Thursday, June 10, 2010

Comeback: The American Buffalo



Up there in my top five favorite wildlife animals is the mighty American Buffalo. My first encounter with them was not at a rescue center, or even a zoo, but rather, quite recently in the middle of the Alaskan Highway in Canada, on my route from Anchorage to New Orleans. After a few days and many hours of curves and steep grades through and around mountains meeting the road, there in the middle of the highway was an awe-inspiring buffalo. Afterwards, I felt as if I had seen a unicorn, and learned that evening that their presence is so ubiquitous locals lovingly refer to them Alaskan highway speed bumps. My second encounter was later on in the trip, on our way out of Saskatchewan, when we drove through Elk Island, home of one of the largest buffalo reserves in the world. About 40 buffalo flank either side of the highway as we pass by. They are huge.

Coincidentally, just days later, we had the good fortune to pass through Jamestown, North Dakota. That's right, the Jamestown, home of the largest buffalo statue in the world, and the National Buffalo Museum! I insist that my traveling companions and I (2 cats, a dog, and an ex-boyfriend) make an overnight stop. If this were merely some lousy city or state buffalo museum, then I'd have agreed without controversy that we buzz right by. But a national museum? A must-see for the newly-minted, self-styled buffalo afficionado such as myself.

The National Buffalo Museum was created in 1991 and is dedicated to educating its visitors on buffalo and prairie life in the United States. It is part of and adjacent to Frontier Village, a series of outbuildings depicting a frontier town. Next to the museum and village is the largest buffalo statue in the world. The museum also includes a pasture viewable from the highway housing a herd of thirty specimens, including a rare white buffalo. I got the opportunity to see the herd, the giant buffalo statue, and even learn a little about one of America's favorite beasts.


The North American Buffalo have been part of America's legacy since the founding of the country. Native only to North America, they provided food and shelter for thousands of years, and roamed the land long before the existence of nations and borders. They then faced near extinction by the 1870's due to commercial and sport hunting and waste. In some cases, tourists would shoot at stampeding herds from moving trains. Often, buffalo were hunted for their tongues only, with the remainder of the carcasses left to rot on the plains. At one point, up to 200,000 were hunted per year.

By the late 1800's it became clear that the population of buffalo was diminishing. Due to the efforts of one man in South Dakota and two in Montana in 1890's, the American buffalo were saved from extinction. These men bought and protected a herd in their respective states. The South Dakota herd grew from 5 to 1200 in about 15 years, and the Montana herd shared comparable success on a smaller scale. These conservation efforts have in large part succeeded in slowly but surely rejuvenating the buffalo population.

Other herds have thrived even without monumental efforts other than through the establishment of the hunting regulations. Take for instance, the buffalo of Catalina Island, in California. Members of this herd are descendants of 14 Hollywood starlets who were brought there in 1924 for the filming of a Western movie, The Vanishing American. At that time the island was owned by William Wrigley Jr. (of the chewing gum fame) who encouraged movie shoots. Upon completion of the film, the animals were left there. They thrived, and grew to a herd of 400 by the 1960's. The Wrigley family turned over most of the island to a conservancy. Since then some have been sent to South Dakota in order reduce ecological onslaught on the island, and a few have been brought from Wyoming to diversify the genetics of the breed. Ultimately, these acts were undertaken to ensure the herd's survival. The conservancy continues to exist today and the buffalo co-exist with humans peacefully in their sunny real estate amongst the mansions of wealthy Californians.

The genetically purest herd thrives in Yellowstone National Park. In 1902 there were 23 specimens roaming the park. Through hunting regulations and the original effort of the aforementioned Montana man, this herd has grown to over 4,000, even threatening their own habitat in the park.

Including commercial herds of genetically impure specimens, there exist by some estimates about 350,000 individuals. Though down from at least 60 million that roamed the frontier in the mid-19th century, it is a clearly a comeback. And, while conservation efforts eliminated jobs in the commercial and sport harvesting industry, these same efforts simultaneously resulted in the birth of buffalo farming.

Another noteworthy example of the revival of near extinct species can be found in my
new home of Louisiana. In 1967, the American alligator was listed as an endangered species, with a population in the low thousands. Efforts of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife to control hunting combined with the creation of commercial farms enabled the population to rebound, and since 1987 the American alligator is no longer considered endangered. They are now ubiquitous in the Louisiana bayou, and the market demand for their meat is served by the newly created industry of alligator farming.

So often, regulations in the name of conservation are met with a knee-jerk retort that jobs for human beings are being destroyed. What those critics fail to recognize is the fact that jobs and conservation can go hand in hand, as illustrated by the revival of the buffalo and the alligator.

Both beasts, despite their powerful physique, can co-exist with humans, except when our behavior prohibits such. And so it is also through our behavior and our efforts to control our behavior that we can co-exist again. In this world, alligator and buffalo can roam.

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