myself.
The story of the buffalo is also our story as hunters. It’s a story both tragic and hopeful. And in the end, maybe that’s exactly why the buffalo should be our national mammal after all.
Learn more and sign a petition advocating for wild buffalo restoration at SportsmenforBison.com