The history of the bison is a complex system of survival
and regrowth. Their huge numbers were almost entirely wiped out from the threat of poaching and
loss of habitat, both a product of human expansion. Though recently, the buffalo's threat of
extinction has become a concern of humans. The studies of bisons' importance towards the
continuation of a stable environment has increased in recent years. This new information in bison
involvement has helped create new measures in protecting and reestablishing the stability of bison
populations. National parks and reserves have become the new habitats for the bison, where the
threat of over-hunting is no longer a danger. With this relatively controlled environment, people
are able to observe the affects bison have on today's culture and environment. This paper attempts
to bring to light the American bisons relationship with their environment as well as with today's
human culture. Examples of the bison's direct affect on the distribution and growth of their
environment will be provided, as well as the ways in which the bison and human cultures relationship
becomes more of an apparent problem with the growth of the populations.
Involvement with Environment and Human Culture
Academic affiliation: Oklahoma State University
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The time of European expansion proved to be a time of decay for bison populations.
Isenberg examines this human destruction factor in his writing "The Destruction of the Bison."
Isenberg suggests that the "Euroamericans" and the New World expansions were the main cause
for the decline in bison populations. Before the time of European expansions, the Native
Americans had adapted their lives and lifestyles around that of the natural region and
environment. Yet with the coming of Europeans, they quickly had to readapt to the new conditions.
Europeans brought both good and bad things, such as horses, diseases, and the fur trade. They
brought horses, diseases, and the fur trade. These significant factors would lead to the
furthering slaughter of the bison. The horse and trade became the leading cause of the decline
in bison populations. With the efficiency of the horse, trade became a popular, easy way for
profit. Both the "Euroamericans" and Native Americans began to view the bison as great commercial
assets, not as the sources of food and other necessities of life as did many Native Americans.
The value of the buffalo hide and tongue proved to be a commercial temptress to both parties.
As Isenberg states, "Like other environmental catastrophes in the American West - the depletion of
the California fisheries, the deforestation of the Great Lakes region and Pacific Northwest,
and the "dust bowl" of the southern plains in the 1930s - the destruction of the bison was, in
part, the result of the unsustainable exploitation of the natural resources" (2). This was the
beginning of a mass decimation of the bison herds. With this rapid decline in numbers the stability
of the natural environment was also altered. The observations of grasslands in later years
show that this alteration had an affect on its ecosystem.
During the time of the mass buffalo slaughtering, people were unaware of the buffalo's
significance towards the ecosystem. It was unknown that the stability was kept in balance
by the bison. They were not only responsible for the distribution of plants, but were
partially responsible for the growth patterns of grassland foliage. It was from perspectives
like Isenberg's and the buffalo's disappearance that Floyd Larson's reasoned that the buffalo
had an impact on the stability of their habitats. From the decimation of the bison, Larson
extends his opinion towards the loss of stability of the bison and their environments in
his writings "The Role of the Bison in Maintaining the Short Grass Plains." Larson studies
the direct affects bison have on the grasslands of the plains. A previously held belief is
that the state of the short grass plains is a result of overgrazing from the native animals
of the plains. Larson attempts to argue that the short grasslands are the normal, natural
biome of the plains, which was kept at a stable level from the animals that were "overgrazing."
It was the grazing bison populations on the short grasses of the plains that prompted the
evolution of today's plains. The depletion of bison herds left grasslands with short grasses,
which researchers classify as a "dis-climax," or not what the plains should be; yet, Larson
argues that it was the natural grazing of the animal, that changed the plains ecosystem into
what it has become. The evolution of the plains could no longer take place as it had in the
past because a crucial element had been taken away, the bison.
Wild fires on the prairie has long been a significant factor that determined the habits and
patterns of grazing animals. The fire history of a plains region directly affects the plants
growth patterns as well as the species composition. This relationship of grasslands and fire
history is studied by Mary Ann Vinton and fellow researchers in her writing "Interactive Effects
of Fire, Bison (Bison bison) Grazing and Plant Community Composition in Tallgrass Prairie."
