Bison: they’re here. They weren’t going to be, but they are!
Bison restoration represents a great conservation success story, and it should inspire us as we battle to transform our greenhouse gas making ways. Bison—the big mammal that filled North America prairies and forests in the millions—were within a whisper of extinction, but then they were saved, and now their numbers are growing. Bison’s salvation occurred because Americans in the early 1900s evolved a new way of thinking about the natural world, and then they took action to save large mammals and their habitat. That new view continues per our continuing creation of national and other parks, wildlife reserves, wild and scenic rivers, and other habitats.
Changing our mindset
Our heating-up world requires us to change our mindset. Fossil fuels are killing our future and the future of other species, and so fossil-fuel habituation must rapidly fade into the past. We must work vigorously to transform away from fossil fuels (and the structure that supports them) to a clean energy system, and we must gird for the storm/flood/heat/drought assaults that are coming. We must think differently and act accordingly.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Americans’ mindset was that killing species (even to extinction) and the unlimited exploitation of land, water, and forests was the natural price of progress. “Civilized people,” per that way of thinking, are the dominant species on Earth, and it’s only natural that other races and species be used or pushed aside. But wanton destruction of significant numbers of wildlife and wild lands nearly extinguished many species and habitats in a short time. Having this disaster publicized, and then realizing that the species that make up our country’s new world character would be gone forever, changed many Americans’ mindsets. As related in the book Theodore Roosevelt and Bison Restoration on the Great Plains by Keith Aune and Glenn Plumb (p. 11), Americans attained a “new view of the natural world.” That new view (an epiphany) was then translated into action by determined people who saved bison, other animals, and their habitat.
Our twenty-first century challenges—converting to a green system of energy and living with the oncoming climate assaults—is bigger than the nineteenth and twentieth century challenge of saving bison and other big North American mammals. But the conservationist success story of saving bison inspires us now as we battle to save ourselves and other species. We can change our ways. We can evolve new ways of thinking and, in that new paradigm, take saving action.
TRAILER-TRIP NOTES, OBSERVATIONS ABOUT SAVING BISON, AND MORE ABOUT CLIMATE-CHANGE ACTION
My wife and I toured Theodore Roosevelt National Park in Medora, North Dakota, and we saw bison (along with prairie dogs, wild horses, pronghorn sheep, hawks, little brown birds, and grasshoppers).
Bison nearly went extinct, but instead they were saved. As related in the book Theodore Roosevelt and Bison Restoration on the Great Plains by Keith Aune and Glenn Plumb: “renowned connections between humans and bison existed in North America for the past twelve thousand years” (9). However, when non-Indians spread across the continent, the bison were decimated (in just one hundred years) “from a population of more than 30 to 60 million to fewer than 1,000 by 1889.”
Think of that: more than 30 to 60 million down to fewer than 1,000. As Aune and Plumb note, this “is a troubling story motivated by unrestrained greed and resource exploitation for commercial purposes, the dominating philosophy of Manifest Destiny and misguided U.S. Indian Policy” (p. 11). Numbers of other big mammals, such as elk, antelope, cougars, wolves, bears, and pronghorn sheep, also decreased dramatically during the 1800s.
Millions of bison were slaughtered for robes, tongues, and bison bones (which were then used to fertilize the fields that had been converted from the prairies) or just for “fun.” Pictures of piles of bison bodies littering the prairie and of piles of carcasses were published—and people were affected.
As wilderness and animals disappeared, a new way of thinking took hold in American minds. As Aune and Plumb relate, “The plight of the American bison at the close of the nineteenth century was a shameful story in American history and became the catalyst for a new view of the natural world” (p. 11).
A new view of the natural world
Today we’re able to experience many animals and plants in the twenty-first century because of the energy and actions of Teddy Roosevelt and others. As Aune and Plumb note, “Today, we are very fortunate there was a group of enlightened thinkers [Henry David Thoreau, John Burroughs, George Caitlin, John James Audubon, George Bird Grinnell, and Theodore Roosevelt are some that are listed] that questioned the dominant human philosophies and policies of the day and began a new progressive dialogue about the future of bison, wildlands, and other wildlife” (11).
Darrin Lunde, in his book The Naturalist: Theodore Roosevelt, A Lifetime of Exploration, and the Triumph of American Natural History, describes Theodore Roosevelt as a naturalist and hunter who, over time, develops into a conservationist. During sequential visits to the West to hunt and to manage his two ranches near Medora, North Dakota, he saw firsthand the increasing absence of big mammals from western landscapes.
Roosevelt’s conversion to conservationist was accelerated because of a fateful meeting that occurred between him and George Bird Grinnell, the editor of Forest and Stream magazine, after Grinnell had written a mixed review of Roosevelt’s book Hunting Trips of a Ranchman. As Lunde describes the scene (pp. 130-132), “Roosevelt stormed into the Broadway office of Forest and Stream and confronted Grinnell face-to-face.” There, the two swapped stories about the West and about the changes occurring there.
Roosevelt had arrived in the West toward the end of the bison period, but Grinnell had worked and researched there when the herds were still vast, and he could describe to Roosevelt a time when the creatures had blackened the hills. Roosevelt, who was widely read, knew how numerous bison had been, and he saw, in his sequential visits, how bison and other large mammals were becoming harder to find. He, like many Americans, had thought that extinction of species was the inevitable consequence of human progress, but as he and Grinnell swapped stories of the West, Grinnell, who was an ardent advocate for conservation, helped convince Roosevelt, a man of action, to take action for the preservation of animals. Talks with Grinnell and others, as well as Roosevelt’s own experiences, converted Roosevelt’s mode of thinking (and subsequently, many Americans’ way of thinking) from the inevitability of extinction to instead the critical need to save animals, plants, and habitat. And Roosevelt was a man of energy and action.
