The American Buffalo or bison presents a complicated story, particularly as it concerns buffalo hunting.
Hunters are as integral a part of the story of the buffalo as are the Plains Indians, perhaps even more so, as hunters were responsible for both the near extinction of the buffalo as well as its salvation. Buffalo hunting, as it were, played a role some would be surprised to learn about.
The recent National Bison Legacy Act has placed the buffalo back in the spotlight. President Obama signed the act which gives the bison official “national mammal” symbol status, sharing the stage with the bald eagle. But there are issues with the act and with the buffalo itself. What animal are we really celebrating, the pure-blood American Bison or the genetically compromised buffalo that is a cross between a bison and a cow? But more on that later.
For now, it is enough to know that once there were but a few hundred American buffalo left on the planet, and now there are hundreds of thousands. This reality is thanks, fundamentally, to a few hunters with the vision to see what was being lost. And the buffalo came very close indeed to being completely lost.
Due to the forces of cattle ranching, habitat loss, indigenous hunting, deliberate government policies to remove the buffalo, and, most egregiously, market gunning, the animals that once covered much of the central swath of North America – numbering from 40-million to 60-million – were reduced to less than 500 in a span of around 50 years.
But just as the light began to go out on the American buffalo forever, a number of hunters realized the blunder and came to the rescue.
Theodore Roosevelt formed the Boone and Crockett Club, and he and men like George Grinnell, William Hornaday, Gifford Pinchot and others had the foresight and will to fundamentally change the ethics of the day. They were the original ‘hunter conservationists’ and they founded a movement that has grown and carries on to this day.
They did away with market gunning, instituted policies and legislation that brought about a different way of thinking, with ‘fair chase’ and sustainable hunting becoming the new hunter ethic. They ushered in the North American Model of Wildlife Management, which has proven its value in the large and stable populations of elk, wild turkey, antelope, bighorn sheep, deer and, yes, the buffalo as well.
They and other like-minded individuals sought to protect and regrow the wild buffalo population by taking a few animals here and there and raising small herds. Roosevelt himself, during his time as President, set aside millions of acres of habitat where buffalo could thrive and grow. And thus, buffalo hunting was established once again, but under more control.
Now we have an estimated 500,000 buffalo. That is indeed quite a save, and it was thanks in large part to the efforts of hunters. But unfortunately the buffalo has been compromised in the process. Genetically compromised. Bison have been crossed with cattle in most places. Truly wild and genetically pure buffalo number only around 10,000 animals, or around 5% of the total population, and most of those reside in the first large habitat that Roosevelt set aside: Yellowstone National Park.
The problem with Yellowstone bison is that they don’t stay in Yellowstone. They tend to do what buffalo do by ignoring boundaries. They roam outside of the park where they are not wanted, and where they are subject to being terminated. Much of this has to do with the politics of cattle ranching, which is both understandable and unfortunate. And the politics of cattle ranching and buffalo are too involved to explain here. But it presents a dilemma for conservationists.
How can we as hunter conservationists, truly call the return of the buffalo a “conservation success” when most of the wild animals are limited to small pockets of habitat, where if they wander outside of those pockets they are subject to being slaughtered? The same standard does not hold for wild elk, mule deer or antelope. These animals have all been brought back from the brink largely by the efforts of hunter conservationists, and they are free to roam mostly where they will.
Not so with wild buffalo. Should not the genetically pure, wild buffalo herds of Yellowstone and the Henry Mountains in Utah, for example, have the same freedom to roam and grow where they will? Otherwise it’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that the current boundary limits on buffalo aren’t all that different from those of a zoo.
We hunter conservationists have a challenge ahead of us. And it is a challenge that we are ideally suited to take on. After all, we did it with the elk, bighorn sheep, wild turkey and more. We can continue the legacy of Roosevelt by actively advocating for the wild buffalo to assume a greater presence in the backcountry areas of its former range. We can vigorously advocate for buffalo to do what buffalo do best: roam freely.
If the American buffalo can expand its range naturally, and grow a population that offers sustainable numbers of animals that can be hunted regularly, only then can we truly call the return of the buffalo a conservation success story.