Good Elk Woman

In 1898 a Scottish immigrant, James “Scotty” Philip, purchased a small herd of buffalo from D.F. “Dug” Carlin who was the estate administrator of his brother-in-law, Peter Dupree (Dupuis).  Under Philip’s management the herd grew to more than eighty.  Unlike other ranchers of his day, who sought to interbreed buffalo with cattle seeking financial gain from the venture, Philip did not like mixed blood bison.  Consequently, his efforts were dedicated to weeding out the mixed-blood and establishing a pure-blood herd.

                Scotty died in 1911, leaving the herd to his sons, Stanley and Roderick.  By that time the herd had numbered around 400, but financial problems developed and the sons had to sell off 36 bison—six bulls, eighteen cows and twelve calves.  They sold the buffalo to the state of South Dakota in 1914.  In that same year the South Dakota legislature had designated 60,000 acres in Custer County as a state game preserve.  The 36 bison from the Philips’ herd became the nucleus of the herd now found in Custer State Park today [1].

                James “Scotty” Philip has been given much credited in the preservation efforts of bison, and rightly so.  Raising a sizable pure-blood herd from a small mixed-blood one, and from which came the starter herd for one of the biggest herds in the United States, is to be lauded.  The initial preservation efforts from which this herd originated, however, were expended by Peter Dupree and his parents, Frederick and Mary Ann—also  known as Good Elk Woman.  Further, the vision and impetus to save the bison most likely came from her. 

                Frederick Dupuis (Dupre, Dupree) was a French Canadian fur trader who came to Fort Pierre, Dakota territory in 1838. Eventually, he left the fur trade and became a rancher until his death in 1898. He married a Minniconjou Lakota woman named Good Elk Woman who took the name Mary Ann Dupuis.  Good Elk Woman (Hehake-waste-win) was born in 1824 near Cherry Creek, Nebraska and was the daughter of One Iron Horn and Red Dressing [2].

Good Elk Woman with husband Frederick Dupuis and son Xavier(from Native Heritage Project- https://nativeheritageproject.com/)

Together they had nine children:  Xavier, Edward, Pete, Fred Jr, Maggie, Esther, Armaine, Josephine and Marcella.  Frederick and Good Elk Woman established a ranch on the north side of the Cheyenne River approximately 35 miles west of where the Cheyenne empties into the Missouri River.  The ranch hosted a camp for Native American activity with at least 50 people served supper daily [3].

                During the 60 years they shared together, the Dupuis’ witnessed the severe transformation of the Plains Indian culture, the Black Hills gold rush, and the demise of the great buffalo herds.  Under the influence of Good Elk Woman, her husband and son, Peter, embarked on an expedition to save the buffalo sometime in the early 1880s. She was not just the visionary, however.  Good Elk Woman was instrumental in attending to the camp and guiding the family. The details of the hunts involved are unclear, but the result was the Dupuis family had managed to capture a few calves and initiate a herd which consisted of 5 cows, 4 bulls and 7 mixed-blood catalo by 1888.  The catalo did not result from any intentional effort on the part of the Dupuis’s management of the herd.  Mostly likely, the mixed-blooded catalo resulted from the ranging of bison with cattle [4]. 

                That Good Elk Woman was the visionary and impetus for an effort to save the bison from extermination should not come as a surprise.  Being Lakota she would not have perceived her existence and fate as separate from that of the bison ranging across the Great Plains.  The Lakota’s fight to protect their homeland was a fight to protect the Buffalo people’s homeland as well.  Her people were one with the Buffalo Nation (Pte Oyate).  Her authority as matriarch in the family and her prophetic role in the salvation of the buffalo was in accord with White Buffalo Calf Woman—the spiritual mediator between the Pte Oyate and the Lakotas [5]. 

Good Elk Woman (from Native Heritage)

                Today we enjoy the Custer State Park herd—one of the largest in North America.  The credit for seeding this herd has gone primarily to James Philip with perhaps ancillary credit going to Peter Dupree.  Except for Zontek, sources focus on the contributions of Frederick and Peter Dupree and James Philip.  Good Elk Woman is only been mentioned in passing as either Peter’s mother or as Mary Ann, wife of Frederick Dupree/Dupuis [6].  Her contribution, though, is arguably,  the most significant.  The origins of what has become the Custer State Park herd emerged from the vision and inspiration of a Lakota woman—Good Elk Woman.

End Notes:

[1] Dary, David A. 1989. The Buffalo Book: The Full Saga of the American Animal. Ohio University Press. 231-232.

[2] Geni My Heritage Company. https://www.geni.com/people/Good Elk Woman. Retrieved 19-Jul-2020.

[3] Zontek, Ken. 2007. Buffalo Nation: American Indian Efforts to Restore the Bison. University of Nebraska Press. 48-49.   See also Looking Back Woman—Suzanne Dupree Blog. https://lookingbackwoman.wordpress.com/2011/03/09/first-dupuis-dupris-duprees-in-south-dakota/ . Retrieved 19-Jul-2020.

[4] Zontek. 50.

[5] For an account of the story of the White Buffalo Calf Woman see Walker, James R. 1991. Lakota Belief and Ritual. University of Nebraska Press. 109-112.

[6] Zontek has perhaps honored her most [Zontek. 50-51].

“Werewolf? There Wolf”[7]

The largest North American mammal has only three predators: the grey wolf, the grizzly bear, and the human being.  The First Nations hunted bison for perhaps a millennium until their replacement, the Europeans, arrived with their style of killing frenzy, driving the bison into near oblivion in the 1870s and ‘80s—ironic how the scrawniest predator became the greatest threat.  These days killing by the human denizen is restricted to commercialization and licensed hunts.  In addition, something wonderful happened in human consciousness, a great awakening.  Humans had discovered ecosystems, and how those environmental realms were integral to a human’s well-being.  Further, they discovered that the bison was a keystone species to at least one of those ecosystems.  Will miracles ever cease!  The human predator has been significantly mitigated.

 Grizzlies, the polar opposite of scrawny, have been known, according to historical accounts, to kill bison.  A grizzly taking down a bison may still occasionally occur in Alaska where bears are more numerous.  A buffalo killed by a grizzly, however, is rare.  Typically, grizzlies prey during the spring melt on thawing carcasses of bison that had died over the winter [1].

The wolf is another matter.  It is designed in body and behavior to kill hoofed animals. Though the grey wolf is small compared to the buffalo, its numbers more than compensate for size.  Wolves hunt in packs from as small as six to as large as a dozen.  Essentially, wolves are opportunists, able to capture and eat meat from mice to moose.  As such, they will follow buffalo herds until the right opportunity comes along.  Following a buffalo herd will often provide the pack’s needs without the necessity of a kill since small mammals are often flushed out by the bison’s feet.  But the wolves will watch and target the calves.  So adept are packs in taking down calves that the survival of a small herd of bison can be thrown into doubt.  

Grey Wolf

 Calves are defenseless by themselves. A cow or bull, though, can easily injure or kill a wolf.  A wolf pack may be able to kill a cow or bull in the winter when the bison is in a weakened state, however.  A calf only survives a wolf attack with an alert and aggressive mother and/or help from others; though probably not another cow.    A bull may be recruited in the defense by the mother leading the calf to the bull, or the calf, on its own, may run to the bull.  Typically, the bull will be young, too young to breed, rather than a mature bull.  The older bulls are most likely not present.  They are probably off somewhere grazing, building up energy for the rut.  The primary purpose of a mature bull is to produce as many off-spring as possible.  Natural selection, then, has favored the inattentive father so the maximum number of calves will be born.

When the pack’s hunt is successful, the killing is a gruesome affair. Cats kill large prey by suffocation or biting through the skulls of their prey.  Dogs do not have this mouth power to kill quickly.  Instead, dogs, such as wolves, chew their prey to death, literally eating the prey alive. This is difficult for one wolf to do, but not a pack.

A romantic view, held among some of the supporters of the wolf reintroduction movement, was that of a caring and adorable family life.  This is only a projection of human proclivities, however. Life among a wolf pack is not a canine version of the ideal nuclear family, in which mom and dad tenderly care for the young.  They are not cute.  The wolf-pack life is ruthless and relentlessly structured. Each member lives within a certain pecking order with an alpha male or female at the top. Attempts to reorder the pack are severely treated, even to the point of death.  Cruel despotism is perhaps a more apt description, egalitarianism does not exist.  Yes, wolves are family oriented, but the structure is about survival and reproduction with each member also having a specific function. The wolf family is also territorial, and will challenge any trespassers with pursuit or death.

The nature of the wolf evolved as a competitor to large predators such as the short-faced bear, the American lion, the American cheetah, the saber-toothed cat and the dire wolf, sharing the North American Plain.  The grey wolf was the smallest of these, and the only one to survive the Pleistocene extinction approximately 10,000 years ago.  It developed to become a prominent selection factor for diverse characteristics of large mammal fitness.  Wolves are highly sensitive to symptoms of weakness in their prey.  Victims tend to be debilitated by age, disease or accidental injuries which render them susceptible to the pack.  Thus wolves facilitate natural selection by detecting and removing the effects of deleterious genes, and removing the most virulent strains of a pathogen from a prey population [2]. 

