So What's In A Name?
The American bison, which are also commonly known as the American buffalo, is a North American species of bison that once roamed the grasslands of North America in massive herds.
The term "buffalo" may be considered a misnomer for this animal, as it is only distantly related to either of the two "true buffalo," the Asian water buffalo and the African buffalo.
Fact is that the word "bison" is actually a Greek word meaning ox-like animal, while the word "buffalo" originated with the French fur trappers who called these massive beasts "bœufs," meaning ox or bullock – so both names, "bison" and "buffalo," have a similar meaning.
In reference to this animal, the term "buffalo," which dates to 1635, has a much longer history than the term "bison," which was first recorded in 1774.
The two subspecies of American Bison are the Plains Bison (Bison bison bison) and the Wood Bison (Bison bison athabascae).
Its original range included much of the boreal forest regions of Alaska, Yukon, western Northwest Territories, northeastern British Columbia, northern Alberta, and northwestern Saskatchewan.
The Wood Bison is different from the Plains Bison in a number of important ways.
Most notably, the Wood Bison is heavier, with large males weighing over 2,000 pounds (900 kilograms), which makes it the largest terrestrial animal in North America.
The highest point of the Wood Bison is well ahead of its front legs, while the Plains Bison's highest point is directly above the front legs.
Wood bison also have larger horn cores, a darker and woollier pelage, and less hair on their forelegs and beard.
That's right, the largest land animal in North America, the Wood Bison, had been disappearing from all over North America for centuries when the last animals were officially declared extinct in 1940.
But then something incredible happened. In 1957, a wonderful discovery occurred.
During a regular air patrol in Canada, federal wildlife officers flying over a remote part of the Wood Buffalo National Park, Alberta, spotted a small extremely isolated herd of two hundred wood bison.
They had gone completely unnoticed for decades – and had kept physically and genetically separate from their cousins, the plains bison.
The wood bison were found about one hundred miles from a new road that was being built from Alberta to the Arctic Circle, and within fifty miles of a mission station that had existed for a hundred years.
Inspection of these animals showed that they were indeed the last remaining pure Wood Bison (Bison athabascae), an enormous Ice Age species not known to exist in a pure strain anywhere else in the world.
The rediscovery of that hidden group of Wood Bison in a remote valley in Canada was nothing short of a miracle.
Now if you think that American bison has been around forever, well the truth is that the American bison is a relative newcomer to North America.
Both groups hunted bison, but the long-horned steppe bison are no longer around because Native Americans hunted them to extinction.
The Great Plains is known for supporting extensive ranching and agriculture.
|An 1897 photograph of a buffalo wallow, |
underlain by the Ogallala Aquifer
So what is a buffalo wallow or bison wallow? Well, it is a natural topographical depression in the flat prairie land that holds rain water and runoff.
Originally this would have served as a temporary watering hole for wildlife, including the North American buffalo.
Wallowing buffalo that drank from and bathed in these naturally occurring shallow water holes gradually changed the pristine watering hole into a buffalo wallow.
Each time they went away, they carried mud with them from the hole, thus enlarging the wallow.
But something else was taking place, wallowing action caused abrasion of hair, natural body oils and cellular debris from their hides and left the debris in the water and especially in the soil after the water evaporated.
Every year the debris accumulated in the soil in increasing concentration and formed a water-impenetrable layer that prevented the rain water and runoff from percolating into the lower layers of the soil.
Ultimately the water remained for long periods which attracted more wildlife. Even when stagnant, the water would be eagerly drunk by thirsty animals.
Interestingly, though thriving buffalo herds roamed and grazed the great prairies of North America for thousands of years, they have left few permanent markings on the landscape to recall their past presence.
Exceptions are the somewhat rare yet still visible ancient buffalo wallows found occasionally on the North American prairie flatlands.
Back in the 1880s, the American buffalo was nearly hunted to extinction. Because of commercial hunting and their out and out slaughter in the 1800's, the wild American bison, the buffalo, that roamed the Great Plains nearly went extinct.
These days with a few thousand wild buffalo are again calling the Great Plains home, and that's not a bad comeback from the foolish slaughter by those who either didn't know what they were doing - or worse didn't care what they were doing.
