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Bison: home on the range

A bison stands before the Grand Teton Mountains in Wyoming A bison stands before the Grand Teton Mountains in Wyoming visceralimage/Shutterstock
29 Jun
The designation of the North American bison as the national mammal of the US is recognition of the remarkable conservation efforts that have revived the species from the brink of extinction

‘Of all the quadrupeds that have lived upon the Earth, probably no other species has ever marshalled such innumerable hosts as those of the American bison.’ These words were written by William Temple Hornaday, a 19th century American hunter and zoologist described by the Smithsonian Institution as ‘the founder of the American conservation movement’.

He went on to say, ‘it would have been as easy to count or to estimate the number of leaves in a forest as to calculate the number [of bison] living at any given time during the history of the species previous to 1870’.

Hornaday was attempting to educate the American public as to the plight of the bison, which by the end of the century was nearing extinction. Due to the efforts of both him and his contemporaries, today there are an estimated 500,000 bison living across North America. It’s a narrative commemorated last month by the official passing of the National Bison Legacy Act, which states: ‘The mammal commonly known as the North American bison is adopted as the national mammal of the US.’

People just didn’t know how to perceive bison as wildlife. They saw it as an ancient relic, not as a wildlife species that had a functional role in our ecological systems

‘It’s a remarkable story, that we should honour and reflect on,’ says Keith Aune, Director of the Bison Conservation Program at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). ‘That’s part of the national mammal designation – it’s as much about its history as it is about its future.’ The WCS formed part of the ‘Vote Bison Coalition’ – a collection of conservationists, indigenous tribes and bison meat producers – to campaign for the bison, which Aune believes could have been down to as few as 600 individuals at one stage in history. It joins the oak (national tree), the bald eagle (national emblem) and the rose (national floral emblem) as what the Act calls ‘a historical symbol of the United States.’

Aune reflects on Hornaday’s work as ‘the first recovery of the bison’, and claims ‘today we can stand on the shoulders of that work and begin what we call the second recovery.  People just didn’t know how to perceive bison as wildlife. They saw it as an ancient relic, not as a wildlife species that had a functional role in our ecological systems. Now there’s a public awareness, we have a platform to talk about it. We made it possible for people to be knowledgeable about the bison, to be aware of it, and to then affect policy changes and guide some future direction for the species.’

This was published in the July 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.

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