Mention Africa, and there’s little debate that the lion is the continent’s iconic animal, the symbol of a creature that is not only unique to that land mass but emblematic of its wild heritage.
And of course, threatened with extinction as a result of relentless trophy hunting, coupled with equally energetic destruction of its habitat.
So what would be North America’s equivalent animal, a species that is both majestic and powerful, as well as unknown elsewhere in the world?
I would argue that it’s the bison, the bovine, named in 2016 as the U.S. national mammal, that once roamed by the multi-millions across the prairies in herds so vast that the first whites to explore the West were astonished by their numbers as these magnificent animals thundered across the Great Plains.
And not just the Plains. Bison are nomadic animals that for thousands of years ranged across much of the eastern United States and as far south as parts of Mexico. Much like the great cats of Africa, Asia and Latin America, they have no natural enemies, no other animals able to harm them, other than occasionally picking off one of the sick or weaker animals in the herd.
The indigenous people who populated this continent for millennia couldn’t put a dent in the massive bison herds, either. As they hunted bison for their meat, their hides and their bones, which were essential to their ability to survive the often-harsh winters in what we now call the heartland, the Native tribes developed a symbiotic relationship with bison, a connection that survives to this day.
A relocation project
It’s not necessary to detail the near-extermination of the bison herds by hunters in the late 1880s, partly as deliberate government policy to decimate the Plains Indians who depended on them and partly due to hunting by Indians themselves, who were forced to sell buffalo hides to survive as their hunting territories were constrained by white settlers.
We all know the rough outlines of that narrative.
By the time the 20th Century began, there were “just 23 wild bison left alive in Yellowstone National Park, holed up in Pelican Valley,” as an article in the current Smithsonian magazine explained.
That herd, along with animals ranchers had captured and saved, slowly brought the bison back from extinction — to the point that their numbers, though miniscule compared with their historic population, now exceed the park’s carrying capacity. Bison periodically roam outside the park boundaries and have been captured and slaughtered for fear of spreading brucellosis among cattle also sharing rangelands outside of Yellowstone.
(A 2017 study conducted by the National Academies of Sciences concluded that the outbreaks of brucellosis in the Yellowstone area came from infected elk, not bison).
Now, a more effective and more appropriate solution has begun. The National Park Service has begun relocating bison from Yellowstone to the Fort Peck Reservation in northwest Montana, where a small herd has been established there over the last six years.
The goal is to eventually return wild bison to the grasslands on Native reservations across the West, a project with ecological and cultural meaning for those tribes.
“Bison have a spiritual meaning for us,” Robbie Magnan, fish and game director at the Fort Peck Reservation, told Smithsonian. “The buffalo were taking care of Native Americans from the beginning of time, and now we need to help them.”
Of course, these newly established herds will be “managed” by the tribes, as animals will be periodically taken for their meat and hides, both for nutritional as well as ceremonial value.
But I defy any animal activists, any born-again veganistas, to condemn this project or to try to shame Native tribes for killing any of these animals, when they could be living on soy-based shamburgers and tofu.
The entire vegan construct that likens animal agriculture to human slavery, and meatpacking to the Holocaust, falls apart at the seams when anyone tries to draw parallels with the historical connection between bison and the Natives who inhabited North American for tens of thousands of years.
As the great Chief Seattle once said, “All things share the same breath — the beast, the tree, the man. The air shares its spirit with all life it supports.”
Including food animals.