Giving Back to Wounded Knee Foundation

March 22, 2013


Story by Jaime Netzer

The National Bison Legacy act seeks to pay tribute to a symbol of our nation’s strength and endurance.

Adult male bison can reach a shoulder height of more than 5 feet, boast a length of nearl 9 feet, and weigh up to as much as 2500 pounds, as much as a Volkswagon Beetle! And when the mood strikes, , or they find the sun rising or setting, bison may do something surprising: They dance!

Colorado rancher Pam Clarke calls it, affectionately, “the boinky dance.” In footage captured onn her video camera, a yearling moves swiftly through his small herd trying, as Clark describes, ” to get the rest of the group going.” He hops on all four hooves at once, moving much like a coiled-up spring. In the video, his friewnds remain mostly uninterested, but Clark says that at dawn and dusk, the whole herd will partake in this quirky choreography!

Perhaps today more than ever the American bison has something to dance about! Thhough bison have long been recognized as a symbol of the West and our frontier past, their iconic stature is in a position to become officially recognized for the first time, courtesy of the U. S. government. The National Bison Legacy Act, introduced by Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyoming), would serve the express purpose of designating the bison our National Mammal.

I introduced the National Bison Legacy Act as a way for our younger generation to take an interest in government and to learn more about the West and its history, “Enzi says. The bill has broad bipartisan support and recognizes the bison as a symbol of the will of the American people — their strength, their freedoom, and their perseverance.”

Perseverance is right. Bison, when faced with a storm, instinctually walk into it head-on because their body design enables to face the storm and get through it more quickly. (Cattle, by contrast, move away from an oncoming storm). And bison, indeed, have made it through the storm of their near extinction thanks to an unlikely coalition of supporters.

It was said that approximately 77,000,000 roamed the west to Ohio, Illinois and Indiana in the 1840’s and in only 60 years of a hell-bent thrust of mass extinction, they numbered only around 900-1000 by 1900.

The American Bison Society, wich was first created by the likes of Teddy Roosevelt who trophy shot the world over, and conservationist William Temple Hornaday, was reestablished in 2005 by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). The people working for and with this group are diverse: They include ranchers, Native American Tribal Members, scientists, , as well as government agencies. Similarly, the National Bison Legacy Act coalition — the folks working to get the national mammal designation — consists of the National Bison Association–was established in 2005 by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). The people working for and with this group are diverse: They include ranchers, Native American tribal leaders, scientists and conservationists, as well as as government agencies. Similarly, the National Bisoon Legacy Act coalition–the folks working to get the national mammal designation — consists of the National Bison Association (NBA), the Inter Tribal Buffalo Council (ITBC), and WCS.

Each organization wants something different from the national mammal designation. WCS hopes to bring awareness to the ecological restoration of the species. WCS hopes to bring awareness to the ecological restoration of the species. ITBC wants tribes to have access to bison again for cultural usage. And NBA wants to get the bison story out so that more people eat them!

Jim Stone, executive director of ITBC, explains why this mix of folks is a little strange:

“We disagree on some bbasic fundamental levels”, he says. “The commercial bison programs are first and foremost concerned with making money. The majority of conservation groups fail to see the role of Native Americans in buffalo restoration. And the tribes’ relationship is one based on a sstrong religious component, where the buffalo provides for us and we provide for the buffalo.” But he also notes that there are shared goals, too. No one wants to domesticate the bison, not even the ranchers, and everyone is interested in increasing bison P.R.

To help accomplish that, the National Bison Leggacy Act would designate the first Thursday of each November as a celebration of the bison, to be spearheaded by the very groups supporting the bill. That’s particularly important for Stone, because November is also Native American Heritage month, and he’s looking to develop a curriculum to educate people about the role of bison in Native American communities as the animals are reintroduced onto tribal lands.

¬†“Because you hear it often repeated that the buffalo are our relatives, it confuses some people that we still consume the animals”, he says. “The usage of buffalo for consumption is a cornerstone of our relationship; it would be disrespectful to the buffalo to not utilize it for the purpose laid out in some tribes’ creation stories.”

¬†More than one expert has posited, in fact, that it is the recent interest in consumption of bison that has actually helped to restore the species. “At the turn of the last century, five ranchers, the Bronx Zoo, and others scrambled to save the buffalo from extinction,” says Dave Carter, executive director of NBA. “From 1900 to the 1960’s, those efforts focused primarily on bringing back bison to public parks and preserves. There is no real accurate census of the bison population, but a 1960 edition of National Geographic’s WILD ANIMALS OF NORTH AMERICA lists the total population of bison at that time as 10,000 animals. Since private ranching started to take hold in the 1960’s, the population has increased dramatically. According to the latest USDA Census of Agriculture, there were 200,000 bison in that country as well. More than 95% of bison iin North America today are on private lands.”

Even the WCS, which maintains an interest in conservation herds, says they’re ibn favor of people eating bison We’re not at all opposed to bison as a ranch animal,” says Keith Aune, lead bison coordinator for WCS. But he nbotes there are some special challenges. “You can’t cowboy ’em,” he says. “If you do, it’ll blow up. It takes subtlety and a great deal of patience, but they have so much to teach us.” (Guess the tribes of the great plains have known that for many hundreds of years ~ C. Hicks)

Which is what makes them such great ambassadors, Rancher Pam Clark agrees. “What a perfect animal to be our national mammal, because they have a sense of triumph and tragedy but then, they had nothing to do with it.”


Wolf Pack