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Riled Up is a journal of science, the environment, exploration, new technology, and related commentary.  Contributors include scientists, explorers, engineers, and others who provide perspectives and context not typically offered in general news circulation.  For interested readers, additional resources are included.

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Restoring the Bison and a Culture

Restoring the Bison and a Culture

Bison galloping, (credit: Eadweard Muybridge)


A day was set to remember an animal of national importance, the American Bison. National Bison Day was established when President Barack Obama signed the National Bison Legacy Act in 2016, designating it as the 'national mammal' of the United States. Promoted by the National Bison Association and other conservation groups, the first Saturday in November commemorates the shaggy grazing animal. Bison (Bison bison) once roamed in herds numbering in the millions but they were reduced to the edge of extinction on the Great Plains from Canada to Texas by the beginning of the 20th Century. Bison Day recognizes the ecological, cultural, and economic contributions provided by this national wildlife icon.

The documentary filmmaker Ken Burns offers a comprehensive history lesson on what happened to the vast Great Plains' herds, and the Native Americans who relied upon them, in the 19th Century. His 2-part documentary, The American Buffalo, recently aired on PBS with his signature style of visual storytelling. Using industrial scale exploitation, legal deception, and other dubious tactics the bison and the Native Americans were virtually extinguished from their 10,000 year dual relationship. It is a sad piece of history but also a story of ecological and cultural recovery unfolding now in the 21st Century. A National Bison Range was created in western Montana in 1908 to help restore them. The High Plains landscape is now The Bison Range and managed by tribes themselves. The trailer offers some perspective on the PBS series.

Bison restoration is also underway in Canada. The shaggy animals haven't been part of the northern Great Plains since they were also exterminated in the last century. Now recovering in the USA, the large grazing animals represent a great success story in wildlife conservation. The Canadians want to replicate America's success and the early results of their reintroduction in Banff National Park has been rewarding. As their numbers grow, it is expected that ecological adjustments observed in the US will also be seen as similar ecosystem changes in Banff.

Success in wildlife restoration requires mindful planning, smart engineering, an appreciation of animal behavior, often cultural considerations, and also luck. The American Buffalo is returing because of these combined factors. WHB

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