“What is the nature of a species that knowingly and without good reason exterminates another?” (George Small)
The plains bison is threatened with extinction again. This iconic animal of the American West once roamed wild across the Great Plains in vast herds numbering tens of millions. In the 19th century, they were hunted for their skins and killed in greater and greater numbers each year, until, by the mid-1880s, they were reduced to just a few hundred. The slaughter was sanctioned and endorsed by the US Army.
These days, there is only one population of plains bison, in Yellowstone National Park. The survival of this last wild herd of 4000 animals is now threatened. Many of them may not survive the winter.
Part of the problem is the ranchers who view the animals as competition for grazing lands or as a potential source of disease (brucellosis) in their cattle. There has never been a documented case of brucellosis being transmitted to cattle from wild bison, but over 1600 bison were slaughtered in 2008.
Another part of the problem is that bison are regarded as commercial livestock rather than wild animals. Approximately 400,000 bison are raised in commercial herds, many belonging to Ted Turner, media magnate and CNN founder, who has opened up a chain of bison burger restaurants stretching from Montana to Florida.
The American Bison is critical to the restoration of the prairie grasslands. It’s used in countless official seals, flags and logos. It’s image was scrawled on cave walls in prehistoric times. It’s unthinkable that our generation should see it wiped out.
But it will be wiped out as a wildlife species unless people change their views. The wild plains bison is a great American icon and American people should clamour for government action to save it.