Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Fight to Bring Home the Bison

When I first saw a Bison (buffalo) at the Yellowstone National Park in Montana,  I couldn't help but think of an old American folk song,  "Home on the Range."  Part of that song goes: "home, home on the range, where the deer and the buffalos play."

Well, the buffalos play no longer.  Decades of  massive slaughter of Bison and the loss of habitat to settlers especially  during  the mid- to late-19th century drove the animal to near extinction.

According to the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), more than 20 million Bison used to roam throughout Montana's Great Plains and America's Western prairie habitat. Today there are only three truly free-ranging Bison herds in the United States.  They are in Yellowstone Park (approximately 3,500 Bison) and the Henry's Mountains and Book Cliffs herds in Southern Utah (about 500 Bison).

Efforts for the last 15 years by environmentalists and Native Americans  to allow the Bison to freely roam like they used to in Montana have recently been met with stiff opposition from  ranchers and their political allies who see the animal competing with horses and cattle for Montana's expansive grass land.   Montana's lawmakers are now seemingly desperate in pushing new legislation limiting the number of buffaloes restored to their natural habitat. 

For many Native Americans (American Indians)  the fight to  return the Bison to their natural home is a deja vu of sorts. It is a replay of the struggle for control of the land.

Here's what the Buffalo Field Campaign of Montana says: 

"Western settlers were threatened by the nomadic ways of the plains Indians, who for thousands of years had lived migratory lives following the great herds of buffalo. To these people, the buffalo was the ultimate resource. It provided not only food, clothing, and shelter but nearly every material need. Because the Indians of the plains depended so much on the bison for their existence, their very religions were centered around the buffalo. This interdependence between Indian and buffalo is exemplified in the beautiful words of John Fire Lame Deer:"

The buffalo gave us everything we needed. Without it we were nothing. Our tipis were made of his skin. His hide was our bed, our blanket, our winter coat. It was our drum, throbbing through the night, alive, holy. Out of his skin we made our water bags. His flesh strengthened us, became flesh of our flesh. Not the smallest part of it was wasted. His stomach, a red-hot stone dropped into it, became our soup kettle. His horns were our spoons, the bones our knives, our women's awls and needles. Out of his sinews we made our bowstrings and thread. His ribs were fashioned into sleds for our children, his hoofs became rattles. His mighty skull, with the pipe leaning against it, was our sacred altar. The name of the greatest of all Sioux was Tatanka Iyotake--Sitting Bull. When you killed off the buffalo you also killed the Indian--the real, natural, "wild" Indian.

Commenting on the Bison issue in Montana, Robert J. Miller wrote  on Native America, Discovered and Conquered: "This fight reminds me of the efforts to block the restoration of wolves and grizzlies, and also demonstrates the fear that some cultures seem to have of the natural world. It bothers me that some Montana legislators are quickly trying to enact legislation against wild bison without conferring with the Indian Nations located in Montana and the Indian citizens, who are also Montana citizens. Surely, there is room in Montana for the buffalo to roam wild once again."

Well, folks  although  the fight for the Bison's return to its home may seem like a  western cowboy-and-indian movie, it is really more than that.  It is a matter of that age-old battle between economics, on one hand and, on the other, respect for cultural heritage and for every form of life.

Let the buffaloes thrive among the cattle and the horses. Paraphrasing the infamous Marie Antoinette of the House of Bourbon, if the horses, cattle and buffaloes can't eat grass, let them eat cake. Surely, biotechnology  (without its damaging effects) can find a way.

The American Bison          Source:


(National Wildlife Federation's efforts to bring back the Bison)

(The Bison and Native Americans)

 (Montana's frantic stampede to stop the wild buffalo)

- Ariel Murphy 


  1. I added Buffalo to my menu during the "American Cuisine" era of the late 70's...was awarded for my efforts by being named National Buffalo Assoc 'Restauratuer of the Year'. My supplier, Larry Butterfield, was one of the founding members of the National Buffalo Assoc. The American Bison is a majestic, mythic, awe-inspiring animal. Thanks for stimulating those memories, Ariel!

    1. I heard that they're delicious and more nutritious and leaner than beef!

    2. You are correct! Don't know what the nutritional profile is, but the meat is leaner...made me think of 'grass-fed' texture...and the meat is excellent tasting!

  2. Another great blog, Ariel - I was so impressed by the part the Bison played in Native American History throughout my trip across the Great Plains. One of the places I wished I could have spent more time at was the Crazy Horse Museum. I also loved the way the Bison seemed to "own" Yellowstone Natinal Park. I don't eat red meat, but had to try it once during my travels - yes, very lean meat.

  3. Restoration of even 2 or 3 more free-ranging bison herds would be a huge win for wildlife conservationists and native americans and the ecological & sociological benefits are potentially wide-ranging. That said, the issues with the ranchers are very complex (involves brucellosis which can devastate cattle herds if not carefully managed). Given today's reactionary political climate and seeing what's happening to our new wolf populations, I'm not optimistic. but I'll take a look at the links you provided.