She argues that the fires on the plains grassland produces changes and outcomes that influence
bison grazing and distribution on the land. Most fires are the product of naturally occurring
lightning storms that strike the dry grasslands, setting them on fire. In the times of the
free roaming bison, there were not proper measures and precautions taken by settlers to
prevent and extinguish those wild fires. This caused the fires to burn vast amounts of
prairie land, causing new growth of the plants in the burned regions. The fires then created
a new type and rate of growth in the grasses in the plains. The fires produce a new composition
in the plant species as well as a difference in the nitrogen levels within the plants tissues.
This in turn creates a different pattern in which the new growth will develop. The distribution
as well as the growth rates are all interrupted and must begin once again. This new
development in the plant species have direct effects on the distribution of the grazing
animals: "Thus, both large-scale, fire-induced changes in plant composition and quality, as
well as small-scale changes over local biological and physical gradients may be important
in determining bison grazing patterns in tallgrass prairie" (11).
The bison herds are not
only affected by the wild grassland fires, but are also a contributing factor in the severity
of the fires. Most prairie fires are fueled by the dry grasslands, but they can also be fed by
the fecal pats of the huge bison herds. The thesis in "Combustion Characteristics of Bison
(Bison bison) Fecal Pats Ignited by Grassland Fires," by J. Scott Crockett is that
"a bison fecal pat-fire interaction may be an important aspect of disturbance ecology in
prairies" (12). The significance of the bison fecal pat is studied in relationship with the
severity of wild prairie fires. The mass population of bison during the time of mass wild
fires would equal a relationship that one depended on the other. The researchers studied
whether the easily combustible composition of the bison fecal pats would spread the duration
of the wild fires more so than just grasslands feeding the fire. This would cause a greater
destruction on the stability of the ecosystem by burning more grasslands and plants. Yet in
Crockett and researchers studies, it showed no correlation towards the actual combustion of
the fecal pats and the severity of the prairie fires. Yet there was determined that the fecal
pats created a greater temperature and heat than those fires fed only by grasslands. This would
prove that the presence of bison fecal pats may have a significant factor in the severity of
the wild fires by determining the temperature, and power, of the fire.
The distribution of plant species and quantity, affected by wild grassland fires, is a factor
that relates with the bison populations. This idea of bison's relationship with the environment
is taken up by Bryan Coppedge. His thesis in "Effects of Horning and Rubbing Behavior by
Bison (Bison bison) on Woody Vegetation in a Tallgrass Prairie Landscape," is that,
"horning and rubbing by bison...may have influenced the historical distribution of woody
vegetation in prairie environments" (189). The horning and rubbing of the bison on the
vegetation determine both the rate of growth and distribution on the plains. Much of the
research was conducted on bison restricted within park areas. Studying the vegetation affected
by the horning and rubbing was the objective. Studies show that the distribution of the plants
relate to the bisons movements in their grazing patterns. Where huge populations of bison
roamed, less tall shrubbery was found, mostly from the effects of the horning and rubbing
by bison. The vegetation distribution and growth rates ran parallel to the bison populations,
which determined the severity of the rubbing and horning on the plants and vegetation.
The conservation of bison and the rehabilitation of the populations has recently become a
concern for many people. Measures have been taken to create reserves for the bison in hopes
of recovering the mass decline in numbers. For years, the bison have slowly grown in numbers,
yet with this rise also creates more problems. The growing numbers have created natural problems
within their actual reserves. Many of the bison reserves were not created to inhabit the surge
in populations, and therefore overpopulation has become a risk. Such a threat is brought to
light on the Nature website http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/buffalo/herd.html, an educational
PBS television program. It also states that there are techniques and ideas that have been
undertaken to prevent and contain such a threat. One is reinstating wolves into the reserves
so as a stable population can be brought about through natural courses. Yet, this creates a
problem with the local ranchers who fear the wolves would also prey upon their livestock.
Another measure proposed is that a portion of the overpopulated bison herds could be removed
to lands owned by native tribes. These lands and tribes are concerned with the reconstruction
of bison populations, and would therefore protect the interests of the bison. In either case,
the human factor has the upper hand in determining the outcome and future of the bison herds.
