The first time I saw a bison was in May 1996, when my father brought me to Yellowstone National Park as a celebration for having finished my graduate education in Social Work. We had rented a purple Chevy Cavalier, and the bison beside us was so large that it towered over us in our vehicle. For someone who has never seen one in the flesh, a male bison can way nearly a ton and stand over 6 feet tall at the hump. They are enormous - both in height and breadth. It is truly an amazing experience. If you are smart, it can also be a bit terrifying as these are wild creatures. The bison by our car (which we had nicknamed "Plumb Crazy,") was so close, and looking so ornery, that we were both a bit concerned that it would rip the car door off of its hinges. If you spend any amount of time in the park, you will frequently see impatient people trying to drive through the herds in order to escape a bison jam. I have one word for those people. Jackasses.
It still fills me with a sense of awe that such a place exists where such a large wild creature can march side by side with you no different than if I were driving down Broadway to buy a bagel and a coffee. Driving through the Hayden Valley in Yellowstone National Park, we saw several herds of 100 and more. Spread out over the plain, it is hard to contemplate what the sea of bison would have looked like before the Europeans came and killed them all. Like any genocide, it boggles my mind to believe that anyone with any sort of conscience could willingly take part...but they did.
The number of bison in the Americas were culled from an estimated population of between 30,000,000 - 60,000,000 to a number of just a few hundred in 1910. The slaughter/genocide was for a variety of reasons - money (skins sold for top dollar), to make way for the railroads and as a means to starve out the First Peoples. I guess it all boiled down to Gold, God and Glory with a twist of Manifest Destiny - the idea that the United States is destined - by God - to expand its dominion and spread democracy and capitalism across the entire North American continent. In the words of historian Conrad Cherry, “America is a nation called to a special destiny by God.” Sadly, it was yet another crime in the name of God. I sometimes wonder what I would have felt had I been alive at the time. Would I have been quiet or indifferent? I hope not.
As a result of conservation efforts, today there are about 30,000 bison living on public lands, and nearly a half million on private lands living across the continental United States. It shows that conservation efforts, if provided at the right time, can work with great success. In a world where much of what we see and hear is negative, the restoration of the bison is something to be proud of...not so proud that we can rest, but proud enough that we can think about doing something more.