As the grey wolf was sharpening its hunting skills over the millennia, bison were not idle, however.  Buffalo were also evolving their defensive arsenal, including cooperation, defense, escape, and synchronized birthing.  The bison herd is a “selfish herd.”  Individual animals cooperate with and use other animals to improve their own survival and reproduction odds, ensuring possibly the survival and reproduction of genetically related kind.  Bison, then, cooperate to the benefit of all in the herd. 

The primary weapons for defense are the horns and the head.  Using its powerful neck muscles a bison can hook, lift and toss an opponent.  This strategy works best in large herds.  By itself, a bison cannot challenge several wolves all at once.  For a cow and her calf, alone she is not likely to defend her calf using her head and horns, as the wolves will separate her from the calf, occupying her attention away from the calf.  In the herd, however, the bison will form a tight formation with the calves either in the midst of the herd or behind it.

Buffalo Tossing Wolf-from Sky Animals–youtube

Escape is exactly what it implies.  It is the “RUN AWAY!” strategy.   Escape involves outrunning and outlasting predators.  Bison have adapted physiologically and anatomically for this behavior.  Even new born calves are on their feet within 10 minutes and able to run within two hours of birth.   Buffalo can challenge all but the fastest horses, yet can out last them, running for many hours over dry, hard prairie ground.  There is a selfish component to escaping, though.  It’s not just about outrunning the predator.  A buffalo only needs to outrun its neighbor.  Escaping exposes the weakest individuals, those who lag due to injury, age or disease.  Predation selects against the least fit, favoring the evolution and maintenance of strength, agility, endurance and disease resistance.  The extreme form of escape is the stampede [3].

A characteristic of social ungulates such as the buffalo in facing predators is synchronous birthing, which has the dual purpose of predation evasion and optimum utilization of high quality forage for lactation.  Due to the behavior of wolves there is little flexibility in the bison gestation period, which leads to a synchronous breeding period.  Predators focused on bison calves must take time eating and digesting the hapless prey and spend time traveling to locate the moving herd.  Additionally, the number of wolves in an area may be limited by territorial behavior.  The number of calves, then, that can be killed by the pack during a short period of time is limited.  Bison reproduction has adapted to take advantage of this window of opportunity.  The larger the cow herd and the shorter the birthing period, the greater is the probability newborn calves will survive.  A cow that breeds during the peak of the rut and calves during the peak of calving, provides the calf with a greater chance of escaping predation [4]. 

Wolves not only have the effect of culling buffalo herds through food usage. The reintroduction of the grey wolf in Yellowstone has actually enhanced the growth of buffalo herds.  Since the reintroduction of wolves, elk population has declined, opening greater forage and releasing bison from interspecific competition and resulting in higher bison densities [5]. Elk are easier prey for wolves, resulting in lower elk densities and a decreased tendency for wolves to use bison as a food source.  The combination of opening more grazing opportunities, and decreasing the predation of bison has allowed for a significant growth in bison populations [6]. 

Predation, especially by wolves, has not only enabled bison population growth.  Co-evolving with the bison, predation has facilitated the natural selection.  Removing deleterious genes and virulent pathogens, the wolf has enhanced the bison’s strength, agility, endurance and mechanisms for preservation.  Just as the bison is a keystone species to the Great Plains and the surrounding prairies and forests, so the wolf is key to the health and survival of the bison.

End Notes

[1] Callenbach, Ernest. 1996. Bring Back the Buffalo! A Sustainable Future for America’s Great Plains. University of California Press. Berkley. 90.

[2] Lott, Dale A. 2002. American Bison: A Natural History. University of California Press. Berkley. 100-104.

[3] Bailey, James A. 2016. The Essence of Wildness: Lessons from Bison. Self-published by James A. Bailey. 24-25.

[4] Bailey, James A. 2013. American Plains Bison: Rewilding an Icon. Sweetgrass Books. Helena, MT. 63-66.

[5] Ripple, William J, and Painter, Luke. Effects of bison on willow and cottonwood in northern Yellowstone Park. 15-Jan-2012. Forest Ecology and Management. Vol. 264. 150-158

[6] White, P. J., and R. A. Garrott. 2005. Yellowstone’s ungulates after wolves–expectations, realizations, and predictions. Biological Conservation. 125. 141-152. See also Ripple, W. J., and R. L. Beschta. 2012. Trophic cascades in Yellowstone: The first 15 years after wolf reintroduction. Biological Conservation. 145. 205-213.

[7] A line from the movie Young Frankenstein, 1974.

Additional Resource:

Blakeslee, Nate. 2008. American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West. Broadway Books. New York.

Rosalie Little Thunder—Giving Voice to the Voiceless

For the bison herd of Yellowstone the winter of 1996-97 was deadly.  Heavy snows had made it difficult to plow through to the forage underneath.  Survival meant finding other grazing land, leading the buffalo to wander down from the mountains in search of grass.  Going north out of the Park was a death sentence.  When the bison crossed the Montana State line, they were met with gunfire.  The only witness to record the atrocity was Mike Mease, videographer and environmentalist.  The video was sent to a Sicangu Lakota woman who, in response, came to Yellowstone National Park to witness the atrocity inflicted upon the buffalo nation, and offer prayers.   That winter, under the leadership of Mease and this Lakota elder, Buffalo Nations was formed (original name of the Buffalo Field Campaign), a nonprofit, grassroots coalition of Native and Non-Native environmentalists with the support of the Seventh Generation Fund, providing a permanent defense along the Yellowstone Montana border [1]. That Lakota elder was Rosalie Little Thunder. 

Rosalie Little Thunder (from Indianz)

When Rosalie prayed over the bodies of the slaughtered buffalo that winter, she was part of a cloud of witnesses who had survived to attest to senseless horrors.   She saw, however, the bison as survivors, as she was a survivor—“Just as I am a survivor of massacre, so too are the Yellowstone buffalo survivors of massacre [2].” She was a direct descendent of survivors of both the 1855 Little Thunder Massacre and the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre.  Her own grandfather had survived the 1855 massacre, saved by his mother covering him with her body when she had been struck by a bullet [3]. 

Born 18-Sep-1949 in Old He Dog Community on the lands of the Sicangu Lakota people (Rosebud Sioux Reservation) to William and Margaret (Good Shield) Little Thunder [4], Rosalie became an avid activist promoting her people, the Lakota, and her brothers and sisters of the Pte Oyate (Buffalo People/Nation).  She served on several non-profit boards including the Buffalo Field Campaign, Owe Aku  International [5], Seventh Generation Fund [6], and South Dakota Peace and Justice.  Rosalie was also an honorary member of Honor the Earth [7], Indigenous Environmental Network [8], Wolakota Foundation [9], and Brave Heart Society [10]. In addition to these, she was an active member of Kat’ela Okalakiciye—a traditional Lakota Elderly Women’s Society—and participated in the Sicangu Constitutional Convention.

As if these activities were not enough, Rosalie was an adjunct professor at Black Hills State University, American Indian Department, teaching the Lakota language and working with the Lakota Bible Translation Department. 

Central to this life dedicated to the Native way, was the well-being of the Pte Oyate, which Rosalie held dear.  She worked to protect the buffalo from the mid-1990s until her death in 2014.  The last wild, free-roaming bison is the Yellowstone herd.  To have witnessed the decimation that winter of 1996-97, must have torn her heart apart.  She did not want the last of the wild buffalo to disappear, and wanted Native peoples to have more say in the buffalo’s fate—“After I am gone, I want there to be buffalo on this Earth. Maybe the buffalo will help us be here a little bit longer. Maybe they will help us survive. [11].”  To bring attention to the killing of the Yellowstone bison and the need to protect the herd and its natural grazing grounds, Rosalie, in 1999, led a group of Lakota Sioux on a 500-mile walk from Rapid City, South Dakota to the Gardiner basin in Montana, carrying a sacred pipe.  The journey was a form of prayer for the bison and a protest against the wanton destruction of the last wild herd of the majestic animal.  In honor of Rosalie, and to keep her memory alive, the Buffalo Field Campaign has continued this prayer practice by instituting an annual Rosalie Little Thunder Walk [12].

Such heinous acts that have been inflicted on the Buffalo Nation can overwhelm and numb a person into a silent resignation. But atrocities not heard breed more atrocities.  A voice must be given to these acts of cruelty and destruction to break the silence and prevent a numbed acceptance.  Rosalie Little Thunder was such a voice.  Even though she has passed, her spirit and voice continue speaking.  Many others, including the Buffalo Field Campaign and the organizations mentioned above, carry her spirit in their hearts and echo her voice through their words and actions.  By offering us an alternative reality to a culture of death, she was truly prophetic.

