Greater Yellowstone ecosystem is the only place in the lower
48 states where an endemic population of wild bison has survived
since prehistoric times. Perhaps no other animal symbolizes the
American West like the American bison. In prehistoric times millions
of these quintessential creatures of the plains roamed the North
America from northern Canada, south into Mexico and from Atlantic
to the pacific. No one knows how many bison were in America before
Columbus arrived but the guesstimate is about sixty million.
They were the largest community of wild animals that the world
has ever known. For a good part of the 1800s bison were considered
to be in limitless supply.
After the Civil War the push to settle the west was on, new army posts were established, coinciding with the westward push of the railroads. The army and railroads contracted with local men to supply buffalo meat to feed the troops and construction laborers.
Bison were hunted nearly to extinction in the late 1800’s
and were reduced to less than a thousand animals by the end of the century.
Many western legends took part in the big buffalo hunt including Wyatt Earp,
Bat Masterson, Pat Garrett, Wild Bill Hickok, and William F. Cody, just to
name a few.
Bison relaxing by Old Faithful Geyser after an afternoon thunderstorm
The American government actively supported buffalo hunting because as long as the bison were allowed to freely roam across the prairie, settlers could not use the rich prairie soil for farms and ranches. The annihilation of the bison would enable ranchers to range their cattle without competition from other bovines. Bison hunting also proved an effective political tool as well.
Another impediment to settling the prairies was the Native
Americans themselves. Bison formed the basis of the economies of local Plains
tribes of Native Americans for whom the bison were a primary food source.
Famous Indian fighter, General Philip Sheridan, once said: "Let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffalo is exterminated, as it is the only way to bring lasting peace and allow civilization to advance." Such a policy would weaken the Indian population and pressure them to remain on reservations; Many tribes, understandably, fiercely resisted relocation to reservations. It has been asserted that there were a government initiative to starve the population of the Indian by killing off their primary food source. General Sheridan’s quote lends credence to this argument. Without the bison, the Native Americans were starved onto the reservation. Extermination of the bison spelled the doom of American Indian’s
Bison grazing at Mud Volcano in Yellowstone National Park
The government also promoted bison hunting for other reasons as well; they were a nuisance to the railroads. Train operators would slow their locomotives so passengers could sport shoot the bison from the train windows. The infamous Buffalo Bill once bragged that he killed 4200 buffalo in seventeen months to feed rail laborers.
The bison’s real nemesis were the hunters that hunted them only for their skins, the meat except for the tongue was left to rot, the buffalo hunters would later return for the bones which were gathered then shipped east for industrial carbon and fertilizer. Bison skins were used for industrial machine belts, clothing such as robes, and rugs. Tanneries paid as much as $3.00 per hide and 25¢ for
each tongue. For frontier buffalo hunters bison were a gold mine on four
The establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 inferred a protection of bison but was ignored by poachers so in 1894, the Lacey Act was signed into law, prohibiting the killing of any wildlife in federal preserves.
By 1884 the great era of the buffalo hunt had ended and all that remained of the massive Bison herds were and estimated 1,200-2,000 surviving buffalo left in the United States.
Bison family time at Little America in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park
By the end of the 19th century, the bison population in America had further dwindled to only 800 animals. 1905 William Hornaday founded a conservation movement, the American Bison Society, to protect the remaining herds of bison. The efforts of William Hornaday and his successors have rescued the American bison from near extinction. it is estimated that there are over 150,000 bison on public preserves and in private hands.
Bison are the largest mammals in Yellowstone National
Park. They are grazers of grasslands, meadows, foothills, and even the high-elevation,
forested plateaus of Yellowstone. They are uniquely suited for survival in
the deep snows of Yellowstone’s winter, their giant head works as a snow
plow as they move it back an fourth to clear a place to browse.
Bison males, called bulls, can weigh upwards of 1,800 pounds. Females (cows) average about 1,000 pounds. Both stand approximately six feet tall at the shoulder, and can move with surprising speed to defend their young or when approached too closely by people. Bison breed from mid-July to mid-August, and bear one calf in April and May.
Bison are nomadic grazers, wandering throughout Yellowstone’s grassy plateaus and in Jackson Hole’s Grand Teton Park. Despite a bison’s
slow gait, bison are surprisingly fast for animals that weigh more than half
a ton. In winter, they use their large heads like a plow to push aside snow
and find winter food. In the park interior where snows are deep, they winter
in thermally influenced areas and around the geyser basins. Bison also move
to winter range in the northern part of Yellowstone.
Locking Horns, Bison in battle
Bison are enjoyed by visitors, celebrated by conservationists, and revered by Native Americans so why are bison a management challenge? One reason is that about half of Yellowstone's bison have been are carriers of a bacterial disease called brucellosis; brucellosis may cause cattle to abort their first pregnancy after exposure to Brucella bacteria.
When brucellosis is found in cattle as has happened recently
in Idaho and Wyoming the state loses their "brucellosis-free” status costing the state and their cattle producers millions of dollars annually. The State of Montana has a responsibility to its citizens and ranchers to do what it can to keep its "brucellosis-free" status.
If livestock are infected their herd is destroyed, and the rest of the ranchers
of the state can be prevented from shipping livestock out of state until
stringent and expensive, testing and quarantine requirements are met.
Most of Yellowstone’s wildlife moves freely across BLM,
National Forest, National Park and private property, boundaries that often
times were set up a century ago. Bison however, because of the brucellosis
are not welcome outside the park. Bison managers try to limit bison use of
lands outside the park and their efforts include hunting, hazing bison back
inside park boundaries, capture and harvest for food.
Hunting of wild bison is legal in Montana and Wyoming. In Montana a public hunt was re-established in 2005, and Wyoming reinstated a hunt in 2007. Bison Advocacy groups claim that it is premature to re-establish the hunt, given the bison's lack of habitat and wildlife status in Montana. But the health of the range must be considered also and there is considerable damage to it.
A herd of Bison grazes below the towersin peaks of the Grand Tetons of Jackson Hole Wyoming
Yellowstone and Grand Teton bison herds are prolific and multiply rapidly, range biologists say that Yellowstone can handle about 3,000 bison and Grand Teton Park can handle 600. One of the bison's few natural predators is the wolf. Wolves will usually prey on the females and calves and will rarely attack healthy bulls. It is doubtful that wolves could ever control growth of the bison herd to a level that would keep the ecosystem in balance.
Considering this, wouldn't it be a great opportunity and learning experience for all to institute an anthropologically correct bison hunt for the aboriginal people of the Yellowstone region to be conducted as they were in the 1700's. Imagine, the Griswold's family vacation to Yellowstone while watching for moose, elk, and grizzly bear they happen upon a real live native American bison hunt, what an anthropology lessen and photo opportunity that would be.
You will see bison all over Yellowstone, it is a treat
to have this frontier Icon so handy for visitors to photograph, but just
remember, bison are dangerous and will kill you if you approach them to closely.
That look they give you isn’t one of apathy, it is a contemplative look that
thy wear when they are trying to decide if they want to kill you or not.
Birds gazing at the Grand Tetons from the back of a bison as if they were a bunch of tourists on a bus. Pardon my anthropomorphisation :D