First baby bison born in the wild since 1876
Should this be the biggest news story of the day? These mighty beasts were driven to near-extinction 200 years ago. Conservationists are celebrating the birth as a historic turning point.
Don’t be fooled by this little calf – she has a big future ahead of her. Bison are the largest land mammals in North America: two metres high, weighing a tonne, and stampeding across the Great Plains at up to 40 miles per hour.
Born on 22 April, this baby is the first purebred bison to be born since 1876 in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. Her parents were two of 11 animals brought last year from a herd in Yellowstone National Park.
But 200 years ago, the grasslands of North America trembled under the hooves of millions of these massive beasts. A truly prehistoric animal, the bison survived the last Ice Age and came to dominate the prairies. Native Americans considered them sacred and used every part of the animal for food, tools, and clothing.
So, what happened to them? In the 19th Century, as Europeans moved into Native American territory, they slaughtered the animals in order to destroy the native way of life and force the tribes off the land. By 1900, there were fewer than 600 bison left.
But one calf at a time, they are coming back. And Native Americans are leading the charge. The Wanuskewin Heritage Park, where this calf was born, is run by First Nations. And in 2014, 13 tribes from across America and Canada signed the Buffalo Treaty to work together to restore the bison to its ancient territory.
In 2016, President Obama officially made it the national mammal of the United States. However, this isn’t just about symbols and cultural heritage.
The bison are a force of nature. You might think a herd of bison in your neighbourhood would cause mayhem and destruction. But researchers at Yellowstone have discovered that the intensive grazing of thousands of these voracious animals has the opposite effect.
By munching the green shoots on the prairie, they encourage new growth and lengthen and intensify the spring months.
By shaping the land and seasons, they support a whole ecosystem of life from dung beetles to the grizzly bear. So, although she doesn’t know it, this newborn calf has an important job to do in re-wilding North America and bringing back the ancient prairies.
So, should this be the biggest news story of the day?
One small step
Not really. Some think this is just a romantic nostalgia for a lost age. Humans have settled across America’s wilderness, built towns, and put up fences. The great majestic herds of bison are never coming back – nor would we want them to. Civilisation is not compatible with the uncontrolled wilderness of free-roaming bison and other wild animals.
Yes! Supporters of re-wilding and many Native Americans say civilisation and the wilderness have co-existed for centuries. Restoring these animals to their habitat not only makes our world more diverse and interesting, it teaches us how to create sustainable ecosystems and how to live in harmony with the natural world.
- If you could bring back one extinct species, what would it be and why?
- Can civilisation and wilderness co-exist?
- Choose some wild animals to introduce to your neighbourhood. Draw a map of your area to show how the animals would benefit or change the environment and what problems they might cause.
- Research the importance of bison to Native American culture. Create a poster to show their beliefs about this symbolic animal and how they were used in every part of daily life. (Research tip: Native Americans were also known as the Plains Indians.)
Some People Say...
“A cold wind blew on the prairie on the day the last buffalo fell. A death wind for my people.”Sitting Bull (1831-1890), Native American leader of the Lakota tribe
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- The head of the project behind these bison admits there are limits to how big these herds can get. He says, “We know now that there are too many roads, too many fences, too many borders, across the Great Plains.” But re-wilding is controversial for other reasons. Farmers oppose the re-introduction of the bison because they carry a disease called brucellosis, which is fatal to cattle. However, supporters of re-wilding say the way we are using farmland is changing, creating more opportunities for wild spaces.
- What do we not know?
- The American conservationist Aldo Leopold said that “wilderness is a resource which can shrink but not grow”, and it is true that it is much easier to destroy something than to bring it back. Only time will show whether the birth of this calf is the rebirth of the complex and diverse ecosystem that its ancestors created. Maybe the bigger philosophical question is, can humans create real wilderness or will this bison always be a fossil from a lost age?
- Great Plains
- An enormous region in the United States and Canada, covering half a million square miles of grassland.
- Bison are also known as buffalo, although they are not related to the true buffalo of Africa and Asia. Most bison are the result of cross-breeding with cattle, and there are very few proper purebred bison left.
- Yellowstone National Park
- Founded in 1872 in the US, Yellowstone was the first National Park in the world and sits on top of a “supervolcano”, a massive area of volcanic and geothermal activity.
- Enormous stretches of flat grassland with moderate temperatures, moderate rainfall, and few trees. Usually, refers to the golden, wheat-covered land in the middle of North America.
- First Nations
- Approximately, one million Canadians are indigenous people descended from the societies living in North America before the arrival of European settlers.
- Intensive grazing
- In spring, grazing animals, like deer and elk, are constantly on the move, searching for the nutrient-rich first shoots of the year. But the grass grows long and dry, forcing the animals to move on. Bison eat so much and so fast, that the grass stays young and fresh.
- Wanting or eating great quantities of food.
- Bison make us think differently about the close interdependence of animals, plants, and the environment. These herbivores need grassland to survive, but their behaviour also creates the Great Plains and sustains a habitat for other smaller animals. Biologists call this kind of animal a keystone species.
- A movement to restore and conserve natural wilderness, often by introducing top predators and keystone species (like the bison) that have a major impact on their environment. The video in the Expert Links provides an excellent introduction into how this works.