Nearly wiped out in a bid to demolish Native American resistance, the bison’s history paints a picture of strife and redemption that mirrors the US’s own Male bison walking along gravel road shoulder with autumn foliage, Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. Photograph: Brad Mitchell/Alamy
The bald eagle may appeal to America’s sense of self – soaring, majestic, hard to tame – but as a national symbol, the more humble bison paints a truer picture of the strife and redemption that has marked US history.
The bison is to become the first national mammal of the US, elevating it to the giddy heights of symbolism currently occupied by the bald eagle.
Little more than 100 years since it was virtually exterminated in America in a manic bid to demolish Native American resistance, the bison now has establishment status.
It’s a story of conservation, but also of a nation. “No other indigenous species tells America’s story,” said Congressman William Clay, a long-time advocate of a beast that can weigh 2,000lbs and stand 6ft tall, complemented by a coarse beard and a pair of curved horns.
Around 30 million bison, possibly many more, once roamed across what was to become the US. George Washington once shot a bison, also known as a buffalo, in present-day West Virginia. Within a century, numbers had plummeted as bison were slaughtered by hunters and ravaged by disease as settlers moved west. By 1889, it was estimated that just over 1,000 bison remained.
No one felt this loss quite as Native Americans. The US army had an official policy of wiping out bison in order to buckle the will of the tribes, who relied upon the animals for food, clothing, tools and spiritual sustenance.
“Our relationship with buffalo has been there since time immemorial, our creation stories involve us living underground with them and coming to the surface of Earth with them,” said Jim Stone, executive director of the Inter-Tribal Buffalo Council.
“There was no way for us to sustain ourselves when the buffalo were exterminated so we handed over vast tracts of land. The buffalo and the tribal people were put on the same path by the government. It was a tough time for tribes.”
Many tribes modeled their family structures upon the bison, viewing the animal as a family-orientated, healthy creature that was to be carefully managed. That link was severed by the arrival of European settlers. Stone’s tribe, the Yankton-Sioux, was unable to husband a single bison for more than a century, until the 1990s.
“People talk about the Great Depression in the 1930s but at least people then weren’t trying to go around and kill you,” Stone said. “It’s not a good story. Our social structure was destroyed. When we bring the buffalo back, we’ll bring the people back because we’ll re-learn how to structure our lives.”
With no restrictions on bison hunting, there was an inevitable free-for-all. A skilled hunter could kill 250 in a day – one person from Kansas managed to shoot 120 in just 40 minutes. The animals’ tongues were highly-prized, as were the hides, which were freighted back to factories in the east to make leather.
The turning point came as a confluence of early environmentalists, such as John Muir, future president Theodore Roosevelt and William Hornaday, first director of the Bronx Zoo, began to gain influence at the turn of the 20th century. In what is possibly the first concerted attempt to recover a species, the American Bison Society was formed.
Bison were bred at the Bronx zoo and transported into newly protected areas. A herd of two dozen bison in Yellowstone, ironically guarded by the army, were supplemented by other bison to create a group now more than 5,000-strong. White men who married Native American women were encouraged by their wives to purchase and keep buffalo. Two states adopted the buffalo in their insignia.
“People started to speak out, to say it wasn’t good for the country to kill off the bison,” said Keith Aune, director of bison programs at the Wildlife Conservation Society.
“Around 1900, people started to think differently about nature and they got active on the political stage. The whole idea that nature had to be conserved in some places started to take root. That first recovery effort got the bison back on track until the 1930s when the American Bison Society thought its work was done and disbanded.”
This initial conservation shove, with protections placed on wild buffalo and a network of national parks created across America’s west, pulled the species back from the brink. Numbers grew and then have plateaued somewhat – 30,000 now roam free, including on tribal land. A further 400,000 are kept as commercial livestock.
As the conservation movement has grown, the bison has been sidelined somewhat. But a re-established American Bison Society has fought to get the species back on the agenda, vindicated by Congress’s national mammal designation – albeit one that offers no new protections.
“We haven’t done well at creating large landscapes where they can ecologically function,” said Aune. “There are only eight functioning bison herds that aren’t fenced in and if they are too isolated, they will lose genetic diversity.
“These animals can deal with climate change and their grazing has benefits to the ecosystem for birds, prairie dogs and other creatures. They are also healthy to eat. Our hope is that the profile will be increased and people won’t forget the bison again. It’s not an ancient relic.”
While the bison can never be restored to its full former glories, Stone hopes that native Americans can manage more of the animals in a traditional way. The national mammal status is “not just a gesture”, he insisted.
“It will help us create forums in schools, help us talk about the buffalo culture in todays’ society,” he said. “It’s easy to talk about the bald eagle because it’s a national symbol. Now we have another symbol, we have the same standing. The bald eagle is important. But the buffalo has a greater role for us.”