Over half a century has already gone by since I was born... So many things can change in only 50 years.
For example 50 years was all it took to reduce the over 100 million American bison (bison bison) that once roamed North America’s plains to only a handful.
The mighty bison: Manitoba’s provincial emblem, the fierce bovine that adorns Wyoming’s State flag and the livelihood of “Buffalo” Bill Cody and generations of Native Americans was indeed the ruler of American prairies. Having few predators, apart from the grizzly bear and the wolf, they were quite happy grazing, resting, and chewing their cud before moving on to other pastures.
Their sheer size – a male Plains bison (bison bison bison – whoever comes up with Latin names for species obviously lacks imagination from time to time) is typically 2,000 pounds – their bad temper when annoyed, their speed and agility (a bison runs at 40 mph and can jump six feet high) and their tendency to stampede when incommoded by insects make them animals you do not want to cross.
A Plains bison can be recognized from a Wood bison (bison bison athabascae) by its size (the Plains bison is smaller) and the shape of its hump, which is rounded while the Wood bison’s hump is squared. Both are irritable.
For the American bison, gestation is 285 days and a bull is able to mate at three years of age. However, in a herd, the more mature bulls will exercise their authority to prevent the younger ones from mating. Therefore, until he is old and big enough, a male bison will be relegated to lustily watch the cows for his elders while practicing his reproductive technique on dismayed smaller bulls.
The 19th century was not a good time for the American bison. European settlers were moving west, encountering Natives who were reluctant to give up their space to accommodate the newcomers’ hunger for land. Reservations were created to confine the Aboriginals but for those who still insisted on living in their homeland, it was decided to starve them by killing the bison on which they heavily depended for food and trade.
To make matters worse for the emblematic ungulate, the new Americans were laying down hundreds of miles of railroad tracks wherever they went, often taking advantage of bison trails left bare between migrations.
As any migratory animal, the American bison liked their trails and wanted to re-use them, railroad tracks or not. Do you know how hard it is to keep a reliable train schedule when bison herds keep crossing the tracks according to their whim? Thus, there was another excellent reason for hunting them.
Finally, the industrial revolution gave the American bison the coup de grâce.
The new steam and combustion engines needed sturdy drive belts for connecting their spinning gears. The best belts were made with thick bison hides. Also, as the manufacturing sector’s productivity was improved by motorized factories, many new goods that required assembly were put on the market. Submitted to hydrolysis, bison bones produced collagen which made excellent glue to join parts together. Those were the days before duct tape, Velcro and tie-wraps, when securing parts was somewhat troublesome.
Buffalo bones are being loaded in a Canadian Pacific railway car to be shipped to a glue factory. Credit: Library and Archives Canada / PA-066544
For those reasons the hunting continued until the entire American bison population was worn down to a mere few specimen.
Fortunately, as the legend goes, in 1881 a South Dakota farmer purchased the last five remaining bison calves and thus preserved the species. Within 30 years there was a herd of about 1,000 bisons grazing the great American plains again.
However this led to a new controversy. Following DNA testing it was found that some bison genes had been polluted by regular cattle genes. I mean, if you are a 600 pounds Jersey cow grazing and you suddenly realize there is a one-ton lonely bison bull, who is tired of humping his male counterparts in the mud and who is giving you sweet looks from the other side of a fence that he can easily jump over, what are you supposed to do?
The Jersey cow is popular because of the quality of its dairy output, small size and high fertility rate. Offsprings of ordinary cattle and bison are sometimes called beefallo.