End Notes:

[1] Buffalo Field Campaign, History. https://www.buffalofieldcampaign.org/history.  Retrieved 06-Apr-2020. Also see Basile, Tracy. Unbound Project. 16-Jul-2019. https://unboundproject.org/rosalie-little-thunder/. Retrieved 06-Apr-2020.

[2] Rosalie Little Thunder in Rethinking Columbus, which was banned by Tucson Public Schools.

[3] Brister, Daniel. 2013. In the Presence of Buffalo. West Winds Press. Portland, Oregon. 36-37.

[4] Rosalie Little Thunder obituary.  Osheim & Schmidt Funeral Home.  Rapid City, South Dakota.

[5] Owe Aku International is an organization dedicated to protecting our water sources against the effects of oil pipelines and tarsand.  Visit their website at http://oweakuinternational.org/index.html

[6] Seventh Generation Fund for Indigenous Peoples is dedicated to providing support to grassroots Native communities’ projects.  Visit their website at http://7genfund.org/ .

[7] Honor the Earth’s mission is to “…create awareness and support for Native environmental issues and to develop needed financial and political resources for the survival of sustainable Native communities.”  Visit their website at http://www.honorearth.org/ .

[8] Indigenous Environment Network “…was formed by grassroots Indigenous peoples and individuals to address environmental and economic justice issues…[including] building the capacity of Indigenous communities and tribal governments to develop mechanisms to protect our sacred sites, land, water, air, natural resources, health of both our people and all living things, and to build economically sustainable communities.”  Visit their website at https://www.ienearth.org/ .

[9] Wolakota Foundation “…is a grassroots non-profit organization emerging from the needs of traditional Lakota (Dakota/Nakota) people to maintain their cultural and spiritual lifeways for the sake of future generations.”  Visit their website at http://www.wolakota.org/ .

[10] Brave Heart Society, formed by a community of grandmothers from the Yankton Reservation of South Dakota, works for the revival of a traditional cultural society for women.  Visit their website at https://www.braveheartsociety.org/ .

[11] Baisle.

 [12] Third Annual Rosalie Little Thunder Walk. Buffalo Field Campaign. https://www.buffalofieldcampaign.org/third-annual-rosalie-little-thunder-memorial-walk?highlight=WyJyb3NhbGllIiwicm9zYWxpZSdzIiwibGl0dGxlIiwidGh1bmRlciIsInRodW5kZXIncyIsIndhbGsiLCJyb3NhbGllIGxpdHRsZSIsInJvc2FsaWUgbGl0dGxlIHRodW5kZXIiLCJsaXR0bGUgdGh1bmRlciIsImxpdHRsZSB0aHVuZGVyIHdhbGsiLCJ0aHVuZGVyIHdhbGsiXQ== .  Retrieved 07-Apr-2020.

William T. Hornaday: From Preserver of the Lifelike to Preserver of Life

In May of 1886 Miles City, Montana was visited by a small expedition from the Smithsonian.  Led by the chief taxidermist of the Institution, William T. Hornaday, the group was in search of the last remaining buffalo.  The impetus for the venture arose out of alarm over the condition of the current buffalo specimens at the museum.  The museum had a very poor assortment, consisting of one mounted specimen, a couple of mounted heads, two skeletons and assorted fragmentary skulls.  After Hornaday brought this sad state to the attention of Spencer F. Baird, secretary of the museum, an expedition was quickly arranged [1].  The venture marked the beginning of the transition from taxidermist to restorer for Hornaday.

William T. Hornaday

William Temple Hornaday, born in Avon, Indiana in December of 1854, was educated at Oskaloosa College, Iowa State Agricultural College (today known as Iowa State University).  He married Josephine Chamberlain in 1879 remaining married for 58 years until his death in 1937.  Together they had a daughter, Helen [2].    

After graduating in 1873, Hornaday was hired by Ward’s Natural Science Establishment of Rochester, New York where he worked as a taxidermist.  He was only in Ward’s employ for a brief time when he headed off to India and Ceylon in 1877-78 and then moved on to Malaya and Borneo, collecting specimens.  This journey inspired his first publication, Two Years in the Jungle (1885) [3].  In 1882 he was appointed as chief taxidermist of the United States National Museum, the Smithsonian, a position he held until he resigned in 1890.  During that time, Two Years in the Jungle and The Last Buffalo Hunt (1886) were published [4].

In his position as chief taxidermist at the Smithsonian, he became aware of the decimation of the buffalo, which led him to inventory the Smithsonian’s collection, and to conduct a census of the remaining bison to estimate  the number of these majestic beasts still alive.  The results were alarming, prompting Hornaday to quickly notify Dr. G. Brown Goode, Hornaday’s immediate superior.  These actions promptly led to the expedition to the Musselshell River region of Montana—a region still occupied at that time by the Crow, Paiute, and Blackfoot—to collect bison specimens for the Smithsonian’s exhibit.  The irony in the decision was the Faustian bargain often faced by science—a few specimens would have to be sacrificed to preserve some vestige of a vanishing species for the sake of future generations [5]. 

The initial expedition in May of ‘86 was a failure.  When the expedition team arrived in Miles City, they were told their chances were next to nothing in finding any buffalo.  Besides the best time for buffalo hides was in November and December.  Though he expected to see evidence of the decimation of the herds, he was stunned by what he actually observed—no live buffalo, only skeletons as far as the eye could see.  He would have to return three months later to collect the specimens he needed [6].  When he returned in September, Hornaday fortunately had run into rancher Henry Phillips who reported that buffalo were still roaming around his ranch.  This time the expedition was successful.  Hornaday returned to Washington, D.C. with 24 hides, 16 skeletons and 51 skulls [7].

The impact of near-extermination was not lost on Hornaday, however.  He resolved to not only preserve the bison in museum exhibits, but also as a living herd in captivity.  His goal was to educate Americans and perhaps atone, in some way, for the atrocity that had been committed.  With this in mind Hornaday launched a plan with the Smithsonian’s Department of Living Animals to establish a breeding program to save the buffalo.  The Smithsonian acquired 6 buffalo, and from that the plan was executed. 

Hornaday’s efforts did not rest there.  He went on to advocate for a National Zoological Park for the conservation and study of wild animals sacred to the national heritage.  In 1889 this became a reality with Hornaday appointed as the Park’s head.  He soon left that position to become the founder and director of the Bronx Zoo.  It was during this time Hornaday’s work Extermination of the American Bison was published—considered to be the first important book of the conservation movement [8].  During his tenure at the Bronx Zoo, Hornaday published almost two dozen books and hundreds of articles advocating for the conservation of wildlife, stirring up public support which moved Congress and aided his efforts.  In addition, he lobbied tirelessly for protective legislation, national parks, wildlife refuges, and international treaties to conserve and protect wildlife [9]. 

The Extermination of the American Bison by William Hornaday

Hornaday was not alone putting forth ideas for preserving the buffalo.  Ernest Harold Baynes, a naturalist, presented the notion of an organization dedicated to the preservation of the bison to Hornaday.  Hornaday embraced the idea and along with Pres. Theodore Roosevelt cofounded the American Bison Society in 1905.  Just prior to the formation of the Society, Hornaday offered, on behalf of the New York Zoological Park, to give a small number of buffalo to the federal government if the government agreed to start a herd on the National Wichita Forest Reserve in Oklahoma.  Then once the American Bison Society was established, work was initiated to create another reserve.  The Flathead Indian Reservation in western Montana was proposed.  Within two years Congress had purchased the necessary land and by 1909 the National Bison Range had been established, being populated with bison purchased by the American Bison Society with a few donated by Mrs. Alicia Conrad of Kalispell, Montana and rancher Charles Goodnight of Texas.

Bison on the National Bison Range in Montana—picture from the US Fish and Wildlife Services

The establishment of the herds on the National Wichita Forest Reserve and the National Bison Range marked the beginning of serious efforts by the federal government to preserve the American Bison.  The Society, though, continued working to establish other reserves.  In 1913 the Society helped create a herd on the Fort Niobrara Reservation in Nebraska, and a few months later, a herd on the Wind Cave National Game Reserve in the Black Hills of South Dakota.  The last herd the Society helped establish was near Ashville, North Carolina in the Appalachians, but this herd did not prosper and eventually died out.  The Society continued to be active into 1930s primarily involved in educational efforts, and unfortunately, it, too, quietly died out by 1940.  But the original mission set out by Hornaday, Roosevelt, Baynes and others was achieved [10]. 

Always a lover of wildlife and dedicated to conservation, William T. Hornaday was a critical player in the preservation of the American Bison.  His singular vision of establishing herds on reserves was instrumental in averting the near-extinction of the majestic creature that once blanketed the Great Plains and the Prairies.  A proven crusader for wildlife, Dr. William T. Hornaday died in 1937 at the age of 82 in Stamford, Connecticut.

End Notes:

[1] Dary, David. 1989. The Buffalo Book: The Full Saga of the American Animal. [Swallow Press/Ohio University Press]. 198.

[2] Betchel, Stefan. Mr. Hornaday’s War: How a Victorian Zookeeper Waged a Lonely Crusade for Wildlife That Changed the World. 2012. Beacon Press. 3-10.