Along with the natural threat of overpopulation, conflicts arise with those who live near the
bison reserves. In "Bring Back the Buffalo! A Sustainable Future for America's Great Plains,"
Ernest Callenbach argues that it is not the dangers of the urban settings that impose a greater
threat on the bison, but the expansion of farmers. It is with this new comeback, the bison have
become more of a factor in the lives of the people that live near these reservations. With the
growing bison populations, the available food source becomes less and less. Many bison wander
off their protected lands in order to find better grazing, which is usually obtained in planted
fields. This becomes a hazard for those wandering bison because many farmers kill bison who
attempt to graze on their lands. Another conflict that farmers create for the bisons is their
constant want of land expansion. Farmers are consistently plowing the grasslands, and destroying
the bison's food supply. As the bison populations are on a gradual rise, their environments and
habitats are constantly under threat by farmers and expansions of human culture.
The bison populations are also under the threat from local ranchers that live near the reserves.
The disease Brucellosis is a common disease among bison, which can be transmitted to cattle.
The problems that arise is taken up by Joel Berger in his writing, "Reproductive Synchrony in
Brucellosis-Exposed Bison in Souther Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and in Noninfected
Populations." Brucellosis is a fairly common disease in bison that causes the abortion of
both bison and livestock young. With the rise of bison populations, the rising threat of
exposing cattle to the disease also increases. Though many ranchers believe that Brucellosis
is the cause of many unborn cattle, "the risk of disease transmission from wild bison to cattle
is poorly understood, partly because no cases have been documented" (358). Though there has not
been sufficient scientific data that proves such parallels, most ranchers take into their own
hands the protection of their livestock. Many bison are killed to prevent any kind of
Brucellosis transmittance from bison to cattle. People have also tried to take measures
that would remove all bison outside their reserves that could potentially hold the threat
of transmitting Brucellosis. This disease has played a major part in the relationship between
bison and neighboring ranchers. The threat of transmittance to livestock creates a serious
problem for the well being of the bison and their survival.
As Joel Bergers states, "One of the best-known examples of a mammal rescued from extinction is
the North American bison" (358). From a bleak and grim past, the American bison has made an
impressive comeback. With the help of human involvement, bison now have protected habitats in
which they are once again able to thrive. It is with this new growth, people have been better
able to understand the bison's importance to both the environment as well as the influence they
have with human culture. As stated previously, bison have a seemingly important
influence on the grasslands in determining their distribution as well as their growth patterns.
The rise in American bisons populations has also created a more troubled relationship with human
culture of today. With the healthy growth of their populations, more problems seem to arise
with the local farmers and ranchers who merely protect their well being. This paper has
attempted to show that the American bison did indeed have direct involvement with their
past as well as with today. The focus of this paper was to bring insight into the bison's
importance and how the drastic population losses proved that it had, and would have, a
significant impact on both their environments as well as on the human culture of today.
Berger, Joel, and Steven L. Cain. "Reproductive Synchrony in Brucellosis-Exposed Bison in the
Southern Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and in Noninfected Populations." Conservation Biology 13.2
Callenbach, Ernest. Bring Back the Buffalo! A Sustainable Future for America's Great Plains.
Los Angeles: U of California P, 1996.
Coppedge, Bryan R., and James H. Shaw. "Effects of Horning and Rubbing Behavior by Bison
(Bison bison) on Woody Begetation in a Tallgrass Prairie Landscape." American Midland
Naturalist 138.1 (1997): 189-96.
Crockett, J. Scott, and David M. Engle. "Combustion Characteristics of Bison (Bison bison)
Fecal Pats Ignited by Grassland Fires." American Midland Naturalist 141.1 (1999): 12-18.
Isenberg, Andrew C. The Destruction of the Bison. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002.
Larson, Floyd. "The Role of the Bison in Maintaining the Short Grass Plains." Ecology 21.1 (1940):
Troubled Herds. 28, Feb. 2003. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/buffalo/herd.html.
Vinton, Mary Ann, et al. "Interactive Effects of Fire, Bison (Bison bison) Grazing and Plant Community Composition in Tallgrass Prairie." American Midland Naturalist 129.1 (1993): 10-18.
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