Buffalo Roundup


W07Oct2016
Once there were millions of bison in the Great Plains, shaping the native grasslands that form over 40 percent of North America’s natural landscapes. Hunting led to their near extinction. Only around 1000 were left by the turn of the last century, hastened by the railroads that carried the meat and hides of buffalo back east. In 1905 the American Bison Society was formed, and a breeding program at the Bronx Zoo had enough success that they soon began sending buffalo back west in the same trains that almost spelled their end.

Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota was originally set up as a game preserve in 1914, with 36 buffalo protected against hunting and habitat loss. A rare conservation success story, the herd grew steadily to 2500 by the 1940s, and as it became clear they were beginning to overgraze the land, the first of many roundups was held in 1966, a way to balance the negatives of too much success. Today the annual roundup is used to select around 200 for auction to establish new herds across the US, Canada and Mexico. Now around half a million buffalo live in all 50 states, and just this spring they were officially designated the national mammal, a well deserved recognition of their place as a wildlife icon.

Although I can’t time travel back to a country ruled by bison I just did the next best thing, observing the 51st roundup. Long before I saw them, I heard the whoops of the cowboys and cowgirls, and the thundering of over a thousand buffalo. As they stampeded by in a cloud of dust, I felt I was in the old west. And then I seemed to travel back even further, to an ancient time with a large wildlife herd not in remote Africa but right here in America. It was thrilling to see this glimpse of our past, to know that sometimes we can bring a species back from the brink. I feel confident of their continued comeback; after all they have tough New York City roots.