[3] William T. Hornaday.  Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Temple_Hornaday.  Retrieved 16 March 2020.

[4] Betchel.

[5] Betchel.

[6] Kurn, Richard. American Bison: A Story of Near Extinction and Conservation. July 26, 2017. The Great Courses Daily. https://www.thegreatcoursesdaily.com/american-bison-a-story-of-extinction-and-conservation/.  Retrieved 6 March 2020.

[7] Dary. 199.

[8] Kurn.

[9] William T. Hornaday. Portraits and Museum Notes. The American Museum Journal. 15 (5): 202, 260. May 1915.  American Natural History Museum Digital Library. http://digitallibrary.amnh.org/handle/2246/6339  .  Retrieved 22 March 2020.

[10] Dary.  234-240.

Buffalo Jones: From Hunter to Preservationist

Many people have been involved in the restoration and preservation of the bison over the last two hundred years. Some are well known, such as George Catlin (painter of Native Americans), John Audubon (ornithologist and naturalist), William Hornaday (Dir. of the New York Zoological Park) and Charles Goodnight (of Lonesome Dove fame). But there are many lesser known and obscure persons who were instrumental in saving the bison from extinction such as the Duprees, a Lakota family, Ernest Baynes (American Bison Society), Rosalie Little Thunder (co-founder of the Buffalo Field Campaign) and Charles Jesse “Buffalo” Jones.  Of course many are involved through organizations such as the American Prairie Reserve, the Buffalo Field Campaign, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Inter-Tribal Bison Council (representing 62 tribes). The intent is to bring many of these to light in the blog, not necessarily in any particular order or as a series.  These people and organizations deserve to be honored for their wisdom and contributions in preserving what has become a symbol of our nation—the  American Bison.

Charles Jesse “Buffalo” Jones (Kansas Historical Society)

The life of Charles Jesse Jones, more popularly known in his time as “Buffalo” Jones, is memorialized in Zane Grey’s work, The Last of the Plainsmen.  Grey, early on in his writing career (1907), befriended Jones. Grey, an avid outdoors man, had occasionally attended meetings of the Campfire Club in New York.  One of the club members, with whom Grey became friends, was Alvah James, a well-known South American explorer.  James invited Grey to attend a talk being given by Charles Jesse Jones.  Jones was experimenting with cross-breeding buffalo with cattle, but needed capital for his venture.  The lecture tour was an effort to raise the much needed funds.  The particular session attended by Grey, however, was a disaster for “Buffalo” Jones.  The audience thought his stories too fantastic and accused him of lying.  Grey, however, was a believer, and James introduced them. Later, Grey met with Jones and out of that conversation grew an idea.  Grey proposed to visit Jones in Arizona, stay awhile and gather information to write a book on Jones’ life in which Grey portrays the conversion of Jones from hunter to preservationist [1].

Jones was one of the infamous buffalo hunters of the 1870s and 80s.  Necessity to earn a living compelled Jones into buffalo hunting, providing a livelihood for him and meat to the wagon caravans crossing the plains.  Even at that time Jones saw the extinction of the bison coming, and vowed to do what he could to save the species.  For 10 years he labored, pursuing and taming buffalo, earning him the epithet “Preserver of the American Bison” [2].  Grey would go on to mention “Buffalo” Jones in a later work, The Thundering Herd.

Zane Grey (from the Zane Grey Collection of the Brigham Young University Library)

Born on the prairies of Illinois, Tazewell County, January 31, 1844, Charles was one of 12 children.  His life was a rather prodigious one, including owning a nursery, farming, hunting, and even co-founding a town (Garden City, Kansas).  Early on he developed not only an interest in wild animals, but an ability to capture and tame them.   He possessed a love for animated nature and the power for subduing animals [3]. 

He attended Wesleyan University for two years, but contracted typhoid fever which affected his eyesight, which adversely affected his studies.  He decided to go to the “Far West” to seek his fortune.  First settling in Troy, Kansas he started a nursery for hedge plants and fruit trees.  But in 1867 his nursery was wiped out by locusts.  However, being one not to give up, he tried again the following year, only to be once more destroyed by locusts.  So, he turned his attention to farming, purchasing a small farm.  But his one true passion was hunting and capturing wild animals.

In 1869 he married Martha Walton who would always object to his leaving home for his expeditions.  In the fall of 1871 he left home on horseback to seek more than just game.  He sought cheaper land, acquiring 160 acres in 1872 in Osborne County, Kansas, south of the Solomon River [Jones, Chapter II].

During his time as a buffalo-hunter, he killed both for the meat to supply the flow of settlers crossing the prairies, and at times, simply for the hides.  But in 1872, realizing the eventual demise of the animal, he pledged to himself he would implement a buffalo rescuing project.  Jones had done his share toward exterminating the buffalo, and though it was partly out of his own necessity, he still convicted himself of contributing to the bison’s demise.  Even as he destroyed them, however, he grew to know them and regret their fate.  As the bison faded from the range, it became clear to Jones they would soon be gone forever.  Being filled with remorse, and seeing Congress would not act to implement any game law preserving the wild bison, he vowed to rescue them [4].

Not until the 1880’s did “Buffalo” Jones put his vow into effect.  In the March of 1886 the Kansas plains experienced an unprecedented blizzard.  Jones saw thousands of carcasses of domestic cattle.  Yet, found no carcasses of buffalo except for those that had been hunted.  Witnessing this, he observed,

As I drove over the prairies from Kansas into Texas, I saw thousands upon thousands of the carcasses of domestic cattle which had ‘drifted’ before the chilling, freezing ‘norther.’  Every one of them had died with its tail to blizzard, never having stopped except at its last breath, then fell dead in its tracks.  When I reached the habitat of the buffalo, not one of their carcasses was visible, except those which had been slain by hunters.  Every animal I came across was as nimble…as a fox. [5]

Causing him to ponder over the contrast between cattle and buffalo, the experience led him to formulate the shape his rescue project would take.  Why not domesticate the buffalo which can endure a blizzard, defying storms which would destroy cattle?  Further, he thought to “…infuse this hardy blood into our native cattle, and have a perfect animal, one that will defy all these elements?” [6].

Using his ability to capture wild animals, he planned several expeditions in the 1880s to capture buffalo calves for breeding. The term he coined for the resultant cross breed was Cattalo.   He also managed to capture adult bison as well.  But difficulties were encountered.  Once captured and hobbled, many of the adults would die within 24 hours, as if they would rather be dead than captured.   Jones, though, did manage to create a small herd of 57 bison, rescuing at least a few from the impending doom.  In addition to his herd, Jones’ enabled others to start their own herds by either allowing adventurers to join him on his expeditions or leading expeditions for them, extending his preservation efforts beyond himself. 

Jones did not possess the knowledge we have today of domestication, genetics, and ecology.  He only knew of the doom coming upon the bison, and out of the obligation of remorse, sought to preserve them.   He correctly pointed out the bison were suited to the land while cattle were not.  But instead of replacing cattle he originally thought to blend the two new species into a new animal with the best qualities of both.  In the beginning of his buffalo-rescuing project, then, he attempted to preserve bison for the purpose of interbreeding which proved to be a dead-end since cattalo could not breed.  Additionally, unbeknown to him, his domestication efforts doom the wild bison genome.  But to his credit he saved at least some bison from the slaughter of hunters who gave no mind to hunting down every last buffalo.  This was no small feat.

William T. Hornaday, Superintendent of the Taxidermical Department of the Smithsonian Institution, in 1887, was commissioned by the US Government to capture alive buffalo calves for the purpose of perpetuating the species in the National Park at Washington D.C.  After making a trip to Montana and failing to capture any buffalo, Hornaday had this to say in a report to Congress regarding “Buffalo” Jones:

Mr. Jones’s original herd of fifty-seven buffaloes constitutes a living testimonial of his enterprise, courage, endurance and skill in the chase.  The majority of the individuals comprising the herds he himself ran down, lassoed and tied with his own hands.  It was the greatest feat ever accomplished [7].

For that majestic animal which had thundered across the plains, and Jones’ efforts to preserve that wonderful beast, Zane Grey rightly memorialized “Buffalo” Jones, “Preserver of the American Bison,” in The Last of the Plainsmen and the bison in The Thundering Herd.

End Notes:

[1] Gruber, Frank. 1969. Zane Grey: A Biography. Walter J. Black. Roslyn, New York.

[2] Grey, Zane. Prefatory Note. 1936. The Last of the Plainsmen. Walter J. Black. Roslyn, New York.

[3] Jones, Charles Jesse.  1899. Buffalo Jones’ Forty Years of Adventure; a volume of facts gathered from experience. Compiled by Col. Henry Inman. Crane & Co., Publishers, Topeka, Kansas.  Also  CJ (Buffalo) Jones. Kansas State History.  https://www.kspatriot.org/index.php/articles/13-kansas-people/555-c-j-buffalo-jones.html.  Retrieved 06 Jan. 2020.