Theodore Roosevelt: man of action
Much happened. The man we now title the conservationist president “established the US Forest Service and signed the 1906 Antiquities Act, under which we he proclaimed 18 national monuments. He worked with Congress to create five national parks, 150 national forests, and dozens of federal reserves—over 230 million acres of protected land” (source: National Park Foundation brochure, Theodore National Park, last updated 2019). We now have over 400 parks in our national park system, which comprises national parks, wildlife refuges, forests, grasslands, wildernesses, and ocean preserves. Roosevelt preached a new way of thinking about wildlife and habitat, and Americans were converted.
Bison populations have recovered through a combination of public and private initiatives in the United States and Canada. Federal, state, tribal, and commercial herds have added to the numbers—and various institutions follow that progress. As seen on a poster at the Buffalo Hall of Fame in Jamestown, North Dakota:
Since the latter half of the 19th century, conservationists, preservationists, politicians, private ranchers, and other advocates have contributed to the restoration of the bison from near extinction.
Often working in dispersed and disjointed ways and with different perspectives, they are united by their common purpose of rescuing North America’s largest land mammal from extinction and preserving one of the keystone species of our prairie ecosystem. They are also connected by their commitment and passion for an animal that is now recognized as the United States national mammal.
Bison, the iconic species of the West, had been expected to go extinct, but that didn’t happen. “Today, more than 500,000 bison roam the North American continent and they no longer balance on the edge of extinction. It is truly one of America’s greatest success stories” (source: Theodore Roosevelt National Park brochure: “The American Bison,” obtained August 2021).
For us now: the bison story, the climate-crisis reality, and a necessary new way of thinking.
We face a worsening climate crisis that imposes on Earth what seems to be the inevitable extinction of many species (and perhaps of ourselves) because we’ve persisted in our fossil-fuel consuming and greenhouse-gas producing ways longer than we should have. Many of us held to the thought that climate change wouldn’t affect us personally, but it has, and it will do so more. Like people in the nineteenth century, who saw North American big mammals disappearing, we in the twenty-first century are witnessing huge environmental changes: heat, drought, forest fires, floods, and big storms—so the future looks scary.
Large-scale and rapid conversion to clean energy had been thought to be too expensive, too impractical, and too inconvenient. But the climate crisis reality forced a new paradigm, and now those courses are looking to be our salvation. Fortunately, another welcome reality has occurred: the dropping prices and spreading availability of wind and solar energy.
We’re evolving our thinking concerning the climate crisis. As happened to people in the nineteenth century who initially accepted the “inevitability” of other species’ extinction in order to pay for human “progress,” but who later changed their minds, our mindset regarding the necessity of fossil fuels must change too.
Can we transform fast enough? Can we act fast enough?
But will the change be fast enough for the survival of many species and possibly us? The recent publication by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change depresses one, but it also offers some hope (though less hope than in previous, lower ppm CO2 years). As related in this New York Times newspaper article [Brad Plumer and Henry Fountain, “A Hotter Future Is Certain, Climate Panel Warns. But How Hot Is Up to Us,” New York Times, 9 Aug. 2021, Web, A Hotter Future Is Certain, Climate Panel Warns. But How Hot Is Up to Us), our actions now are critical. Per the IPCC report, a hotter world for the next thirty years and beyond is baked in, and climate damage will worsen. But the report also says that we can still influence—via dramatic greenhouse-gas cutting actions—how hot the world gets . . . but not if we don’t take those actions now.
We know the actions essential for survival: we must aggressively convert to a clean-fuel economy; we must save forests and plant more trees; we must set aside a third of the world for habitat; and we must dramatically reduce our waste and pollution. We know the actions to do to save ourselves and other species, but we must do them.
The extinction problems we face are bigger than those that faced by Roosevelt and Grinnell’s generation, who were tasked to save some of the large animals and some of the habitat of North America. Saving our Earth requires a new mindset, one that recognizes that we’re responsible to preserve the earth we’re blessed with.
Seeing bison today, knowing the history of how their salvation came about (stories of the people and the actions), and witnessing the spread of conservation areas and refuges around the world (the successes) inspires us to do the needed work in this generation.
Hope now from others’ past successes
If one wonders whether the writing, speaking, organizing, protesting, letter writing, and participation in conservation groups are worth it, just get out to a national park or a national wildlife refuge and watch bison grazing on the prairie or watch a flock of ducks wheeling over the waters. Read the stories of how such places came to be and of the people who took action for the local area of the world that was so special to them. Witness the many miracles of nature interacting in this variety-of-life filled world—and get refilled in your hope. Many of those creatures weren’t going to be—but they are, and that’s because of actions taken by people like you and me—and we and our world are richer for those actions.
Aune, Keith and Glenn Plumb. Theodore Roosevelt & Bison Restoration on the Great Plains. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2019.
Buffalo Hall of Fame posters, Jamestown, ND, visited 19 Aug. 2021.
Lunde, Darrin. The Naturalist: Theodore Roosevelt, A Lifetime of Exploration, and the Triumph of American Natural History. New York: Broadway Books, 2016.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park brochure: “The American Bison,” obtained August 2021.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park information posters, seen August 2021.