More than 45,000 have vied for 12 spots to help cull Grand Canyon bison herd, after the US National Park Service (NPS) requested volunteers to help with overpopulation. The NPS opened a rare opportunity this May for skilled shooters to kill bison at the Grand Canyon’s north rim. Officials say the pilot programme is required after the herd rapidly grew to 600 bison in recent years. The NPS hopes to bring the herd residing on the North Rim down to about 200 in order to reduce trampling of Native American archaeological sites, soil erosion and water contamination. The Park released a plan in September 2017 after an environmental review that called for a mix of corralling the animals near the highway that leads to the north rim and relocating them, and for skilled volunteers to shoot. However many environmentalists are advocating for family groups of animals including the bison to be moved to protect against looming biodiversity loss and become possible additions to nature-based solutions.

Bison, a keystone species, help create habitats on the Great Plains for many other species, including grassland birds and various plants. As bison forage, they aerate the soil with their hooves, which aids in plant growth, and helps disperse native seeds, helping to maintain a healthy and balanced ecosystem. The largest land mammal in the Western Hemisphere (bison can grow to be six feet tall and weigh more than a ton) Bison were, and remain, a critical resource for Native Americans. Through the ages, various tribes have used every part of the bison – as food, for utensils and clothing, and in religious rituals. The Lakota nation, for example, used buffalo hair in headdresses and to stuff pillows and weave ropes. Other tribes have used bison fat in soap, cooking oil and candles; the skull as a religious altar; the bones for eating utensils and jewellery; and the bladder for food pouches and medicine bags. Even the stomach lining was used as a cooking vessel. 

The future of the Bison was not always certain. Once numbering in the tens of millions, they dominated the Great Plains landscape until the late 1800s, anchoring a remarkable ecosystem that contained perhaps the greatest concentration of mammals on Earth. That abundance was wiped out as settlers and the U.S. government engaged in a brutally effective campaign to eradicate the ecosystem and the native cultures that relied on it. 

Bison were shot by the millions, sometimes for “sport,” sometimes for profit, and ultimately to deprive Native Americans of vital resources

Following the Civil War, after deadly European diseases and hundreds of wars with colonisers had already wiped-out untold numbers of Native Americans, the U.S. government had ratified nearly 400 treaties with the Plains Indians. But as the Gold Rush, the pressures of Manifest Destiny, and land grants for railroad construction led to greater expansion in the West, many of these treaties were broken. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s first post-civil war command covered the territory west of the Mississippi and east of the Rocky Mountains, and his top priority was to protect the construction of the railroads. In 1867, he wrote to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, “we are not going to let thieving, ragged Indians check and stop the progress” of the railroads. Outraged by the Battle of the Hundred Slain, where Lakota and Cheyenne warriors ambushed a troop of the U.S. Cavalry in Wyoming, scalping and mutilating the bodies of all 81 soldiers and officers, Sherman told Grant the year before, “we must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their extermination, men, women and children.” When Grant assumed the presidency in 1869, he appointed Sherman Commanding General of the Army, and Sherman was responsible for U.S. engagement in the Indian Wars.  On the ground in the West, Gen. Philip Henry Sheridan, assuming Sherman’s command, took to his task much as he had done in the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War, when he ordered the “scorched earth” tactics that presaged Sherman’s March to the Sea. The Transcontinental Railroad made Sheridan’s strategy of “total war” much more effective. In the mid-19th century, it was estimated that 30 million to 60 million buffalo roamed the plains. In massive and majestic herds, they rumbled by the hundreds of thousands. The bison’s lifespan of 25 years, rapid reproduction and resiliency in their environment enabled the species to flourish, as Native Americans were careful not to overhunt. In mid-century, trappers who had depleted the beaver populations of the Midwest began trading in bison robes and tongues; an estimated 200,000 bison were killed annually. The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad accelerated the decimation of the species. By 1890 fewer than 1,000 bison were left, and the outlook for them was bleak. Two small wild populations remained, in Yellowstone National Park and northern Alberta, Canada; and a few individuals survived in zoos and on private ranches.

A movement developed to save the bison and ultimately became a conservation success story. Some former bison hunters, including prominent figures like William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and future President Theodore Roosevelt, gathered the few surviving animals, promoted captive breeding and eventually reintroduced them to the natural landscape. 

With the establishment of additional populations on public and private lands across the Great Plains, the species was saved from immediate extinction. By 1920 it numbered about 12,000. By the early 2000s, the total North American population had expanded to 500,000, with about 90 percent being raised as livestock – but often in relatively natural conditions – and the rest in public parks and preserves. For scientists, this process has been an opportunity to learn how bison interact with their habitat.

Bison feed almost exclusively on grasses, which, because they grow rapidly, tend to out-compete other plants. Bison’s selective grazing behaviour produces higher biodiversity because it helps plants that normally are dominated by grasses to coexist. Because they tend to graze intensively on recently burned zones and leave other areas relatively untouched, bison create a diverse mosaic of habitats. They also like to move, spreading their impacts over large areas. The variety they produce is key to the survival of imperilled species such as the greater prairie chicken that prefer to use different patches for different behaviours, such as mating and nesting. Bison impacts do not stop there. They often kill woody vegetation by rubbing their bodies and horns on it. By digesting vegetation and excreting their waste across large areas, they spread nutrients over the landscape. This can produce higher-quality vegetation that benefits other animals.

Bison are critical to restoring the exploited landscape of America but also in recovering a significant species for Native American culture. In forming the Inter-Tribal Bison Cooperative (ITBC), the delegates hoped to restore the bison to millions of acres of tribal lands — and to a central place in tribal life. “We recognize the bison as a symbol of strength and unity,” says Fred DuBray, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux and former president of the ITBC. The South Dakota-based group believes that “reintroduction of the buffalo to tribal lands will help heal the spirit of both the Indian people and the buffalo . . . To re-establish healthy buffalo populations on tribal lands is to re-establish hope for Indian people” highlighting the importance of the bison.

Mia Clement

Mia Clement is a first year undergrad studying Geography at Christ Church college. They are an ardent climate activist promoting intersectional environmental protection and information across both OCS...