He was one of nature’s biggest gifts, and the country owes him thanks. —Charles M. Russell, 1925
The bald eagle has been the national symbol since 1782, but the Western artist Charlie Russell was right: The buffalo was far more important to the story of the American West.
Congress agrees on very little these days, but this May, it successfully passed a bill that was quickly signed by President Obama. The National Bison Legacy Act designates the American bison, most often called the buffalo, as our first national mammal. What’s more, the bill enjoyed the support of a wide array of ranchers, environmentalists, zoos, outdoorsmen and Native Americans. As the Wildlife Conservation Society put it, the animal “is an icon that represents the highest ideals of America.”
The story of the buffalo, once roaming in immense herds, also touches on some of the lowest points in American history. As settlers and gold-seekers pushed toward California throughout the course of the 19th century, tragedy often followed in their wake, including the brutal repression and massacre of the American Indian, the wide-scale exploitation of wildlife resources, and the near-extinction of North America’s largest land animal, the buffalo.
With notable candor, the National Bison Association’s Dave Carter says “the fact that we almost screwed it up” back then did not prevent diverse and sometimes conflicting groups from agreeing on a united effort to help restore the buffalo. The end goal: everything from sustainable commercial meat production to Indian spiritual revitalization.
In the early 1800s, there were more than 30 million buffalo in North America, ranging in massive herds from Alaska to Mexico. By 1890, only about 500 animals were left. By the early 1900s, there were only about 30 genetically pure animals surviving in isolated areas, such as private ranches and the Yellowstone caldera.
In his book Last Stand, Montana author Michael Punke depicted the collapse of the buffalo in a sad telling of historical events. This included the scourge of hide hunters, who sent 1.5 million hides back East in the winter of 1872-1873, leaving carcasses to rot on the plains. In 1874, the Sharps Company issued the Sharps Old Reliable, “the rifle to end all rifles.” Hunter Frank Mayer used one to kill 269 buffalo in a single hunt, shooting from 300 yards away.
Railroads sponsored buffalo-killing expeditions, during which one Kansas man is said to have shot 120 animals in 40 minutes. Passenger trains on the newly minted transcontinental railroads would stop for hours while a single herd passed—and sportsmen took aim. And the rail workers had to be fed. A young man who came to be known as “Buffalo Bill” Cody wrote in his diary that he killed 4,280 buffalo in 18 months to feed construction workers for the Kansas Pacific Railroad.
Mercilessly, the U.S. Army participated in wholesale slaughter of the buffalo. Author Larry Barsness, in Heads, Hides and Horns, chronicles the relationship of the buffalo to North American Indians, and why the Army worked to wipe them out: “Either the buffalo or the Indian must go. Only when the Indian becomes absolutely dependent on us for his every need will we be able to handle him. If we kill the buffalo, we conquer the Indian.”
Yet thankfully, the buffalo survives, and Native Americans have a big role in the animal’s restoration. The InterTribal Buffalo Council represents 63 tribes engaging in, or planning, management to restore buffalo culture, and in some cases to manage herds for commercial ventures, which in turn will aid Indian communities. Executive director Jim Stone says the new national animal designation is a vehicle that will allow tribes to be “buffalo-centric” again.
People talk about oil and gas as the new buffalo, or gaming as the new buffalo. “There’s still the old buffalo,” Stone says. Stone, a Yankton Sioux, says his South Dakota tribe harvested its last buffalo in 1886. It wasn’t until 1993—107 years later—that the tribe could conduct another ceremonial slaughter of a buffalo. Stone believes a national buffalo designation resembles the effort to put the image of Harriet Tubman, the Underground Railroad “conductor,” on the $20 bill.
Buffalo, you’re the national mammal. You deserve no less.
Gaynell Terrell is a contributing writer to Writers on the Range, an opinion service of High Country News.