Once upon a time, their range roughly comprised a triangle between the Great Bear Lake in Canada's far northwest, south to the Mexican states of Durango and Nuevo León, and east along the western boundary of the Appalachian Mountains.
"This is the most significant development in many, many generations," said Stoney Anketell, who sits on the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribal Board.
"When I think of my ancestors, they would be so pleased this occurred. It's finally a reversal of fortune for the Indian people."
The Problems with Relocation
But wait, it's not all roses because in Montana the tribes are now in the middle of what some are calling a culture clash with ranchers - all over buffalo.
Today they freely roam a few national parks and reserves, but from this other problems have come about.
And no, it's not a case of Cowboys and Indians all over again. No, not quite.
This time it's the Native American tribes and Conservation groups versus Cattle Ranchers.
The disagreement is over bison relocation.
Why? Well, the fact is that the Great Plains once again have American buffalo.
With the buffalo comes problems to Cattle Ranchers, who stake their family's wellness on their ability to raise cattle - the buffalo threaten their efforts to do so.
After the bison were relocated from Yellowstone National Park to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Northeastern Montana, the Indians who received them - along with Conservationist groups - have found themselves against cattle ranchers and wheat farmers.
It's the same around the world - what one group sees as a sort of sacred animal is another's nuisance to their way of life. This is the case with buffalo roaming free.
Bison are among the most dangerous animals encountered by visitors to the various U.S. and Canadian national parks, and will attack humans if provoked.
They appear slow because of their lethargic movements but can easily outrun humans – bison have been observed running as fast as 35–40 miles per hour (56–64 km/h).
Bison are more agile than one might expect, given their size and body structure.
When you combine their weight with their speed, bison herds can be very difficult to confine - and yes, they can jump over or crash through almost any 6 foot fence.
During this period, bison charged and injured 79 people, with injuries ranging from goring puncture wounds and broken bones to bruises and abrasions.
Compared to bear attacks, bears injured 24 people during the same time frame. Three people died from the injuries inflicted – one person died by bison in 1983, and two people by bears in 1984 and 1986.
When visiting Yellowstone National Park, I watched a great herd of buffalo move from one range to another. It was amazing to watch them cross a river, tend to their young, and how they kept herd together.
The remember the very first time I saw a buffalo up close and personal, I fell in love with them instantly. I found myself watching them for hours and days. I was in awe of these big beautiful animals. I knew that they demanded respect, and if you wanted to stay healthy - you gave it to them.
At one point while near the Old Faithful General Store there in Yellowstone, I witnessed a buffalo charge a tourist who didn't realize that they really weren't in a "petting zoo" and that those lumbering animals were not docile beasts.
Luckily for the man, he was not hurt bad.
Buffalo Attacks Man!
Disease management strategies and initiatives began in the 1950s, and have yet to result in a reduction of the incidence of either disease
Brucellosis is a disease that occurs in bison and other livestock.
Brucellosis infection of cattle causes abortion or premature calving of recently infected animals, most often between the fifth and eight month of pregnancy.
Millionaire Ted Turner is the largest private owner of bison with about 50,000 on several different ranches, but it was reported that many of his bison had Brucellosis. And yes, there was a fear of it spreading.
Although Federal and State regulations have helped to control this disease, there is still a threat.
And yes, it is a threat from wild bison herds that most ranchers are frightened of - simply because it can possibly wipe out a herd of cattle.
So faced with a Buffalo problem, what's a rancher to do?
"They want everything," fourth generation rancher Dustin Hofeldt said. "All the fences gone, all the cattle out of here - they just want this to be a giant game refuge."
Dustin Hofeldt is one of many plaintiffs who successfully sued to block future bison relocation.
The reason is simple, he is one rancher who is no stranger to bison problems.
In 2005, he shot and killed five in a single day after they had escaped from a neighboring reservation and were harassing his cattle.
Last year, he claims bison broke his fencing and ate his hay, costing him $20,000.
Now I know that $20,000 is not that much money to wealthy Liberals who want to turn the earth back into what it was before man walked upright, but to a rancher with ever increasing expenses like feed and fuel bills going through the roof - $20,000 is a lot of money that most ranchers just don't have.
Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer said that ranchers like Hofeldt and other opponents are being irrational.
"In a hundred years, this herd will still only grow to a few thousand, and we have 3 million cattle in Montana," Schweitzer said. "I think there's room for them to coexist."
What can ranchers do to protect their herd from buffalo who may break fences, eat their crops, threaten their cattle and subsequently threaten the livelihood of their families?
It's terrible to say, by I really believe that until a solution can be found on the part of the states to keep the wild buffalo population fenced in behind a secure boundary, ranchers and farmers who raise cattle and grow crops will have to do the same as Dustin Hofeldt has done - and that's to protect theirs from that which may destroy it.
Attorney Cory Swanson, who is representing ranchers and other bison opponents, asks, "Where does it stop? How widely are the buffalo going to spread, how much damage are they going to cause and where will our interests be protected?"
Cory Swanson worries that bison, which are currently classified as livestock in Montana, will be considered protected wildlife.
That would severely limit what ranchers can do when bison escape containment and do the type of damage that happened to Dustin Hofeldt.
The Evil "White" Ranchers?
Yes, believe it or not, there are some out there who are comparing what ranchers like Dustin Hofeldt need to do to protect his ranch to the senseless killing of buffalo in the Old West.
They are blaming white ranchers for wiping out millions of bison, yet they refuse to face facts about who is responsible for their return from the brink of extinction.
Fact is that the bison population has been growing for decades - thanks to ranchers.
Domestication by Whites prior to the 20th century met with limited success, but today's buffalo ranching is big business.
Bison ranching offers an alternative to beef ranching, reaching customers willing to pay more for a product that has a historic and nutritional significance.
Bison are now raised for meat and hides.
The majority of bison in the world are being raised for human consumption.
Bison meat is lower in fat, calories and cholesterol than beef, pork, chicken, with even half the fat of turkey.
Bison meat is lower in fat and cholesterol than beef, a fact which has led to the development of "beefalo" - a fertile cross-breed of bison and domestic cattle.
Nearly all of the buffalo in Montana and elsewhere are bred with cattle and raised as livestock for their meat.
In 2005, about 35,000 bison were processed for meat in the U.S., with the National Bison Association and USDA providing a "Certified American Buffalo" program with birth-to-consumer tracking of bison via RFID ear tags.
There is even a market for kosher bison meat - these bison are slaughtered at one of the few kosher mammal slaughterhouses in the U.S., and the meat is then distributed nationwide.
A bison's typical weight can range from 700 to 2,200 pounds (between 318 to 1,000 kg). The heaviest wild bull ever recorded weighed 2,800 pounds (1,270 kg). But, when raised on ranches, the bison can grow much heavier.
Because of ranchers, there are approximately 500,000 bison, mostly plains bison, on about 4,000 privately owned ranches.
Under the IUCN Red List Guidelines, commercial herds are not eligible for consideration in determining a Red List designation, therefore the total population of bison calculated in conservation herds is approximately 30,000 individuals and the mature population consists of approximately 20,000 individuals.
Of the total number presented, only 15,000 total buffalo are considered wild bison in the natural range within North America free-range - not confined primarily by fencing.
The American buffalo was what the Native Americans relied on for thousands of years.
But despite this fact, and even though they are the closest relatives of domestic cattle native to North America, bison were never domesticated by Native Americans.
Today, Indian tribes have teamed up with well-financed Conservation Groups. The American Prairie Foundation has been buying up land from ranchers in hopes of one day owning a 3-and-a-half-million-acre wildlife reserve.
The state of Montana is requiring that the Indian tribes build higher electrified fences to keep the bison from getting out, Governor Schweitzer is confident that there will not be escapes.
But for me, I really don't know how anyone can say emphatically that "there will not be escapes" when only time will tell.
The tribes understand that it's in their best interest to do everything they can to keep the buffalo from escaping the reserve and venturing out into the Great Plains where they once roamed freely years before Coronado brought the horse to this land, years before the ranchers or the advent of the automobile in a time long past.
Story by Tom Correa