Saturday, February 16, 2008


I’m working with a great company in Plano, Texas who adhere to the olde traditions of Texas. Along with the land on which they built their new and very impressive corporate headquarters on Legacy Drive, they acquired the adjoining large section which is now a pasture for a small herd of Texas Longhorns (yea-ha!) and three seemingly forlorn bison. Yes, I said bison, not buffalo.

It is apparent that in that particular bovine community, the pecking order first includes all the Longhorns and then the bison. They are second class citizens and exist literally at the pleasure of the states favorite breed. Indeed, we are told that once upon a time there used to be four bison until one of the more aggressive longhorns apparently ticked off, tragically gored the critter to death.

Many of the folks with this company call the noble bison, buffaloes, much to the chagrin of this writer who wants to use this platform to once and for all and to the credit of one of the greatest of our native icons, set the record straight.

Scientifically, the term “buffalo” is incorrect for the North American species. Its proper Latin name is Bison bison. Admittedly in American Western culture, the bison is commonly referred to as "buffalo"; however, this is a misnomer. Though both bison and buffalo belong to the same family Bovidae, the term “buffalo” properly applies only to the Asian Water Buffalo and African Buffalo.

So how could this happen? In the seventeenth century, French explorers in North America referred to the new species they encountered as “les boeufs,” meaning oxen or beeves. The English, arriving later, changed the pronunciation to “la buff.” The name grew distorted as “buffle,” “buffler,” “buffillo,” and, eventually, “buffalo.” (We can thank J. Albert Rorabacher and his The American Buffalo in Transition for this clarification.) Makes you wonder what would have happened had the French won the Seven Year’s War?

Naturalists have estimated that in the time of Columbus there were from 60 to 100 million bison in North America ranging on the Great Plains north to south from Great Slave Lake in Canada all the way to Mexico and west to east from Oregon almost to the Atlantic. They were part of the largest community of wild animals ever known to exist on planet Earth. Indeed, Bison were the most numerous single species of large wild mammal on Earth.

Good Friend Chinnubbie MacIntosh of the Muscogee Nation (Creek) and the Scottish Clan MacIntosh near Tulsa, Oklahoma told me of a time when the Osage Hills north of Tulsa were literally blackened by millions and millions of stampeding bison spilling over their gentle slopes.

In 1800 it was estimated there were forty million bison in the United States alone. Then we had the incursion of European settlers into the American West. Most startling, by 1883, there were few wild bison left in the United States. The majority of the forty million animals were killed in a fifty-five year period, beginning in 1830. By 1900, there were less than six hundred wild or domesticated bison left in North America.

While many people including Buffalo Bill Cody denounced the slaughter; no one really did anything to stop it as it was perceived as one of the main food sources for the Native Peoples who the United States Government was bent on eradicating. It just didn’t fit the government’s less than benevolent model. If I had been born native they would have shot and killed me years ago…

Today we are faring a bit better with the American Bison population estimated at 350,000. Though many of them are not genetically pure, having been crossbred, the trend is to reestablish and maintain more purebred populations. There are four genetically pure, free roaming herds on public lands in North America to include the herd at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho; the herd in the Henry Mountains in Utah; the herd at Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota and the one on Elk Island in Alberta, Canada. It seems fitting that we have a population at the Wind Cave National Park herd in South Dakota as the Lakota People believe that the location where Man first ascended from the underworld.

The herd at Yellowstone National Park numbers around 3,500 and is descended from the Pelican Valley herd in Yellowstone that sought refuge there from the plains slaughter of the 1800’s.

This herd’s migration to lower elevations outside the park during the winter has caused all sorts of concerns by local ranchers who fear that their livestock may be infected with brucellosis though there has never been a documented case of such a transfer. There have long been differing management perspectives between Yellowstone Park Staff and local ranchers recently exacerbated with the reintroduction of the wolf. We all need to recognize the heroic work by such stalwarts as the now retired Norm Bishop who continues to fight the good fight.

So the fight to preserve this species goes on to even include the efforts of Captain Outrageous aka Ted Turner who raises a herd believed to exceed 45,000 bison on fourteen of his fifteen ranches in seven western US states. That makes it the largest privately held herd in the United States. Turner is serious in his effort to perpetuate the species not only for commercial but also philanthropic reasons.

The Caprock Canyons State Park bison herd, isolated in the Texas Panhandle for over 100 years, has never had a new infusion of (to use a polite term) energy. Turner donated three of his purebred bison bulls in order to counter what has been diagnosed as "inbreeding depression" by the Caprock cows. The bulls came from Turner’s ranch in northeastern New Mexico. We’ll just have to monitor the Caprock herd.

Not that bison aren’t appreciative of our efforts (they aren’t), they are among the most dangerous animals encountered by visitors to the various U.S. and Canadian National Parks, especially Yellowstone National Park. I remember Norm Bishop telling me years ago that they were the most dangerous animal at Yellowstone even more so than the legendary Grizzly bear. Norm recounted curious foreign (especially Japanese) tourists who with limited fluency in English didn’t totally understand the warnings posted in the park. Many were seriously injured or even killed when they ventured too close to the bisons. It took a creative comic book with graphic illustrations to better educate those tourists and minimize the inevitable gorings.

We need realize that bison have a testy disposition and are capable of leaping over fences and other barriers and can run as fast as 35 miles per hour. As validated by Norm Bishop, between 1978 and 1992, over four times as many people in Yellowstone National Park were killed or injured by bison as by bears (12 by bears, 56 by bison). Yikes!

I was aware of that when in 1980 while cross country skiing with Norm in Yellowstone we encountered a huge lone bull. Norm was breaking trail and I was dutifully trying to keep up with this outstanding tri-athlete. Norm had just skied down a short embankment near a stand of pine and stopped at the top of the next rise and was frantically motioning me to stop. Well, I couldn’t and skied past that bull who fortunately could have cared less that we were invading his territory. I didn’t see him until I was literally right next to him. As I skied past I caught his musty smell and snort and looking into his right eye could have literally touched him with my left hand! What a majestic animal though Norm at that time was probably pondering just how he was going to evacuate my carcass back to Ranger headquarters.

So, you see I have a great reverence for the bison and feel that he may be my sprit animal. I certainly appreciate what the company has done there in Plano. One of the recruiters known affectionately as Buffalo Bob now monitors the population of our small bison herd via our monthly Bison Metrics Chart to the delight of all company employees. Given our recent close scrutiny we now fear that we have three bulls somewhat limiting our potential to grow the herd. I wonder if we might convince Ted Turner to loan us a couple of ladies from his ranch in New Mexico?


Ned Buxton

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