[4] Hough, E. “A Buffalo Hunt Indeed”.  Jones. Chapter VIII.

[5] Jones, Chapter V

[6] Jones, Chapter V.

[7] Jones, Chapter XIII.

The Household

Outside of the weather the economy seems to be one of the most discussed topics.  Newscasters and commentators endlessly report and discuss the economic news of the day, which we carry into our thoughts and conversations. We fret about jobs.  We sweat out “the markets.”  We cheer positive economic news.  We groan over the negative.  We wonder about the security of Social Security.  We shake our fists at the national debt—a number most of us cannot fathom. Sitting at our kitchen tables, we pay bills and ponder budgets.  But what lies at the heart of this conversation, which seemingly touches every aspect of our lives?

                Discussions of the economy center around the production and consumption of resources, the wealth of the country, and the consequent effect on our lives.  Such focus renders us too distant from the core question:  what is the heart of the economy? What is the central concern?  The word “economy” originally came from the Greek, meaning household management.  The concern was how to care for the household, which begs a subsequent question:  Who constitutes the household?  Though few would realize it, an unlikely member of all our households is the American Bison.

                Defining who is a member of our household, and how we care for them are burning questions demanding answers.  So, what is our household? Our families and friends have intrinsic value, their worth simply abiding in their persons, since we attach sentimentality to them as persons.  Going beyond the limits of family and friends, however, others tend to take on a more utilitarian value. Their worth assessed more on how they fulfill our needs.  If people or things are not seen as a member of the family, or in our circle of friends, or do not carry any sentimental value, we tend to see them, if we see them at all, in utilitarian terms.  And if we do not perceive them as fulfilling any particular need, we tend to push them out of our consciousness, not even acknowledging they exist or have any particular value.  A member of a household, though, always holds value, both intrinsic and utilitarian, since even as a member of a household, we do fulfill some need for the other members.   The recent awakening to our inter-relatedness and interconnection to the environment has answered the “who.” Animate and inanimate existence upon the earth is interdependent.  All of us humans, along with the flora and the fauna, the air and the water, the soil and the rocks, constitute the household.  The notion of the isolated, rugged individual separated from the environment cannot be logically sustained. Even an isolated human being needs clean air and water, plant and/or animal matter, and a hospitable environment to survive.  

                 Until the late 1800s, the economy of the Great Plains and surrounding prairies was based to a large extent upon the American Bison.  The Native Americans of the region could not imagine their lives without the bison.  The buffalo were everything to them.  Pte (Lakota for buffalo) provided food, shelter, weapons, and even toys. The Pte Oyate (Lakota—buffalo people or nation) were, and still are, a spiritual connection to the creator, providing spiritually, materially, and culturally for the well-being of the plains’ inhabitants.  The bison were key to all life.  “If the buffalo live, everything else will live” [1].  The bison were central to the household of the Plains Indians.  And our recent understanding of the Great Plains ecology bears this out.  We have learned what the Native Americans already knew—the bison have ecological value, being a keystone species to the Great Plains [2]. 

                In today’s world, the bison are still a part of our household, both in intrinsic and utilitarian terms.  Examples of the former include the scientific value of studying bison, the emotional impact of viewing them, and their significance to environmental sustainability.  While for the latter, examples include national park attendance and the commercial value of bison meat production.

                The ecological value, though, has been diminished in favor of promoting beef and certain grains.  Cattle ranching and current farming practice monetizes the Great Plains and the Prairies, converting the land into one condition that maximizes meat and grain production [3].  Cattle and grain do not provide all the ecological values that the bison, which evolved with the Great Plains and the prairies, can fulfill [4].

                The current awareness of the interconnectedness of the flora and fauna within the Great Plains ecology has also proven the scientific value in studying the wild bison.  These studies have provided crucial information regarding predator-prey relationships, mechanisms of disease resistance, social relations of wild bison, etc. [5].  Insights gleaned from these studies aid our understanding of our place in the ecological scheme, and how we ought to act to protect the environment of our home, ensuring our own survival.  One element for the proper maintenance of our home requires an extended range of wild bison not to just increase our understanding, but to guide our preservation efforts [6].

                We also associate an emotional value with the bison.  Millions of people come to Yellowstone each year to take in the scenery but, additionally set their hopes on seeing wild animals; especially the buffalo and the wolves. In a 2016 study of visitors to Yellowstone 83% responded that wildlife viewing was their most important reason for visiting the Park [7]. Perhaps not everyone can verbalize the emotional impact of observing wild bison.  Still, we all do sense something stirring inside of us and feel some sort of connection to nature. The herds of bison inspire, instilling awe.  A feeling that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves finds a home within us.  Somehow we sense that if the buffalo were not here, we would be less than who we are.

                Attaching a monetary value to the emotional value of bison is difficult. So for those of us who want to think in utilitarian terms, and deal in cold, hard facts, here are the numbers worth considering.  First, in regard to recreational value, 4.5 million people visited Yellowstone National Park in 2016, spending $524.3 million, supporting 8,156 jobs.  The cumulative benefits of these recreational and emotional visitations amounted to $680.3 million [8], significantly contributing to the local economy.

An even more utilitarian consideration is the commercial value of bison meat production.  One thousand pounds of buffalo will produce approximately 300 lbs. of low-fat meat, which is healthier than beef.  Sale of bison meat averages $350 million per year with demand outstripping production capabilities, and providing consumers with a nutritional source comparable in protein to beef or chicken but higher in essential nutrients [9].  In these terms bison have greater worth to the household than cattle.

Bison Meat Comparison

                The debates over climate change, renewable energy, national debt, healthcare, and so on are really about one debate: Household management. The underlying issue revolves around who we consider as valued members of the household.  The ecosystem of the Great Plains and surrounding prairies occupy approximately one-third of the United States.  Prudence tells us if we are truly concerned about our well-being, then that ecosystem and its members, particularly the bison as a keystone species, are crucial to our household.  Whether we view the bison as having intrinsic value or utilitarian value, it cannot be denied Pte Oyate is a worthy member to be included in our household management.  The bison nation is, as sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, contributing materially and spiritually to our well-being.

End Notes:

[1] Oglala Lakota Women and Buffalo. Featuring Charlotte Black Elk, Monica Terkildsen, Doris Respects Nothing and Katela Herekasapa. Miho Aida, Producer & Director. Retrieved from YouTube.com 11 Dec. 2019.

[2] See 26 April 2019 Post, “Dung Cakes and Feces Pie, Yum!” Bisonwitness.com.

[3] Fuhelendorf, S.D., B. W. Allred and R.G. Hamilton. 2010. Bison as Keystone Herbivores on the Great Plains: Can cattle serve as proxy for evolutionary grazing patterns? American Bison Society Working Paper 4:40pp.

[4] See 26 April 2019 Post, “Dung Cakes and Feces Pie, Yum!” and 26 May 2019 Post, “Bison Air Support.” Bisonwitness.com.

[5] Bailey, James A. 2013. 101. American Plains Bison: Rewilding An Icon.  Sweetgrass Books. Helena, MT.

[6] See 21 November 2019 Post, “Not Out of the Woods, Yet—Genetic Extinction (Part 3).  Bisonwitness.com

[7] Visitor Use Study 2016. https://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/management/visitor-use-study-2016.htm. Retrieved 01 Jan 2020.

[8] Tourism to Yellowstone National Park Creates $680.3 Million in Economic Benefits. https://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/news/17020.htm. National Park Service. Retrieved 11 Dec. 2019

[9] Current Status https://bisoncentral.com/current-status/ and Bison Perfected by Nature. https://bisoncentral.com/bison-perfected-by-nature/.  National Bison Association.  http:/bisoncentral.com.  Retrieved 01 Jan. 2020.

The Real Old West

In our 30-second sound-bite, social media culture the phrase “the old west” may get confused for “Old Navy.”  But for those old enough or who have studied US History, the phrase may conjure images of cowboys, Indians, wagon trains, and gunfights.  But the period of the cowboys and cattle drives, the US Cavalry and plains Indians, gunfights and outlaws, only lasted one generation, from the end of the mid-1800s to the end of the 1890s. Nowadays, much of the prairies and plains are neatly arranged in arbitrary rows of corn and wheat, oats and soybeans, edged and dissected by ribbons of concrete and asphalt. The real old west, particularly from the Mississippi to the Rockies, the west in which the plains bison evolved, has a much larger and dramatic history; perhaps more than our feeble recollections can grasp. Understanding bison evolution depends on an awareness of the geological and environmental history of the “real old west.”

                From the mid-Cretaceous Period—145 MYA (millions of years ago) to 66 MYA—to the very beginning of the Paleogene Period (66 MYA to 23 MYA) the earth sported a shallow sea. Known as the Western Interior Seaway, it was located in the middle of what is currently the North American continent, roughly splitting that land mass in half.  

