For the Love of the Buffalo

The celebration of America’s National Mammal brings up both a dark past and a brighter future thanks to the Smithsonian’s conservation work

A group of several bison with dark fur traverses a light green colored landscape of grasslands as rays of late afternoon light stream through several gold-tinged clouds. In the distance are more bison and the horizon is framed by distant mountains.
A herd of bison roam during the summer sunset over the Eastern Front of the Rockies near Choteau, Montana. Audrey Hall

Photographer Audrey Hall trekked through the Yellowstone Mountains in the dead of winter in 2020. It was negative 20 degrees and she was on a mission— to capture the American bison on film. Now, those photographs and excerpts from the book Bison: Portrait of an Icon will be shared during an evening lecture on November 14th at the National Museum of Natural History.

Covering topics from policy and history to spirituality and modern day symbolism, author Chase Reynolds Ewald spent hours on zoom calls interviewing scientists, historians and Indigenous people for the book.

“Neither of us are the definitive authority on Bison, we just painted this portrait to introduce an audience to this incredible animal and the West,” Hall said.

Audrey Hall (left) and Chase Reynolds Ewald are long-time friends and collaborators. Their book, "Bison: Portrait of an Icon" included spectacular landscapes throughout the greater Yellowstone ecosystem including the Bridger Mountain foothills of North Bridger Bison, near Wilsall, Montana. Audrey Hall

In their efforts to highlight the United States’ National Mammal, both Ewald and Hall poured a year’s worth of their time into the project.  Although this book became a work of passion and dedication, both women said they didn’t want to ignore the difficult history of the bison, or buffalo.

The French explorer Samuel de Champlain coined the term "buffalo" from the word "boeuf," which is the French word for ox. After 1625, the term "buffalo" became synonymous with the American bison.

Matthew Sanger, a curator at the National Museum of the American Indian, thinks there’s a general respect and love for the large, fluffy animal but he isn’t sure of just how much people know about its history.

“As population levels of bison rise, people are coming into contact with them more. I think there’s an appreciation for bison, but I’m not entirely sure how many people have a recognition of the history of our interaction with them and why there’s so few left compared to the unbelievable number there were before,” he said. “It’s such an important story and I’m not sure how many of our high school textbooks are covering it these days,” he said.

Two bison mingle before sunrise in Yellowstone National Park's Upper Geyser Basin during a snowy Wyoming winter. Audrey Hall

Before the nineteenth century, buffalo roamed across North America’s Great Plains with an estimated population of 30 to 100 million. They were a critical component to the way of life for many Native American tribes and nations. In acts of genocide against American Indigenous peoples, the U.S. government slaughtered bison to eliminate a source of food, clothing and shelter from Plains Indians.

A letter written from famed taxidermist William Temple Hornaday to National Museum director George Brown Goode in 1887. Smithsonian Institution

And yet, during this time of destruction, the Smithsonian Institution was beginning efforts to conserve these prairie staples. The work of famed taxidermist William Temple Hornaday was key. In 1886, Hornaday was sent out to collect bison specimens for the National Museum. Upon his expedition, Hornaday became concerned with how few bison he encountered in the wilderness, eventually transforming his mission from hunting bison for display to preserving them in the wild. 

In a letter written from Hornaday to professor George Brown Goode, the former director of the National Museum, Hornaday wrote about wanting the Smithsonian Institution to help his efforts to ensure the survival of the giant mammal.

“In view of the fact that thus far this government has done nothing to preserve alive any specimens of the American Bison, the most striking and conspicuous species on this continent, I have the honor to propose that the Smithsonian Institution, or the National Museum…take immediate steps to procure either by gift or purchase, as may be necessary, the nucleus of a herd of live buffaloes,” he wrote.

In his efforts to conserve the bison population Hornaday secured several bison from the wild and brought them back to Washington with him. The Bison first made their appearance on the National Mall and lived in a pen right behind the Smithsonian Castle for more than three years until their relocation to Rock Creek Park when the National Zoological Park was established in 1891. 

Two American bison in their enclosure behind the Smithsonian Castle, where they lived for several years in the late 1880s. Smithsonian Institution

Nowadays, two female bison named Lucy and Gally live at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. They live in carefully designed exhibits to ensure the comfort and safety of the animals while mimicking the bison’s natural habitat. But some of the Smithsonian Institution’s most notable bison conservation efforts come from its ongoing collaboration with the American Prairie

As of now, bison are listed as “ecologically extinct” meaning they no longer shaping prairie biodiversity. But the American Prairie Initiative is working on restoring the genetic, ecological and behavioral traits of wild bison by giving them areas to roam and graze and practicing “hands off” management to let natural selection take its place.

In 2005, 16 bison were introduced to the prairies of Montana after a 120-year absence. Now, there are about 744 bison which have grazed over 40,000 acres of land since their arrival.

According to the American Prairie, the grazing patterns of the bison align with other natural elements such as fires which shape the landscape and create areas of diversity for other animal and plant life. Bison affect their habitat by wallowing or rolling in the dust or mud in repeated selected spots. This creates shallow depressions which fill with water and become mini wetlands with distinctive plants. Additionally, because of their large bulk, bison are an important food source for predators and scavengers. After their deaths, their decomposing bones create rich patches of nitrogen and phosphorus for plant growth.

With the ability to study the effects of bison population increase, the Smithsonian has been able to publish research about the cultural, ecological and economic benefits of tribal bison restoration.
Bison calves born in spring are orange-red in color, earning them the nickname "red dogs."
  Audrey Hall

In Ewald and Hall’s book, they not only look at the challenging history of buffalo but look towards the future with conservation efforts and farming, which Sanger says helps the Indigenous community move forward.

He said it's important to remember the history of the bison while also paying attention to the positivity and sacred space it holds in many Indigenous tribes. For dozens of tribes, bison are main characters in creation stories and oftentimes represent new ideas, knowledge and wisdom.

“The bison is often the place people turn to for new information and knowledge.  It has an interesting place,” Sanger says. “Not all native communities feel that way but a lot of different tribes draw from the wisdom of the bison.”

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The Bison Is Now the Official Mammal of the United States