THE DESCENT OF CIVILIZATION - AMERICAN BISON, SOUTH DAKOTA
These animals have largely forsaken the nomadic tendencies of their ancestors and are generally content to remain the year around on the home range. Only occasionally does one wander away. Such was the case in 1936 when an old buffalo appeared in a farmer’s yard near Witten in the Rosebud country. The children screamed and climbed the windmill; the excited parents called the neighbors on the party telephone line and soon all were there with automobiles. Using cars, the farmers chased the decrepit old buffalo until he fell exhausted and died.
—A South Dakota Guide (WPA, 1938)
Before Alexander Hamilton’s visage graced the ten dollar bill, it was Andrew Jackson’s mug leering from the note. But just preceding Old Hickory, for an all-too-brief period of 13 years, the sawbuck sported a far worthier American symbol—the bison. When the Treasury released the “Buffalo Bill” in 1901, there were only a few hundred living animals remaining.
The American bison was one of the first and best cases for conservation in the United States, largely because their near incalculable numbers were relentlessly exterminated within an incredibly short span of time. White buffalo hunters, government policies targeting American Indians, the Transcontinental Railroad, and even telegraph companies were all drivers behind the bison’s systematic annihilation.
In 1889, William Hornaday, the first director of the Bronx Zoo, wrote, “Of all the quadrupeds that have lived upon the earth, probably no other species has ever marshaled such innumerable hosts as those of the American bison. It would have been as easy to count or to estimate the number of leaves in a forest as to calculate the number of buffaloes living at any given time during the history of the species previous to 1870.”
Today there are about 500,000 bison in North America (some 10 percent of which belong to Buffalo Bill wanna-be Ted Turner) and the animals continue to be a source of controversy. In Montana, ranchers fear the spread of brucellosis from roaming bison to their cattle herds, and are trying to stop the restoration of wild buffalo to the land. One state legislator remarked, “Why do you want to spread this creeping cancer, these wooly tanks, around the state of Montana? We’ve got zero tolerance left in our bones.”
All wrangling aside, when you round a bend and see for the first time the hulking black masses dividing flat green from flat blue, it is heart-stopping. A shadow play of the Great Plains myth moving slowly across the horizon, never to be forgotten.
Guide note: During the summer months Custer State Park’s Wildlife Loop Road is packed with RVs and minivans, but it’s also a good place to get the merest hint of what bison herds must have been like in the 19th century. And if you’re up for roughing it in the primitive camping area of the park, you may wake up to the snorts, snuffles and bellowing grunts of a herd surrounding your tent.
Ghost Dances: Proving Up On the Great Plains by Josh Garrett-Davis begins at the Bronx Zoo’s bison enclosure and unspools the deeply layered history of the Great Plains alongside a memoir of growing up in South Dakota.
The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America by Douglas Brinkley contains (amongst other fascinating conservation tales) the story of Roosevelt and William Hornaday’s attempts to save the bison from extinction.
Images - Erin Chapman & Tom McNamara; Words - Erin Chapman; Archive - Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Burton Historical Collection - Detroit Public Library
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Erin Chapman and Tom McNamara are co-editors of The American Guide.