Western Interior Seaway

Hidden underneath the earth’s crusty surface, however, a great struggle was taking place.  The tectonic war that had begun since the earth’s infancy was pushing up stone giants to the west of the sea and tilting the seabed, sloping downward from west to east.  The result was the formation of the Rocky Mountains (80 MYA – 50 MYA), known as the Laramide Orogeny [1].  During this time, the sea drained revealing a soil-rich plain.

                However, the tectonic struggle was not the only force imposing its will on the North American land mass.  Cold and warm played a tug of war with glaciation advancing and retreating many times throughout the Pleistocene Epoch—2.6 MYA to 11,600 yrs. BP (Before Present).  During one of those glacial periods—the Mindel Glaciation lasting from 0.5 MYA to 125,000 yrs. BP—the  Bison genera  reached northern Eurasia and by way of the Bering land bridge (Beringia) two of the species spread into North America as far as present day Mexico [2]. 


The Bering Land Bridge-more appropriately understood as a plains between modern day Siberia and Alaska

Bison antiquus was most common in the southwestern US and Mexico, while Bison latifrons was found primarily north and inhabited a more heavily wooded or forested environment. B. Latifrons became extinct during the late Wisconsin glaciation (around 11,000 yrs. BP), while B. antiquus survived into the current Holocene epoch during which it evolved into the modern species of Bison bison consisting of two subspecies—B. Bison bison (Plains bison)and B. Bison anthabasca (Woods Bison)[3].

Bison latifrons
Bison latifrons
Bison antiquus
Bison Species Comparison—Modern day plains bison, Bison bison, is on far right (from allaboutbison.com)

                Vegetation development and movements accompanied the withdrawal of the glaciers.  The general withdrawal began after 14,000 yrs. BP and most or all of the ice had disappeared by around 6500 yrs. BP.  During this time, within the region encompassed by the present day Great Plains and bordering prairies, forests and wooded areas were widespread with little open vegetation.  More open vegetation developed during the interglacial periods.

                The Holocene vegetation pattern developed in response to the general continental warming and drying trend that occurred between 11,000 yrs. BP—the end of the Wisconsin glaciation and the beginning of the current Holocene epoch—and 7000 yrs. BP.  The central grassland began to form during the very late Wisconsin glaciation and reached its maximum extent around 7000 yrs. BP [4].

  Meanwhile, the stone giants of the Rockies, sitting silently to the west, formed a rain shadow over the exposed ice-free former seabed, inhibiting needed rain from falling upon the western most regions of the vast plains.  The storm clouds that made it passed the rocky sentinels would not drop their precious cargo until further east.  Eastward from the Rockies the land slopes downward, while the rainfall follows an inverse slope. This factor is significant in the evolution of the grasses. Not enough rain was allowed for forests, but more than enough to prevent a desert.  The mighty forests, found further east, were denied.  Even bushes and shrubs were hard-pressed.  Of course, a lone tree or a small gathering of bushes here and there may have taken hold along a river or creek, but the land was to be ruled by grass, and aridity became the first and most implacable factor [5].

Rain Shadow (from Regional Professional Development Program, rpdp.net)

 Closest to the majestic sentinels on the western horizon arose the short grasses while in the east where the dawn’s first light strikes, and the clouds are more willing to release their precipitation, arose the stately tall grasses. This aridity gradation drove the developmental effort of the grasses to be concentrated in the root structures, driving deep into the soil, holding the soil against an unrelenting wind sweeping across the plains.  Thus deep-rooted perennials, both of the short grass and tall grass varieties, took hold. Inextricably tied to the development of the open vegetation of this vast great plain was the evolution of the bison.  The Great Plains and the plains bison came into being together.

  Long before there were wagon trains and US Cavalry, cowboys and gunfights; long before Europeans were even aware of the North American continent, there existed a vast history of land and vegetation movements vying for dominance of a great region.  But it was not just a drama of earth and flora.  Old species of fauna disappeared to be replaced by new ones.  Humans were present as well—the ancestors of the Native Americans who, in this relatively new region, came to depend on one of the new species of fauna—the Plains Bison.  The Holocene Epoch is the real old west mocking our current understanding of the old west, and to which, our social media apps culture is not even a blink of the eye.

End Notes:

[1] The Laramide orogeny was a period of mountain building in the western portion of present-day North America.  This period started in the late Cretaceous, 70 to 80 million years ago, and ended 35 to 55 million years ago.  The word “orogeny” is a geological term pertaining to the process of mountain making or upheaval (Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary).

[2] McDonald, Jerry N. 36. 2016. North America Bison: Their Classification and Evolution. McDonald & Woodward Publishing Co. Newark, Ohio.

[3]McDonald. 36.

[4] McDonald. 22-28.

[5] Manning, Richard. 3. 1995. Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics, and Promise of the American Prairie. Penguin Books.

Not Out of the Woods, Yet—Genetic Extinction (Part 3)

We all have issues.  The strategies and means employed to preserve the wild bison genome and promote genetic diversity is no exception.  As discussed in the previous blog—Not Out of the Woods, Yet—Genetic Extinction (Part 2)—several issues are involved in working toward these objectives.

Inbreeding and Genetic Drift:

The common strategy to avoid inbreeding depression and genetic drift is to create large herds.  It is estimated that herd sizes of 2000 to 3000 minimum are required [1].  Wild, free-ranging bison need to forage over large swaths of land.  For a herd size of 1000 animals it is estimated a land parcel of 100,000 acres or approximately 156 square miles would be needed [2].  Achieving the minimum herd sizes, then, would require land areas from 300 to 500 square miles.   For 500 square miles, this would be a square with each side having a length of 22.4 miles.  The only large conservation herd that meets both requirements for minimum herd size and land is the Yellowstone herd.  The herd of approximately 3500 roams over 3500 square miles [3].  However, much of that is mountainous and so does not represent the actual land available for exploitation by the bison, raising another issue—habitat requirements.  It is not enough that sufficient amount of land is acquired.  It must be terrain that can be exploited by the bison. 

Relatedly, especially where private lands are acquired, restoration of the terrain may be necessary.  Typically, private lands have been plowed-over and fenced-in for farming and ranching practices.  Any fencing has to be removed to allow for movement of the bison.  Other fencing, suitable for bison, has to be established along the perimeter of the reserve or refuge.  Any dams built to retain water for livestock would also have to be removed [4]. 

Then there is the issue of money [2].  The cost to acquire the necessary land and place a herd of 1000 onto that land may run well over $ 1 million. Reaching the minimum requirements to preserve and promote the bison genome could then run $2 to $3 million per herd. Significant funding raising efforts will be needed.

So what land is possibly available?  Bailey concludes that land east of 98 degrees longitude—Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, eastern Oklahoma, eastern Texas and all points east—is  too fully developed to allow for the necessary land areas.  Between farmland and cities is there is no land parcel large enough to support the minimum herd size.  This leaves the plains—lands west of 98 degrees west longitude to the Rocky Mountains—available.  Perhaps some parts of Nevada and Oregon could be utilized [5].  There are still large tracts available in this region to promote such herds.

Cattle-Gene Introgression:

A potential problem has been identified in regard to purifying bison herds of cattle-gene introgression.  Removing bison with cattle genes may inadvertently remove genes of common ancestry.  Authors Kathleen O’Neal Gear and Michael Gear [6] raise the question: Did bison interbred with any prehistoric species of the Bos side of the Bison-Bos family, and if so, is this the source of the cattle genes?  No one really knows. Removing bison having only genes from domesticated cattle requires the DNA testing to differentiate between those genes belonging to both cattle and bison ancestors from genes belonging only to domesticated cattle.  This would require a complete mapping, or sequencing, of the bison genome [Gears], which to date has not been performed.  Except for the Yellowstone and the Henry Mountains herds, and more recently the American Prairie Reserve herd, all bison most likely have at least some cattle genes.  Derr has found cattle genes in approximately 64% of US federally managed herds [7].

The Gear position, though, does not address the cross-breeding that did take place on private ranches in the US and performed by the Canadian government into the 1960s. There is no doubt the cross-breeding occurred and a few studies have suggested that introgression has been detrimental to bison [8].

Purifying the herds of cattle-gene introgression along with the movement to list wild bison under the Endangered Species Act presents another potential issue if such listing would succeed, according to the Gears.  Some are arguing that the scarcity bison without cattle ancestry qualifies wild bison as an endangered species.  Under the ESA the sale or transporting of bison free of cattle genes could be punishable by a $50,000 fine and one year in prison per charge.  Ranchers or farmers owning bison without cattle ancestry could find themselves being charged under the ESA if they would try to sell or move their bison.  The argument to list wild, pure, bison as endangered, then, could lead to conflicts with current legal definitions governing the status of bison. 

Yet, legal recognition of plains bison as wildlife is required if the wild genome is to be restored on federal lands.  But this seems unlikely at this time.  Most states do not recognize wild bison (see March 2019 post, Legal Status of the American Bison), and the federal government will not restore wild plains bison without support from the affected states.  This could change if the Fish and Wildlife Service would recognize the threat domestication represents to the wild genome, and lists the plains bison as a threatened or endangered species [9].

