As many of you know, I spent the summers of 1997-99 on the rolling, prairie pothole country of North Dakota working on various wildlife research projects.
At the summits of some of the hills overlooking wetlands galore, I often pondered about what it must have been like when the Great Plains were covered by hundreds of thousands of bison.
To me, it was unfathomable that for as far as a person could see - as some explorers have documented - bison moved like the wind, blanketing the prairie in a solid brown carpet. How could it have been that there were once millions of them cutting up the sod with their sharp hooves, while today, well, they're essentially gone?
Imagine my astonishment at seeing a buffalo on that prairie one afternoon in 1997. I was walking along a fence line when, as I crested a ridge, a startled bison rose to its feet. The animal ran like a horse, swinging its great head from side to side as it kept me locked in its periphery view throughout every upward bound. I stood there in disbelief watching the animal distance itself from me and eventually disappear into the hills.
I remember thinking: as fitting as it was to see the buffalo galloping across the grassland, the scene was somewhat spoiled. I realized the buffalo was someone's escapee. Witnessing the lone, curly-haired beast lumbering across the vastness of a landscape that stretched to the horizon seemed to only magnify the reality of what its kind once was and had endured. To me, its solitude exemplified a huge injustice.
Indeed, the bison once numbered in the tens of millions. In a great swath across this continent enormous herds of buffalo once grazed, bellowed, rolled in the dirt, and moved in rhythm with the changing seasons. Tom McHugh, author of "The Time of the Buffalo," estimated that the grasslands probably supported about 34 million bison. It's impossible to estimate the bisons' former population, but it is safe to say, and from a quote extracted from early explorers' historical notes, that the great herds of bison were "in numbers - numberless".
McHugh also recites a letter written by Nathanial Langsford, Yellowstone National Park's first superintendent. The letter describes an 1862 trip across the plains. Langsford wrote: "after crossing the Red River of the North, buffaloes abounded everywhere. Soon we saw a cloud of dust rising in the east, and the rumbling grew louder and I think it was about a half an hour when the front of the herd came fairly into view."
Langsford continued, "From an observation with our field glasses, we judged the herd to be 5 or 6 (some said 8 or 10) miles wide, and the herd was more than an hour passing us at a gallop. The whole space, say 5 miles by 12 miles, as far as we could see, was a seemingly solid mass of buffaloes . . ."
It's hard to imagine, to say the least.
I was, however, able to come close to imagining grasslands teeming with grazing wild bison. At Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the Western North Dakota badlands, I sat and observed several hundred buffalo in scattered herds. The time was midsummer and the onset of the rutting season. Gigantic bulls, with their mouths agape and tongues protruded, roared and bellowed their dominance. Subordinate bulls gave way as the great ones advanced. And often, the giant bulls would abruptly lower their mass to the dirt and roll onto their backs while all four feet pointed skyward in a show of surprising athleticism.
Lastly, and more from McHugh's book, McHugh wrote of the 1886 William Hornaday search for a few buffalo. Hornaday was the then chief taxidermist of the U.S. National Museum and was on a mission to collect presentable specimens for the museum. By this time in history, very few wild bison even existed. But after 18 days of searching the badlands, they finally killed four buffalo. And after eight weeks, the expedition collected 25.
As unbelievable as the bison's extermination from the Great Plains is, when Hornaday's museum exhibit opened for public viewing, a local paper headlined the display as: "A scene from Montana - six of Mr. Hornaday's buffaloes form a picturesque group - a bit of the Wild West reproduced at the National Museum - something novel in the way of taxidermy -real buffalo-grass, real Montana dirt, and real buffaloes."
The key word, of course, is the word "real." There was nothing real about the exhibit. Yet in spite of the near extirpation of this shaggy and noble North American mammal, about 500,000 survive today in scattered, mostly captive, herds, both in the United States and Canada. Of these half a million bison, approximately 15,000 are thought to be truly wild, free-ranging, unfenced buffalo.
McHugh also postulated that even if the buffalo had survived their 19th century slaughter, he doubted that the animals would have fared much better today. What with agriculture, towns and cities, and interstate highways, there simply would be little tolerance for so many buffalo in modern society.
Nonetheless, it's nice to know that the bison, though not as nomadic or as numbered as they once were, are still grazing on the prairie for us to observe as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org