Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Wild at Heart: The American Bison

Over the next few days, I will be bringing you previews of the work that will be exhibited this Saturday, May 26th at "Wild at Heart: Keep Wildlife in the Wild," the endangered species benefit that Andrew Hosner and I are co-curating at Thinkspace. 20% of the proceeds of the show will go to Born Free USA to help threatened wildlife. Hope to see you there!

Stella Im Hultberg "A Sacred Journey"

Vast herds of American Bison or Buffalo once roamed the plains and forests of North America, from northwest Canada to as far south as Mexico, and east all the way to the Appalachians. The first trails made in North America — used by the natives, then by settlers, and finally by the railways — were the paths pounded by bison as they migrated to and from their feeding grounds and salt licks. Capable of running 40 miles per hour, pivoting quickly and jumping six feet in the air, bison are agile and difficult to confine because they can jump over or crash through almost any fence.

From a population of perhaps 60 million at the beginning of the 19th century, bison had been hunted to near-extinction by 1889, when there were only 1,091 surviving. Bison were slaughtered wholesale for their skin, which was used for robes, rugs, and belts for industrial machinery. Unlike the Native Americans, who used every part of the bison, commercial bison hunters took the skin and left the meat to decay on the ground. But there was a more sinister reason for the bison’s decline — racism and greed. The decimation of the bison herds was encouraged by the U.S. Army, not only because it would open the range to ranchers, but because they hoped to drive the native people from the plains by depriving them of their main food source. When the bison population neared extinction, conservation legislation was proposed, but was vetoed by President Ulysses S. Grant, who felt that destroying the natives’ way of life was the greater priority.

In the late 1800s, seven different ranchers took it upon themselves to rescue the few remaining bison, and started their own private herds. Many of the descendants of those bison have been reintroduced into protected reserves that were once home to wild bison herds. About 30,000 bison live on reserves today, and are managed for conservation purposes. Another 400,000 are raised for their meat, though many of those have been cross-bred with cattle. Today, the only herd of bison in the U.S. that has lived in the wild continuously is in Yellowstone National Park, which now harbors a herd of 4,000 bison descended from 23 mountain bison that survived the slaughter of the great herds, sheltered in the park’s remote Pelican Valley.

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