In any event, the greater goal is to restore wildness to the bison genome.  Reducing cattle-gene introgression to low levels and letting nature takes it course, may over time swamp the cattle genes.  Achieving absolute purity may not be needed if the other actions to promote the wild genome are taken [10].

Artificial Selection:

Purifying the conservation herds of cattle-introgression, though, is not enough to preserve the wild genome and promote genetic diversity.  Artificial selection, caused by human intervention, must be minimized as much as possible.  The complete elimination of human intervention may not be feasible.   No matter how large the land parcel may be, fencing will still be required to keep bison out of private lands.  Handling, needed for testing, culling and transporting of animals, will also be involved in implementing the other objectives. 

Summary:

Various mechanisms threaten the existence of the wild bison genome, requiring various strategies to thwart the threat.  These strategies and their implementation, however, present conflicting objectives, which may require trade-offs, and issues, which demand solutions.  But the restoration of the wild genome and the promotion of genetic diversity cannot wait until all issues have been fully resolved to all interested parties’ satisfaction.  Fortunately, efforts are proceeding to realize the necessary objectives (e.g., The American Prairie Reserve, the Buffalo Field Campaign, etc.) while work continues to resolve the obstacles still in the way.

End Notes:

[1] Hedrick, Paul W. “Conservation of Genetics and North American Bison (Bison bison).” Journal of Heredity 2009: 100(4): 411-420.

[2] Heidebrink, Scott, Bison Restoration Manager, American Prairie Reserve.  Email to author 03-Oct-2019.

[3] Bailey, 180. Baily, James A. 2013. American Plains Bison: Rewilding an Icon. Sweetgrass Books. Helena, MT.

[4] American Prairie Reserve Bison Report 2016-2017.  Retrieved 10-Oct-2019 from http://www.americanprairie.org/.  Also, Bailey, 207.

[5] Bailey, 207.

[6] The Gears are well-known authors of over 50 novels.  They may be best known for their People of the Earth series.  In addition to writing novels, they raise bison.

[7] O’Neal Gear, Kathleen and Gear, Michael W. August 2010.“Bison Genetics—The New War Against Bison.”

[8] Geist, Darrell, Habitat Coordinator.  Buffalo Field Campaign.  Email to author 19-Sep-2019.

[9] Bailey, 220.

[10] Bailey, 214.

Not Out of the Woods, Yet—Genetic Extinction (Part 2)

The mechanisms by which genetic extinction of the wild bison genome may occur were described in the September post.  If the prevention of loss of genetic information and the promotion of genetic diversity are to be achieved, how should we proceed?  What avenues are available or can be created? Broad objectives were laid out in the Vermejo Statement (see the Feb. 27, 2019 post From the Brink to the Foothills-Part 2).  More recently Paul Hedrick has laid out more specific objectives.  These include:

  • Keep cattle ancestry at a very low level,
  • Avoid inbreeding and artificial selection for livestock-related traits, and
  • Retain sufficient genetic variation for future adaptation.

Achieving these objectives requires a variety of strategies.

Cattle-Gene Introgression:

The greatest focus of conservation genetics has been identifying herds with cattle ancestry, since the efforts to restore the wild bison have been threatened by domestic cattle introgression.  Reduction of cattle-gene introgression involves several approaches because of various circumstances [1].

The popular tenet from the medical profession—Do No Harm—applies here as well.  The first and most logical strategy is to not introduce bison with known cattle ancestry into herds free of cattle  introgression.  Though this seems to be the easiest approach, there are only a few herds known to be free of cattle ancestry—e.g., the Yellowstone herd, the Henry Mountains herd, and more recently, the American Prairie Reserve herd.  This approach only protects these herds until other herds free of cattle ancestry can be established.  It should be noted the notion of cattle ancestry free is relative.  There may always be the presence of cattle genes.  Additionally, the complete eradication of cattle genes may not be desirable since the genetic testing has not matured enough to differentiate between genes unique to domesticated cattle and genes having common ancestry to bison and cattle (This issue will be explored in more depth in part 3).

A corollary to the above strategy is to introduce bison without cattle ancestry into herds with cattle-gene introgression.  The benefits could possibly include: a decrease in inbreeding depression, an increase in genetic variation, and genetic swamping of cattle ancestry. This would dilute the presence of cattle genes to the point at which natural selection would eventually take over and reduce the effects of cattle ancestry. A variation of the introduction of cattle-gene free bison strategy involves starting new herds.  

Another approach regarding cattle ancestry involves translocation of bison between herds with similar levels of cattle-gene introgression.  This, at least, would not raise the overall level of cattle ancestry, but would have the benefit of avoiding inbreeding depression.  But this requires more accurate tests to estimate the level of introgression and further examination of potential phenotypic effects [2].

Finally, culling may be used to reduce mitochondria DNA (mtDNA) and specific nuclear alleles (one of two or more alternative forms of a gene found at the same place on a chromosome) of cattle ancestry.  Culling involves separating out the undesirable animal with the objective of reducing or eliminating the traits, qualities or disease of that specific animal from the herd.  Undertaking this strategy to reduce the mtDNA, however, incorrectly assumes this also reduces nuclear DNA.  Care needs to be taken to retain variation at the nuclear level, requiring more extensive and accurate testing.  And culling to reduce specific nuclear alleles is also problematic. Unfortunately, this action will most likely have other alleles associated with the cattle ancestry remaining at other unidentified genetic regions [3].

Inbreeding and Genetic Drift:

Inbreeding and Genetic Drift are significant issues.  Most of the conservation herds are relatively small (i.e., less than 1000). Under these circumstances maintaining the genetic information and diversity required to promote the wild genome is difficult if not impossible.  To avoid these processes of genetic extinction, herd sizes of at least 2000 to 3000 are needed [4].  Out of the 44 conservation herds, only 10 herds have more than 400 animals, and out of these, only 4 have more than 1000 bison—Yellowstone National Park, Medano Ranch, Co., Tallgrass Preserve, OK, and Custer State Park, SD).  The herds smaller than 400, are most definitely, losing genetic diversity, and in danger of inbreeding.  Six of these herds are being managed as a meta-population with exchanges of animals.  This practice may alleviate some inbreeding but will not prevent loss of genetic diversity.  Only the Yellowstone herd is large enough (3000 to 4000) to limit that loss [5].  In addition to the four conservation herds mentioned above, the American Prairie Reserve [see link to the American Prairie Reserve’s website in the Favorite Links section of this blog] in Montana has a herd which is currently slightly less than 1000. 

The regular exchange of bison between herds is another method to avoid inbreeding and genetic drift. In moving bison to other herds, though, consideration must be given to disease control, handling practices, and state laws.  Animals would need to be tested prior to transfer to ensure diseases such as brucellosis and tuberculosis would not be transferred.  Handling of bison is difficult.  Care would be required to ensure the safety of the animal, not to mention the personnel involved.  Finally, laws defining the status of bison differ from state to state and would have to be taken into account.

Achieving genetic diversity requires ongoing assessment of genetic variation from which strategy decisions can be made.  In this regard, Hedrick offers several recommendations which are beyond the scope of this post [6].

Artificial Selection/Domestication:

A certain amount of human intervention in conservation herds cannot be avoided.  Even in Yellowstone the herd suffers from human management—the herd size is limited, the herd has been vaccinated, the average age of the herd has been artificially reduced, and  access to seasonal ranges has been restricted [7].  And this is the most “wild” bison we have!

Herd sizes are managed through random culling with the first animals coming through the chute being selected.  It has been observed, though, the largest animals are usually the first.  Bison traits, then, associated with large body size are being artificially selected out.  Thus, even random culling can have a negative effect on natural selection.  Culling along with vaccination is also used for disease control.  However, disease control treats low resistance bison equally with high-resistance bison, preventing natural selection from promoting bison with high-resistant immune systems. Intervention to control disease, then, tends to retain susceptible animals [8].  If the wild genome is to be encouraged, culling to limit herd size and efforts at disease control must be either eliminated or be rare and minimal.  Still, culling to reduce herd size may be necessary due to land and carrying capacity [9].

Keeping human intervention at a minimum is not enough.  As has been found with the re-introduction of wolves in Yellowstone bison have had to relearn their defensive traits. Avoidance of loss of defensive traits will require the introduction of the bison’s natural predators—the wolf and the grizzly. Predation is also a natural selective force. 

Summary:

The various genetic extinction mechanisms and the circumstances in which bison find themselves—large herds, small herds, land issues, etc.—require several strategies to prevent genetic extinction and promote genetic diversity. The American Prairie Reserve’s bison management approach is a good example of the implementation of some of those strategies discussed above:

  • Their overall goal is to achieve a herd size of 2000 to 3000 within the next 5 to 7 years
  • Their approach is “hands-off” as much as possible. 
  • Manipulation of bison population is minimized to allow for the development of natural sex ratio and age structure
  • Mortality from bull competition, predation, and other natural events is permitted (However, no wolves or grizzlies are currently present on the Reserve)
  • Continue to secure more land and habitat to support the herd and allow for continuous grazing
  • Ensure new bison introduced into the herd are free of cattle-gene introgression [10]

Implementing these strategies involves answering many questions. For instance, land is perhaps the most significant issue.  The common strategy to address the extinction mechanisms is to create large, free-ranging herds, requiring large amounts of land.  But not just any terrain will do.  The habitat must support large swaths of grazing land. How much land is needed for a large herd of free-ranging bison?   What needs to be done to prepare the habitat? Are there state and/or federal regulations involved?

