How The Bronx Saved America’s National Mammal, The Bison

This past Monday, May 9th, legislation was passed to make the bison, aka the American Buffalo, the national mammal of The United States and now sits along with the bald eagle, the rose, and the oak tree as official symbols of our nation.

But did you know that the bison was rescued from the abyss of extinction right here in The Bronx?

When the first colonizers arrived in North America over 400 years ago, there was an estimated 60 million bison roaming the North American continent and by 1883 that number was down to 40 million.

Fast forward a couple of decades later and by the 1900s that number had plummetted to roughly a thousand bison. Mankind’s insatiable appetite for hunting had pushed this majestic creature to the edge of extinction.

Massive mound of bison skulls to be used for fertilizer. Humanity drove the number of bison from 40-60 million to just around 1,000 by the 1900s / Image Via Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library
Massive mound of bison skulls to be used for fertilizer. Humanity drove the number of bison from 40-60 million to just around 1,000 by the 1900s / Image Via Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

Today, over 500,000 bisons now roam out in the open thanks in part to what is considered one of America’s first conservation effort which started right  here in our borough of The Bronx at the Bronx Zoo.

National Park Service, which celebrates its centennial this year, wrote the following story about the history of this great mammal:

How to Raise a Bison Herd

Bison Herd in Prairie
Bison Herd in Prairie

NPS Photo

In 1913, when the American Bison Society began the process of establishing a free-ranging bison (or buffalo as they are often called)herd in the newly created Wind Cave National Game Preserve, they looked to the New York City Zoo to get their animals. Here, William Hornaday had been collecting and breeding some of the few remaining wild bison.

Fred Dille, of the U.S. Biological Survey, was in charge of accomplishing this special task. To start, he had to determine how to move fourteen bison from New York City all the way across the country to their new home near Hot Springs, SD.

At the zoo, animal handlers had to build special crates for the bison and then load them onto an express train. That 2,000 mile journey took 2½ days. Once the bison arrived in Hot Springs, every available truck and cart was pressed into service to move them the remaining eleven miles to the preserve. This unprecedented journey took a surprising ten hours.

Wildlife Management Truck
Wildlife Management Truck

NPS Photo

By the time the bison reached the preserve, quite a crowd had gathered to see them released. There was only one problem. The bison were not willing to back out of a crate! The frustrating process was described by Dille, “To suggest to a buffalo that he must back out of the crate by poking him in the head, will work with an elk but not a bison. Your actions are but a challenge to him and he does not propose to give ground.” The final operation was more a process of removing the crates from the animals than the animals from the crates. At last however, the bison were released and began their new life on the prairie. Six additional bison from Yellowstone were added to the herd in 1916.

In 1935, when the park and preserve merged, care of the animals was given to Wildlife Ranger Estes Suter. Suter was interested in creating a herd that looked and behaved like bison of the “old days”. He worked with Native American elders and locals to determine what a “true buffalo” really looked like and culled the herd to achieve that goal.

Thanks to Suter’s early work and because the park’s bison came either from the New York City Zoo or from Yellowstone, Wind Cave has a very special herd. Genetic testing done in 2004 showed that Wind Cave’s herd is one of the only federal herds free of cattle gene introgression. What does that mean? Early in the history of preserving bison, pioneers were challenged with not only preserving the species but also making it economically successful. To do this, many ranchers experimented with domestic cattle-bison crosses. They hoped to produce a “heartier beef breed” that would be resistant to disease, require less feed, and produce more calves. This tampering be-came apparent when genetic analysis revealed evidence of domestic cattle gene introgression in many bison herds examined.

Estes Suter on car roof watching bison
Estes Suter on top of car watching bison herd

NPS Photo

Today, unlike when Estes Suter sat on top of his car to decide which bison to keep and which to cull, park biologists strive to protect the herd through scientific testing. Ideally, “wild” bison would live in free-ranging, naturally regulated herds. But that is not possible. Most herds are confined and subjected to varying degrees of management. Therefore herd size, population structure, levels of genetic variation, and the incidence of domestic cattle introgression must all be considered in the park’s management decisions.

For Wind Cave, the effort to establish a wild bison herd started with 14 animals. The importance of that story was noted when one of the original 14 bison died. The bison, named “Sandy” because of his light color, “succumbed to the rigors of his 24th winter” in December 1936. Newspapers reported the event well. “There are doubtless hundreds of buffaloes born on the plains which spent their last days in some park or zoo, but Sandy was one of the few to be born in a zoo and to die on the open range.”

Suter, Hornaday, Dille, today’s resource managers, and others have taken part in this adventure. They have provided us with the opportunity to see bison born and raised on an “open range”. And, if we are lucky, to see a herd so large they seem to fill the prairie.

It’s really wonderful to know that our borough had a role in saving the bison which this week became our national mammal. Once again, The Bronx’s part in American history shines through.

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Ed García Conde

Ed García Conde is a life-long Bronxite who spends his time documenting the people, places, and things that make the borough a special place in the hopes of dispelling the negative stereotypes associated with The Bronx. His writings are often cited by mainstream media and is often consulted for his expertise on the borough's rich history.