A herd of American bison graze on a prairie in the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge


© Fritz Hoffmann / Redux


The American bison (Bison bison) is a mammal typical of North America, and an emblem of the Great Plains. The bison has existed in its present form for at least 12,000 years and has shown great resilience in the face of changing climatic conditions and depredation by Native Americans. The bison’s relationship with the Native American population varied over time, and with the tribe’s culture and familiarity with the animal. For the First Nations, however, the bison was more than a source of food; the animal permeated the spiritual dimension too. The bison population totalled between 30 and 60 million in the first half of the 19th century, but their numbers were decimated with the westward advance of the Europeans. There were, of course, economic reasons for this, including the trade in hides, but historians believe that the main reason was genocide. The tribes of the Great Plains depended on the bison to such an extent that eliminating the animals would mean clearing the territory of Native Americans. The decimation of the bison was accelerated by the arrival of cattle diseases from Europe, against which the species had no adequate immunity, and by the conversion of the prairies into farmland.
By the end of the 19th century, only a few hundred bison remained. The species escaped extinction thanks to individuals who protected the remaining animals and to wildlife preservation societies who pressured the government into introducing conservation measures. Today the American bison population numbers hundreds of thousands, but only a small number live in protected herds, while most are farmed for commercial purposes. A great deal remains to be done: the animals monitored for conservation live in small, isolated herds and are at risk of losing their genetic diversity and becoming less resilient to climate change and disease. The bison once played a key role in ensuring the diversity and abundance of species in the North American ecosystem, but this role has yet to be recovered.

Elena Sofia Grazian