By John Calvelli
[Note: This is the fifth in a series of blogs by Calvelli celebrating the history and conservation of the American Bison.]
This Thanksgiving, we celebrate a great milestone for both bison and the modern conservation movement. November 28 marks the 100th anniversary of the transfer and restocking of 14 bison from the Bronx Zoo in New York City to Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota.
The Nov. 28, 1913 transfer was the second successful reintroduction of the buffalo, as bison are commonly known, from the Bronx Zoo. It was a crucial part of a much larger effort to save the species from extinction.
As a result of this historic transfer, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo and Wind Cave National Park will forever be joined by the bloodlines of our bison and by our shared pride in playing a part in this conservation breakthrough for the species and for our nation.
The largest land mammal in the Western Hemisphere (bison can grow to be six feet tall and weigh more than a ton) was, and remains, a critical resource for Native American tribes. Various tribes have used every part of the bison – as food, for utensils and clothing, and in religious rituals – throughout history. Many Native Americans are now seeking the restoration of bison on tribal land.
Bison once boasted numbers between 30 and 60 million in a range that extended from central Canada to Mexico. However, by the late nineteenth century, the mass slaughter of bison with the settlement of the American West brought the species to the brink of extinction. With only about 1,000 wild and captive bison remaining in North America in 1905, officials at WCS (then called the New York Zoological Society) and others convened a group of diverse stakeholders at the Bronx Zoo in New York City and formed the American Bison Society (ABS). With President Theodore Roosevelt as its honorary president, ABS set out to preserve and increase the number of bison in the U.S. by establishing a number of small herds in widely-separated parts of the country.
An excerpt from the American Bison Society’s Annual Report of 1914 describes the historic transfer to Wind Cave National Park transfer this way:
“On Monday, November 24 , the herd, fourteen in number, was crated, and fourteen crates were placed in two steel express cars and shipped on the 25th by the New York Central and the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific route to the station at Hot Springs, South Dakota, at an express charge of $850. The herd, which was fed and watered on the way, arrived at Hot Springs at 9:30 on Friday morning, November 28, in excellent condition. The animals were carted in their crates overland some eleven miles, and turned loose in their new home on the new National Game Preserve at eleven o’clock on the evening of the same date.”
Wind Cave National Park now has 450 wild bison in its herd. The park has also shipped more than 1,500 surplus bison since 1987 to agencies, nonprofits, and tribes throughout the country to help establish, or augment, existing herds.
The bison, a fixture on numerous sports team logos, the buffalo nickel, businesses and academic institutions, the state animal of Kansas and Oklahoma, and state mammal of Wyoming, was also recently acknowledged by our nation’s leaders.
In late October, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution designating Nov. 2, 2013 as National Bison Day. In supporting that resolution, Democratic and Republican leaders have teamed up with close to 50 diverse groups in an initiative called the Vote Bison Coalition. The group represents bison producers, Native Americans, conservationists, educational institutions, recreationists, zoological institutions, health organizations, and businesses.
Our collaborations now and 100 years ago serve as an example of how working with various stakeholders will help us continue to build the scientific and social foundations for the ecological restoration of bison.
Across the United States today, bison number in the hundreds of thousands. That’s something to be thankful for.
John Calvelli is Executive Vice President for Public Affairs at the Wildlife Conservation Society and Chair of the Executive Committee of the International Conservation Partnership (ICP), which is comprised of representatives from the major global U.S. conservation organizations.