Three hundred years ago, the Great Plains were home to a vast herd of bison—”iinniiwa in Blackfoot, tatanka in Lakota, ivanbito in Navajo, Kuts in Paiute.” These magnificent animals roamed the grasslands from the Arctic Circle to Mexico and from Oregon to New Jersey, in numbers ranging from 30 to 60 million.
American bison are essential to the ecology of the Great Plains, a keystone species that plays a critical role in the ecosystem’s health. Bison help keep the vegetation in check, and “wallowed, rubbed, pounded, and grazed the prairies into heterogeneous ecological habitats.” From the University of Nebraska:
“They converted vegetation into protein biomass for predators, including people; and they shaped the way fire, water, soil, and energy moved across the landscape.”
In addition to their ecological importance, bison are also a vital part of the culture and history of the Native people who live across the North American plains. For generations, bison provided food, clothing, shelter, and tools, were represented in spiritual rituals, and continue to be revered as symbols of power and strength.
In the 19th century, hunting and habitat loss decimated the bison population, and by the end of the century, only a few thousand bison remained in the wild. However, bison populations have rebounded thanks to united conservation efforts. Via NPS.gov:
“Approximately 30,000 bison live in public and private herds in North America; they are managed for conservation goals. Approximately 400,000 bison are raised as livestock however, wild bison are rare. Yellowstone bison represent the best example for preservation of wild plains bison in North America.”
In the wordless Yellowstone video below, bison and their calves graze and nurse in an open field:
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