Growing up, I was always excited when Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom came on. I was particularly fascinated by the incredible amount of wildlife and variety we have in North America, and particularly in the American West.
While the bison is massive, it is amazingly fast, graceful and majestic. The bison is also an amazing conservation success story.
Bison have roamed North America since prehistoric times. At one time, there were millions of bison roaming the great prairies of the American West from the forests of Alaska all the way to the grasslands of Mexico. These massive herds supported many Native American tribes in North America. These tribes relied on bison for many of their daily needs including food, clothing, shelter, weapons, utensils, and other items necessary for survival.
Prior to the 1600s, Native Americans followed the bison by foot, which reduced the amount of time they were able to follow the herd. In the 1600s, most Native American tribes acquired horses, allowing them to follow and hunt the bison for much longer portions of the year. Even with this increased hunting time, Native Americans rarely hunted the bison in excess.
This changed as the United States expanded westward. The demand for buffalo hides increased, so hunting also increased. More importantly, the U.S. Army began a prolonged campaign in the late 1800s to eliminate bison to control or remove Native American tribes that depended on the bison for their survival.
The combination of increased hunting and the U.S. Army bison elimination campaign proved almost too much for the bison to withstand. Bison numbers dropped from the millions to several hundred by the late 1800s, and by 1902, there were roughly two dozen bison left in the Yellowstone region.
The drastic reduction in the number of bison did not go unnoticed. In 1905, the American Bison Society was created and a breeding program began at the New York City Zoo (today, the Bronx Zoo). The program was so successful that by 1913, there were enough bison from the breeding program to restore a free-ranging bison herd.
Today, approximately 15,000 to 25,000 pure bison exist in public herds, with 5,000 of those roaming in Yellowstone National Park. The work that the New York City Zoo undertook was instrumental in ensuring the survival of the bison. AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) accredited zoos across the nation continue to work with many different organizations, public and private, to save endangered species.
The next time you visit Lee Richardson Zoo, stop by the south end and visit our bison/elk habitat. You will find Titus, our very big male, and Sienna, our female, either eating, participating in their favorite activity of rolling around in a wallow, or resting and enjoying the bison life.
Every time I walk by and see Titus and Sienna, it reminds me of just how much we can accomplish when we set our minds to it. In this month of Thanksgiving, I am thankful for the work undertaken by AZA zoos in the conservation of species, and I am thankful to live in a community that supports Lee Richardson Zoo in the work we do.
Max Lakes, Ed.D., M.S., is the curator of conservation education at Lee Richardson Zoo.