Look what Papa Snail brought back from his home state!In elementary school, we were learning about the animal kingdom, and–in a medicine wheel ceremony that probably would have made a Lakota elder puke– we received “spirit animals” which we were to embrace and learn about. My animal was the buffalo. While the buffalo didn’t mirror my personality, in fact, because it didn’t, I was honored to have received such a meaningful creature. The buffalo was one of the most revered animals to the native people of the Great Plains and the Rockies. Providing nearly everything the tribes needed–hides, meat, and large bones and horns for tools–the animal was called the giveaway.As you probably know, millions of bison stamped trails across most of North America before European colonization. (20-30 million, according to the Defenders of Wildlife.) Wolves depended on buffalo for meat, prairie dogs followed where buffalo had cleared the grass, and plants could successfully reseed where buffalo had turned up the soil. But starting in the 16th century, buffalo were hunted to extinction in what is now the Eastern United States.
With Westward Expansion in the 19th century, the buffalo were down to just over a thousand in North America by 1890. To quote the Greater Yellowstone Resource Guide, “The American government actively supported buffalo hunting because as long as the bison were allowed to freely roam across the prairie, settlers could not use the rich prairie soil for farms and ranches.” Buffalo were also a nuisance to the railroads. Worse, extinguishing the buffalo was encouraged to essentially starve out the tribes dependent on them, forcing the tribes to live on reservations to receive food and essential materials.
Today, thanks to tremendous conservation efforts, the buffalo population is up to around 530,000. (This includes both wild and domestic buffalo, on both public and private lands.)
Like the mustang, the buffalo is both an all-American symbol and a threatened species that nevertheless faces a gun-weilding citizenry (particularly ranchers) and arguably over-eager culling by the Bureau of Land Management. Mutts cartoonist Patrick McDonnell put it so well, I used to have a 2004 newspaper clipping of his on my bedroom door: Greater Yellowstone (including Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, below) is the only place in the continental U.S. where endemic buffalo have continued to live since prehistoric times.
“Buffalo at Quanah Parker Lake in Wichita Wildlife Refuge–Medicine Park, Okla.” Postmarked 1962
Established in 1901, Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge has played an important role in keeping buffalo on the southern Great Plains. By about 1880, buffalo were extinct in the region. But in 1907, a group called the American Bison Society brought fifteen buffalo from the New York Zoo to the Oklahoma refuge. Influential Comanche chief Quanah Parker travelled to the Wildlife Refuge to welcome the buffalo home. The park shelters many more species, including elk, prairie dog, otter, armadillo, turkey, burrowing owl, and an endangered little songbird, the Black-Capped Vireo.“Born in Hawaii, grazed in Nebraska, Buffalo Burney loves the warm sandy beaches of his Catalina Island home.”
Buffalo arrived on Catalina in 1924 for the filming of the Zane Grey adaptation The Vanishing American. The Catalina footage didn’t even make it into the film, so the buffalo were shipped to the island for nothing. Further, no one bothered to ship them back to the mainland! Accustomed to humans, the bison continue to thrive unconfined on the island. In their evolutionarily short time on Catalina, the buffalo have gotten smaller, an adaptation of many animals known as island dwarfism. This allows them to live in balance with the island’s small-scale ecosystem.
I volunteered with the Catalina Island Conservancy some years ago, and learned that since the 1960s, the organization has introduced bull calves like Buffalo Burney to prevent inbreeding in the island herd. These days, the Conservancy returns the favor by sending Catalina bison to strengthen herds in the Western states.Maybe we should all get stranded on Catalina Island!