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Posts Tagged ‘wildlife’

The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the American Bison

Pile of Bison Skulls

Pile of bison skulls, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Recently, while watching a show about the West on PBS, I was stunned by a photograph from the 1870s of a man standing atop a 20-foot-high pile of bison skulls. There were so many bison carcasses blanketing the plains–left by hunters who were mostly interested in the skins–that industrious settlers began collecting and delivering them to railroad lines to be shipped east for processing. The ground bone was used for such purposes as the production of bone china and to clarify wine, but the biggest demand was from the fertilizer industry–the product was tilled into soil to add calcium and phosphorus. So, in a weird circle-of-life arrangement, settlers cleared land of the bison remnants so that they could farm and then bought back the ground up bones to return them to the land.

The photograph is a graphic reminder of the one of America’s darkest wildlife episodes. It is estimated that the bison population before 1800 was from 10 million to 70 million (estimates vary wildly), and the animals were seen by those who exploited them to be an unending resource. That idea was proven incorrect, as the number of bison fell to fewer than a thousand by the end of the 1800s.

Hunters poured into the plains to cash in on the growing demand for bison hides. They would kill the animals, skin them and leave the rest to rot. Hunters were also contracted to kill the animals for meat for railroad workers–“Buffalo Bill” Cody got his nickname by being a prolific hunter for a railroad, supposedly killing more than 4,000 bison in a year and a half. Another method of hunting was for a train to slow to the speed of a herd, allowing men to fire rifles from the windows and the top of the cars for an easy slaughter. The role of Native Americans in the collapse of the bison population is still being debated. While the popular narrative is that Native Americans only killed numbers necessary for sustenance and used all parts of the animal, some argue that their involvement in the fur trade and their adoption of the white man’s hunting techniques made them significant in the decline of the bison.

In addition to excessive hunting, it is believed that grazing competition and diseases from European cattle also played a part in the downfall of the American bison.

Biston RT

From the Bison Research Topic page, via ProQuest eLibrary

By the mid-1880s, there were a few hundred wild bison left on the continent, marking the near complete destruction of a species. Along the way, there had been some laws to protect bison from wanton killing, but they were largely ignored or not enforced. In 1884, Congress called upon the Army to protect the 25 or so animals living in Yellowstone National Park, and later the American Bison Society was formed to increase the bison population. In addition, there had been ranchers who had been attempting to build private herds and zoos had kept some animals. These efforts and the establishment of the National Bison Range gradually allowed bison numbers to increase. Today, more than half a million American bison exist–about 30,000 in conservation herds and the rest kept as livestock, and most of the bison living today are hybrids resulting from managed interbreeding with domesticated cattle.

The decimation of the bison is considered to the be inspiration for the modern conservation movement, and the species’ restoration has been hailed as a great conservation success. Currently, there are calls to expand the range of bison in the grasslands and allow them to come closer to their original role as a keystone species in the ecological scheme of the Great Plains, much to the concern of cattle ranchers who worry about the spread of disease to their stocks. The story of the bison’s comeback may not be over yet, so stay tuned.

Garden for Wildlife Month

“Be it an apartment balcony or a 20-acre farm, any space can accommodate a garden that attracts beautiful wildlife and helps restore habitat in commercial and residential areas. By providing food, water, cover and a place for wildlife to raise their young you not only help wildlife, but also qualify your garden to become an official Certified Wildlife Habitat. During May, the National Wildlife Federation sponsors this month to inspire and assist anyone who is passionate about wildlife to make a difference right in their own backyard.” (Chase’s Calendar of Events 2015)

Butterfly

Butterfly
Photo by Robin Koch, USFWS Volunteer [CC BY 2.0]

This website has inspired me and my kids to participate in the “Garden for Wildlife” initiative. We are going to visit our local plant nursery or garden center and choose some plants that will attract wildlife. We only have a small space of dirt to work with, so I’m going to add potted plants and trees to enhance our patio area. My kids also help with their school gardens. They plant flowering plants, seeds, vegetables, and more. It’s wonderful for them to learn how to create a garden and help wildlife at the same time. Plus gardens make surroundings beautiful.

Community gardening

Community Gardening
Photo by Brett Billings, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

A great resource for learning about gardens and gardening is SIRS Discoverer. Here are some examples of our articles for students:

Get Outside: Butterfly Garden National Geographic Kids

Green Scene: Create a Hummingbird Garden! National Geographic Kids

How are your students learning about gardening this month? Share with us in the comments below.