Another concern involves genetic testing.  Ridding herds of cattle genes may cause the loss of common ancestry genes.  How do we differentiate?

If predation is to be re-introduced, what is required to make that happen?

These issues need to be worked out, and will be pursued in part 3 of this discussion.

End Notes:

[1] Hedrick, Paul W. “Conservation of Genetics and North American Bison (Bison bison).” Journal of Heredity 2009:100(4): 411-420.

[2] Phenotypic Effects—Effects on an organism’s observable characteristics or traits and covers the organism’s physical form and structure, developmental processes, biochemical and physiological properties, behavior and products of behavior (Wikipedia).

[3] Hedrick.

[4] Bailey, James A. 2013. American Plains Bison: Rewilding an Icon. Sweetgrass Books. Helena, MT. 179. and Hedrick.

[5] Bailey, 179.

[6] Hedrick.

[7] Bailey, 140.

[8] Bailey, 142-145.

[9] Carrying Capacity—the ability of a habitat to sustain a population (Bailey, 87).

[10] Retrieved 02-Oct-2019 from https://www.americanprairie.org/sites/default/files/APR_Bison%20Report_16_17.pdf). Also, email to author from Scott Heidebrink, Bison Restoration Manager, American Prairie Reserve. 03-Oct-2019.

Not Out of the Woods, Yet–Bison Genetic Extinction

The topic of genetic extinction of the wild bison genotype is rather extensive.  So, the plan is to discuss this issue in several parts, beginning with the mechanisms contributing to the loss of genetic information. Then follow with an exploration of how to avoid those mechanisms and a review of particular issues involved.

Part I: Mechanisms

Imagine a river running endlessly in both directions (nevermind the logical inconsistency) with only one bridge crossing the river, the only means to the other side. Furthermore, coming up to that bridge is a 12-lane highway, but the bridge only permits one lane with no merging lanes allowing access to that one lane.  Instead the other 11 lanes all end with a wall at the river’s shore.  But this is unknown until the ends of those lanes are reached.  Only those traveling on the lane accessing the bridge are able to cross the river.  This situation presents a bottleneck.  By the 1900s the North American bison entered a genetic bottleneck.   From a population of many millions only less than a 1000 were able to cross over our imagined bridge.  A genetic bottleneck occurs when a population is reduced to a small subset of the original population.  The last remaining individuals, then, represent the remaining genetic heritage of the entire initial population. But they do not represent the overall genetic diversity of the population before the bottleneck.  Such circumstances are detrimental to the viability of a species because of the loss of genetic diversity [1].

                Other than out-right extermination of a species, Bailey has identified five processes contributing to the genetic extinction of the wild bison genotype [2]:

  • Founder Effects (Initiating herds with few individuals having limited genetic diversity)
  • Genetic Introgression (Crossbreeding with cattle genes–hybridization)
  • Inbreeding depression in small herds
  • Genetic drift in small populations
  • Artificial selection by human intervention (domestication)

Before going further the concept of wildness needs definition.  According to Bailey, wildness refers to the impact humans have on an animal population or an ecosystem.  A species or an ecosystem is considered wild if it exists and functions with no human intervention [3].  Of course, in the case of bison, Native Americans have interacted with the bison.  But perhaps it could be argued their intervention had no more impact than that of natural, random events; certainly not the impact our culture has had. 

Founder Effects:

Founder effects involve initiating herds with few individuals. Today’s herds have been initiated with the few bison left from the slaughter that took place in the latter half of the 19th century.  Because of this, and as illustrated in the thought experiment above, with the loss of genetic diversity the potential for effective natural selection has been reduced.  In addition, with few founders the stage is set for other resulting mechanisms contributing to genetic extinction—for instance, inbreeding depression and genetic drift experienced in small herds.

Genetic Introgression and Hybridization:

Bison were saved from extinction primarily by 5 ranchers and the small remnant in Yellowstone National Park.  The ranchers during the end of the 19th century and early 1900s experimented with crossbreeding bison with cattle in an effort to raise a hybrid for meat production.  This endeavor quickly ended since bison-cattle hybrids almost always resulted in female offspring and no viable male offspring.  Hybridization that results in one sex being absent, rare or sterile indicates evolutionary incompatibility between the two species [4].  Even though hybridization was a dead-end, the attempt introduced cattle genes into bison herds, known as genetic introgression. Many of the bison from these early hybridization efforts were used to initiate or grow other herds, injecting traits related to domestication into the bison herds and effecting physiology.  One study by Derr found bison with cattle-gene introgression tend to be smaller at an early age and never grow as large as more pure, wild bison [5].

Inbreeding:

Inbreeding involves the breeding of closely-related individuals and occurs in small herds or in herds maintained with few bulls [6], limiting the genetic diversity. Bison bulls will mate with as many cows as is possible, and dominant bulls will father more calves while less dominant bulls may not father any calves [7].  In small herds the genetic material of the dominant bulls will tend to be concentrated and passed on with genetic material of others bulls lost. The negative effects of inbreeding replace natural selection in determining the future genetic make-up.

Genetic Drift:

A change in the relative frequencies of alleles (one of two or more alternative forms of a gene found at the same place on a chromosome) is known as genetic drift. This process occurs in a population due to random events during survival and reproduction [8]. Random chance determines which genes or animals survive and reproduce, causing genetic change in a population.  For instance, a bison could break through the ice when crossing a river and drown. But the major source of changes in allele frequency lies in reproduction during the production of ova and sperm.  When ova and sperm are formed in cell division, chromosomes split leaving the reproductive cells with only half the chromosome set. Thus, during reproduction some alleles are discarded both from the bull and the cow. In large populations random events effects are relatively unimportant because opportunities are present for natural selection to work, mitigating any loss of genetic information. However, in small populations genetic drift may cause some genes to disappear, reducing the genetic diversity and evolutionary potential [9].

Artificial Selection—Domestication:

Domestication results from the replacement or weakening of natural selection by artificial, human-managed selection.  Thus domestication is eradication of wild bison by modification. For example, aurochs were continually domesticated eventually leading to modern domesticated cattle.  These efforts were so extensive aurochs no longer exist.  The essence of selective breeding involves humans deciding which individuals will produce the next generation which will better serve human goals [10].

One of the goals involves handling. Wild bison are difficult to handle, causing harm to the animal, causing potential damage to shoots and pens, and involving more time and effort on the part of the ranchers.  To mitigate handling issues, bison ranchers and farmers have found that by increasing the level of serotonin and lowering the levels of dopamine bison become more docile.  Over time selecting those animals with increased serotonin and lower dopamine for breeding will artificially select the more manageable bison, moving from wildness to domestication. 

Additionally, since ranching and farming are bottom-line businesses, each bison is seen as a productive unit.  Under this perspective management of bison will increase the number of cows altering the natural sex ratio. Bulls can breed many cows, whereas a cow will only have one, possibly two calves per year. Maximizing the commercial herd requires few bulls but many cows.  Besides, cows are also easier to handle than bulls. A biased sex ratio shifts the breeding behavior.  Cows that do not incite competition between bulls will more likely be bred.  Thus the traits associated with competition between bulls become artificially selected out.  Unfortunately, this management perspective not only occurs with private herds.  Public herds are seen as a revenue source, and consequently, subjected to the same practice [11].

               Given the above mechanisms pushing us toward the genetic extinction of wild bison, the question becomes:  how do we mitigate or prevent these processes?  Complete avoidance may not be possible. The means and objectives involved may be in conflict with each other and may require trade-offs.

Prevention and mitigation of the genetic extinction mechanisms contributing to the loss of wildness in bison will be explored in the next post.

Endnotes:

[1] Bison Bellows. Retrieved 09-Sep-2019 from https://www.nps.gov/subjects/bison/bison-bellows-12-13-15.htm.

[2] Bailey, James A. 47.  2013. American Plains Bison: Rewilding an Icon. Helena, MT. Sweetgrass Books.

[3] Bailey, 73.

[4] Hedrick, Paul W. “Conservation of Genetics and North American Bison (Bison bison)”. Journal of Heredity 2009: 100(4): 411-420.

[5] Bailey, 48.

[6] Bailey, 76.

[7] Lott, Dale F. 194. 2002. American Bison: A Natural History.  Berkeley. University of California Press.

[8] Bailey, 78.

[9] Bailey, 49-50.  Also for a full discussion of genetic drift see Bailey, 78-80.

[10] Lott, 196-198.

[11] Lott, 198-200.