National Bison Day

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November 1 is National Bison Day. You can get in on the celebration through the Beards for Bison campaign by visiting http://www.beardsforbison.org/ which is organized by the Wildlife Conservation Society.

While I adore all ungulates, next to pronghorn there is no North American ungulate that holds my fascination more than bison (Bison bison). They are an American icon and the largest land mammal in North America. During the months of January through May of 2009, I had the good fortune of interning at the North Carolina Zoological Park in the Northwoods Prairie section. The section includes red wolves, grizzly bears, black bears, elk and bison. The opportunity to work with such a combination of snorting beasts and large carnivorous mammals was indeed a thrill.

There are two recognized subspecies in North America: Plains bison (Bison bison bison) and wood bison (Bison bison athabascae). The historical range of plains bison extended from Northern Mexico to central Alberta. Wood bison range extended from central Alberta to Alaska.

North American bison graze and forage primarily in grasslands and meadows. Their historic range was the widest natural range of any North American herbivore, from the arid grasslands of Chihuahua State in northern Mexico, through the grasslands of the Great Plains, to the riparian meadows of interior Alaska. They can thrive in dry regions or deep snow, eating primarily grasses and sedges when resources are thin. Bison excavate snow by sweeping it away using side to side motions of their muzzle. In the summer and fall, they have a more varied diet that includes flowering plants, woody plant leaves, and lichens.

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In the 19th Century, we nearly lost bison throughout its entire North American range due to recreational hunting, market and subsistence. It is difficult for me to think of bison and not simultaneously replay in my head the scene from Dances with Wolves when the nomadic Lakota Sioux and John Dunbar, on a hunt for bison, come across a seemingly unending sea of dead bison, killed only for their hides and otherwise left to decompose. The numbers of bison destroyed and left to rot were in numbers far greater than wildlife could consume and certainly not fit for human consumption.

Fortunately, conservationists stepped in and took action before all was lost. In 1905, Theodore Roosevelt and William Hornaday founded the American Bison Society (ABS) at the Bronx Zoo to save the bison from extinction. In 1907, Bronx Zoo staff sent 15 bison by train to Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains Wildlife Preserve to help restore the western Plains’ depleted bison population. In 2005, Wildlife Conservation Society re-launched the American Bison Society, which built a network of bison experts, including ranchers, state, and provincial governments, Native American nations, scientists, and non-governmental organizations from western states, Mexico, and Canada, with the purpose of securing an ecological future of bison in North America over the next century.

But pressure on wild bison populations persists and they need all the public support that can be mustered. Bison are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources as Near Threatened in light of its dependence on an ongoing conservation program and the fact that there are only five viable wild populations. There are approximately 19,000 total plains bison in 54 conservation herds (herds managed in the public interest by governments and environmental organizations), and 11,000 total wood bison in 11 conservation herds. Over 90 percent of bison today are under private ownership, raised like cows for bison meat. In fact at the turn of last century, ranchers often interbred bison with cattle to improve their cattle herds. Therefore, cattle genes are now present in many bison populations, and few genetically pure bison herds remain. Current policies and a tradition of fencing ranches discourage free-ranging bison herds in the West.

While bison have been “saved”, there is still much work to do. So sport your beard, real or otherwise, on November 1 and post your photo with #BeardsforBison on social media. Also, go to http://votebison.org/ and cast your vote for bison to be designated as America’s national mammal.

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