Bison and the Prairie Life

When Columbus discovered the New World in 1492, the approximately one million Native Americans who occupied North America probably never realized they were lost, much less that they need to be discovered.

By 1900, fewer than 250,000 Native Americans remained.

There are many reasons for the collapse of the Indian population and culture, but it is certainly no coincidence that during the same time period the bison population fell from tens of millions to near extinction. European and early American settlers and explorers pursued a policy of “manifest destiny.”

In 1845, newspaper editor John O’Sullivan proclaimed that it was America’s “manifest destiny to overspread the continent.” The germ of the concept dates back decades earlier to the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. It was a catchy phrase that gave settlers and soldiers carte blanche to do anything to conquer the American West.

True Native Americans were persecuted, uprooted, translocated, and in some cases, even exterminated. In addition to the direct mayhem pioneers heaped on Indians, settlers also destroyed the thundering herds of bison that once roamed the plains from Texas to Canada. It’s hard for us to even imagine tens of millions of bison roaming the plains of North America, much less killing almost all of them.

At the time no one understood or cared that Plains Indians’ lives and culture were tied directly to bison. They used bison for food, clothing, shelter, and tools, and in the process they developed strong spiritual and cultural ties to bison. It’s miraculous that Indians or bison survived the onslaught.

Fast forward to today. Bison now roam freely on many western national parks, national grasslands, and federal military installations. In 1991 Congress appropriated funds to begin reintroducing bison to tribal lands.

In 1992 the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society and various tribal leaders formed the InterTribal Bison Cooperative. Since then, according to the The Wildlife Professional (Fall 2009), the group has reintroduced 17,000 bison from other federal lands to 57 tribes in 19 states. But a short grass prairie ecosystem includes more than grass and bison. Prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets, and burrowing owls are just a few of the other species that define the prairie ecosystem.

Prairie dogs, highly social ground squirrels smaller than ground hogs, lived in “towns” that stretched as far as the eye could see. Black-footed ferrets, hawks, rattlesnakes, coyotes all ate prairie dogs and, combined with periodic outbreaks of plague, these forces controlled prairie dog populations. However, as bison disappeared from the prairies, they were replaced by cattle.

Ranchers thought the prairies should be the exclusive domain of cattle; they considered grass-eating prairie dogs vermin. Ranchers shot them on sight, state wildlife agencies imposed no harvest limits, and the federal government tried to eliminate them with poisons.

As prairie dogs disappeared, so did black-footed ferrets, small prairie weasels that eat prairie dogs almost exclusively. And as prairie dog burrow systems vanished so did burrowing owls, rattlesnakes, and a variety of other species which used prairie dog burrows as den sites.

In fact by the 1970s, black-footed ferrets were thought to be extinct. Then a small remnant population was discovered in northwestern Wyoming in 1981. Captive breeding efforts since then have enabled to biologists to reintroduce ferrets to a several locations where prairie dog populations have recovered. Just as bison were part of every aspect of Plains Indians’ lives, black-footed ferrets also had cultural and religious significance to tribal life.

Because ferrets sit near the top of the food chain, they were never common, and that may explain why tribes held them in high regard. Ferret skins were sacred and often part of tribal dance costumes. Tribes often buried their spiritual leaders with their ferret skins.

The herds of bison now living on federal, tribal, and private lands have reestablished bison as the large native grazer of the prairie. Add more limited success with prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets, and short grass prairies are beginning to resemble the prairies of 200 years ago.

And just as important, Native Americans are becoming reacquainted with natural connections to their history and culture.

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Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, RD 5, Cameron, WV 26033 or by email via my Web site, scottshalaway.googlepages.com