#Lookback: The American Bison: Conservation of the Bison

A County 10 series in partnership with the Fremont County Museum System
where we take a #Lookback at the stories and history of our community and
presented by Mick Pryor, Financial Advisor with Edward Jones.

By 1885, the bison faced extinction. William Hornaday began counting the bison in 1889. He discovered that 285 bison lived on federal land mostly in eastern Montana. On non-federal land, 256 animals were counted, but they were mostly part of private herds preserved by ranchers in Montana, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and Texas. In Canada, he counted 550 animals. This led William Hornaday to organize an effort to conserve the bison in the United States.

At first, some commercial hunters, including Buffalo Bill Cody, spoke out in favor of protecting the bison. President Ulysses S. Grant refused to sign legislation to protect the bison. The U.S. Army even encouraged the excessive killing of buffalo as a way of eliminating food supplies for the Native communities, which would enable the Army to starve Native Americans off their land and onto reservations. However, in 1872, President Grant signed the law that created the first national park in Yellowstone Valley of Montana. This valley was a haven for the American Bison because hiding in this valley was one of the last remaining wild herds of bison. However, the bison at Yellowstone were threatened with extinction by poachers.

In 1886, Hornaday went to Montana to collect specimens of the bison for the Smithsonian‘s National Museum and to observe the bison’s movement so the specimens could be displayed in natural poses. In addition, Hornaday brought back a calf named Sandy to display in front of the National Museum, but Sandy died after only a few weeks due to pasture bloat. Sandy inspired Hornaday to initiate the creation of the Smithsonian’s Department of Living Animals, which was approved in October 1887. The live animals were housed on the south lawn of the Smithsonian Castle. It grew to about 172 mammals and birds by the end of 1888, including six bison.

Hornaday also advocated for a National Zoological Park for the conservation of wild animals sacred to national heritage. He wanted to preserve a living herd of bison to educate Americans and to help atone for the extermination of wild bison. (2)On March 2, 1889, Congress passed legislation creating the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Hornaday was appointed as the head of the National Zoo. In May of 1890, the Department of Living Animals became the National Zoological Park. In June 1890, due to differing opinions with Samuel P. Langley, the Secretary of the Smithsonian, Hornaday resigned. In 1896, Hornaday became the director of the Bronx Zoo, where he continued his conservation efforts.

At Yellowstone National Park, park rangers could only find about 20 remaining bison in the herd by 1894. The Lacy Act was passed in 1894 and provided a legal way for the park to prosecute people for killing or transporting federally protected wildlife. Despite having the ability to prosecute poachers, by 1901, there were only 25 wild bison in Yellowstone. Congress responded to this report by allocating some funding to the park to help restore the bison population in the park. With these funds, the park purchased 18 females from a captive-bred herd in Montana and three bulls from a captive herd in Texas to help revive the herd. For seven years, the captive-bred bison were held in enclosures at Mammoth Hot Springs and Lamar Valley and were used to optimize herd production.

In 1910, the captive-bred bison began grazing open range in the summer. By the 1920s, the bison were mingling year-round with the wild bison. During the 1930s to early 1950s, Yellowstone National Park phased out the bison ranching efforts and began reintroducing bison into unoccupied habitats. They also helped reintroduce bison to other state and federal lands. By the mid-twentieth century, about 1,500 were documented inside Yellowstone National Park.

In 1905, the American Bison Society was formed at the Bronx Zoo, which is a subdivision of the New York Zoological Society. This organization included fourteen people who met to discuss the conservation of the bison. William T. Homaday was the first president and Theodore Roosevelt was the honorary president. As the President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt often used his power to support several bison restoration projects with the New York Zoological Society and the American Bison Society. One example of these restoration projects is at the Wind Cave National Park.

On January 9, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt signed a bill creating Wind Cave National Park located in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The law allocated about 10,522 acres of land to be preserved. A national game preserve was also established around the cave that was managed by the U.S. Biological Survey in 1912.Between 1913 and 1916, a founding herd was established at the park. Fourteen bison were sent by the New York Zoological Society through the American Bison Society.Six bison were sent from the Yellowstone National Park. During the 1920s and the 1930s, the bison population at the park increased within the fenced area above the cave. In 1935, Congress incorporated the game preserve established around the cave into the bison conservation program.

Today, the World Wildlife Fund categorizes the American Bison as a near-threatened species with a population of nearly 20,504 wild individuals. The largest remaining population in the wild is the approximately 4,500 individuals at Yellowstone National Park. Experiments that interbreed cattle with bison, meant to produce healthier livestock have impacted the population viability of the species. The bison at the Yellowstone National Park and the Elk Island National Park in Canada is believed to be the only public bison herds that have not shown evidence of interbreeding with cattle. Conservation groups are working to establish additional herds elsewhere to help safeguard the genetics of the American Bison. As of 2007, 200,000 head of bison were under the stewardship of private producers for the purpose of providing a healthy meat source of bison in the United States. On May 9th, 2016, President Barack Obama signed the National Bison Legacy Act, which made the American Bison the National Mammal of the United States.

Next up for the Fremont County Museum

Oct 1, 9-5 at the Dubois Museum, Pioneer Museum, Riverton Museum, “First Fridays”

State Farm Riverton & State Farm Lander

Oct 6, 6 pm at the Riverton Museum, “Fremont Haunts” By Alma Law

Wyoming Community Bank Discovery Speakers Series

Oct 9, 2-4 pm at the Riverton Museum, “Annual Fall Fun Fest”

Bailey Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series

Oct 15 & 16, 6-9 pm at the Pioneer Museum, “Halloween Night at the Museum”

Bailey Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series

Oct 16, 5:30 pm at the Riverton Museum, “Haunted Walking Tour of Riverton”

Wind River Visitors Council Adventure Trek Series

Oct 16, 5-8 pm at the Riverton Museum, “Pumpkin Trail”

Oct 30, 3-5 pm at the Dubois Museum,“Halloween at the Museum”

Bailey Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series

Sept 24thru December 30, 9-5 pm at the Pioneer Museum, “The Arapaho Way” By Sara Wiles

Photography on exhibit in the Western Gallery through December

Thru October, 9-5 Monday-Saturday, at the Pioneer Museum, “Joseph Scheuerle Western Art Exhibit”

Handle With Care: Reed Schell

The Dubois Museum, the Pioneer Museum in Lander, and the Riverton Museum need your financial support. In the current economic environment, the museums are more reliant than ever on donations from the private sector to continue to provide the quality programs, collections management, exhibits, and services that have become their hallmark over the last four years. Please make your tax-deductible contribution to be used specifically for the benefit of the museum of your choosing by sending a check to Fremont County Museums 450 N 2ndRm 320 or taking it directly to the museum you choose to support.