In the New West, Bison Are the Old Guard
BY JEREMY D. KRONES
The largest native land animal in North America is the American Bison (Bison bison).
There are two subspecies of this great beast: the plains bison and the wood bison. The more common plains bison (B. b. bison) is smaller than its northern cousin (B. b. athabascae), with the latter weighing nearly twice as much.
As with most animals, bison are sexually dimorphic, meaning males and females are physically distinguishable. In this case, female bison usually weigh half as much as males, with male wood bison tipping the scales at over 2,000 pounds, or one ton.
While that might sound like a lot, domestic cattle can reach such weights as well. Dan O’Brien, a prominent buffalo rancher in South Dakota and author of books such as Buffalo for the Broken Heart and The Rites of Autumn (both read by the Diablo Trust Book Club), explains that bison often get bad press and, when managed correctly, have far more similarities than differences with the more common cow (Bos taurus).
Likewise, he says, bison are much less aggressive than they are often perceived by the public and other ranchers. Looking back at records from the19th century, O’Brien says that one will learn that bison were gentle giants, not brutal beasts.
Bison, also called buffalo, used to roam across much of the western United States, with some map projections showing their range spanning nearly all of what is now the United States and Canada, and northern Mexico. When Lewis and Clark made their way to the Northwest, there were upwards of 30 million bison roaming the continent; not even a century later the herds had been decimated and the West was ‘settled.’
From Buffalo to Beefalo
The modern history of the bison starts with some of the first European explorers in the West: Lewis and Clark. With their descriptions of the lush abundance of the West, they not only opened the doors for European business but also organized violence to this side of the Mississippi River.
The elimination of the bison was threefold: the herds were harvested for raw materials, like hides and skulls, to be hauled back to the coast for processing into clothes, medicines, foods, and trinkets; bison were removed to make mass settlement for farmers possible across the West; and the animals were slaughtered en masse as a way to entrap the regional Native Americans through both spiritual and physical starvation, and a loss of their known landscapes and animals.
By the late 1800s, fewer than 1,000 American bison existed. Within a few decades after this decimation of the 1870s, a new program was started by ranchers around the country to create ‘beefalo,’ or ‘cattalo.’ The inspiration was to both save the genetics of the quickly disappearing native animal, and to capitalize on the benefits hybrid species tend to have.
O’Brien discusses one of the most prominent hybrid ranchers in his book, Great Plains Bison,“By modern standards Buffalo Jones was an exploiter of wildlife, but in the last half of the nineteenth century he was considered a conservationist.”
Through various methods that ranged from ‘kidnapping’ bison calves and grafting them onto Bos taurus females, to breeding the two species together (usually a bison male with a Bos taurus female), Jones and others created ‘beefalo.’
Beefalo became very popular through the United States and Canada. In the mid-twentieth century a standard was drawn that to be called ‘beefalo,’ an animal had to be at least five-eighths Bos taurus and at most three-eighths Bison bison.
Of the 500,000 bison in the United States today, most are in private herds, but approximately 32,000 are in public herds. Most bison have detectable levels of Bos taurus genes, thanks to the experiments and programs by private citizens and governments over the last 150 years.
However, there are still some genetically pure herds out there, including in Yellowstone National Park, the Henry Mountains in Utah, and Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota.
Conservation agencies that manage bison herds, such as the AZ Game and Fish Department (AGFD), have the expressed goal of establishing metapopulations.
Metapopulations are groups of same-species populations that are separated by space, but are connected through intentional management of transporting a few animals between separated populations every five to ten years tomaintain heterozygosity, or stable genetic diversity.
A metapopulation for bison would be around 1,000 animals per herd, says Carl Lutch, the Terrestrial Wildlife Program Manager for AGFD Region 2 (Flagstaff).
Raymond Wildlife Area
Bordering the Flying M and Bar T Bar ranches is about 15,000 acres managed by the AGFD, called the Raymond Wildlife Area (RWA).
While not technically a ranch, some locals still refer to it as one because of the primary inhabitants of the land area: bison.
These large, native ungulates have lived on RWA since the early 1940s, when over 300 animals were transferred to RWA from the House Rock Wildlife Area due to drought conditions in the area. House Rock is northeast of the Grand Canyon National Park, and still has a herd managed by AGFD.
The AGFD also used to have a bison herd at Fort Huachuca in southern Arizona, but the last animals were removed in the 1950s when the fort was reactivated.
Elsol Hymer, the Raymond Wildlife Area manager, describes the RWA as a “place for people to come and enjoy wildlife.”
While the bison live there, they are not alone and share the land and resources with plenty of other wildlife extant, or native, to northern Arizona.
When asked about the impact bison have on the landscape, Lutch explains that bison can have a greater influence on the habitat than elk or deer, but ultimately it comes down to numbers.
Bison are a keystone species, which is a species upon which other species in the ecosystem depend, and that if the species were to be removed the ecosystem would drastically change.
The great herds of the Midwest, says Lutch, had a big influence on shaping those grasslands and prairies. The prairies of South Dakota are home to dozens of species of birds, insects, amphibians, and other mammals – all dependent on the environment molded by the bison.
There is always work being done to improve the experience on RWA for both the public and wildlife, including a fence recently built bisecting the wildlife area from north to south. That will help Hymer and other wildlife biologists manage the plant communities better by utilizing the bison herd much like other ranches, such as the Flying M and Bar T Bar, do as they constantly stabilize and improve their pastures.
To best maintain RWA and the bison herd within, the fences bordering the wildlife area look much different than what are usually found on cattle ranches: they are four and a half feet tall and packed with stakes, almost resembling a wall. That is because bison, while roughly the same size as most cattle, are much stronger and are still relatively ‘wild’ in comparison.
Hymer explains that not 30 minutes after being born, a bison calf can run alongside the herd at 30mph. Likewise, says Lutch, he has known bison to go from standing to jumping six feet in the air!
O'Brien lauds the creatures' size and resilience. In their eyes, “there is no deeper well of wisdom,” he says.