Oh, Give Me a Home Where the Buffalo Roam

A gift from the NY Zoological Society helped restore buffalo herds to the Southern Plains.

A gift from the NY Zoological Society helped restore buffalo herds to the Southern Plains.

By Marcia Anderson

Thanks to a gift of 15 buffalo from the New York Zoological Society, predecessor to the Bronx Zoo, the Southern Plains of the United States has a substantial heard of buffalo roaming southern Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains Wildlife Reserve, the nation’s oldest refuge.

The great southern prairies were home to numerous Indian tribes, who lived with the land, not just on it. This is where Native American teepees stood and wild buffalo roamed the Great Plains. The Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge got its start when Congress set aside much of southwestern Oklahoma in 1867 as a reservation for Kiowa, Comanche and Kiowa-Apache tribes. The reservation encompassed the Red River north to the Washita River, including all of the Wichita Mountains. At that time, Indian lands meant nothing to commercial hunters. They encroached into Indian Country, and killed thousands of animals at a time for their pelts.

Buffalo2

Today, over 600 buffalo freely roam the 59,000 acre Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.

At the turn of the century, Oklahoma businessmen were petitioning Congress to reserve the Wichita Mountains as a national park. Even then-Vice President Roosevelt was approached by his Rough Riders to create a national park. But when Congress adjourned in 1901, there was still no park. At that point President McKinley agreed to preserve the land, not as a park, but as a National Forest Preserve. The preserve status kept land seekers at bay, but did nothing to deter the hunters who found rich hunting in the Indian lands. All large animals were exterminated down to the last wolves and bears.

In 1905, newly-elected President Roosevelt, began his quest to return the buffalo to the plains. William Hornaday, first director of the New York Zoological Park, solicited funds to purchase bison from the remaining private herds. The animals were cared for at the New York Zoological Park, predecessor of the Bronx Zoo. A member of the NY Zoological Society surveyed the Wichita Mountain site to see if the area was appropriate for bison restoration. In March 1905, the NY Zoological Society told Congress that they would donate several bison if they would cover the cost of fencing and maintenance. Congress approved the site and funding.

Thanks to Roosevelt, Horniday and the NY Zoological Society, the dream of restoring a piece of the nation’s heritage came to pass.

In October 1907, 15 bison from four herds with differing bloodlines traveled by train from New York City to Oklahoma. After the 1,800 mile journey, the bison were unloaded from the rail cars at Cache, and transferred to wagons for the final 13 miles. Everyone for miles around came to observe the historic spectacle. Children, who had never seen the wild animals, were enthralled. Comanche elders wore their finest tribal attire to welcome the Great Spirit Cattle back home. The buffalo were given names of great Indian warriors, including Geronimo.

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Buffalo grazing on prairie grass.

As a northeasterner, the closest I ever came to a bull was a moose in Maine. The closest I had ever been to a buffalo was looking at the far side of a nickel. That was until a trip this summer to Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.

It is early morning and the ground thunders as their hooves pound the prairie. The buffalo run, then slow. They are the color of dark chocolate brownies and extremely photogenic. They are massive creatures, over a ton, and graze in a meadow with all of the prairie grass they can eat. A few hundred yards away is a lake with all the water they can drink. Good thing, for it seems that the bulls drink water by the gallon. They use the surrounding rocks to scratch their bellies or other parts they cannot easily reach, leaving tufts of shed fur perfect for lining the nest of a bird or prairie dog den. After lunch and a long drink, it is time to take a nap. The hot summer sun has many of the herd resting and rolling on the ground, except for the calves, who romp and play while their parents doze to beat the heat.

This is a scene that has not been observed since the 1870s – a herd of buffalo roaming the Southern Prairie. Today, over 600 buffalo freely roam the 59,000 acre Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.

 

About the Author: Marcia is with EPA’s Center of Expertise for School IPM in Dallas, Texas. She holds a PhD in Environmental Management from Montclair State University along with degrees in Biology, Environmental Design, Landscape Architecture, and Instruction and Curriculum. Marcia was formerly with the EPA Region 2 Pesticides Program and has been a professor of Earth and Environmental Studies, Geology, and Oceanography at several universities.

 

 

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

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Unleashing Data for Sustainable, Healthy Communities

By Aaron Ferster

One of my first jobs was serving as the writer for a team developing a new bison exhibit at the National Zoo here in Washington, DC. Not only did I get to walk past elephants and zebras on the way to the office every morning, when I got there I spent time learning and writing about the fascinating history of an iconic western species.

Archival map illustrating bison population decline in  early 1900s.

“Extermination of the American Bison” prepared by W.T. Hornaday

An image from that work has stuck with me almost 20 years later: a map by zoo founder and conservationist William T. Hornaday: The Extermination of the American Bison. Simple, color-coded ranges, population estimates, and dates illustrated how the North American herd had been divided in two by the first transcontinental railroads, then assaulted by “the great slaughter” until few remained.

But we know now that the story of the American bison has a happier ending. The species has rebounded and today is counted in the hundreds of thousands.

I was thinking about the basic elements of that same story last week in a crowded hotel conference room hearing about the launch of the President’s “Ecosystem Vulnerability Climate Data Initiative” and its “Ecoinformatics-based Open Resources and Machine Accessibility (EcoINFORMA).”

At the event, EPA researcher Anne Neale explained how she and her partners have developed EnviroAtlas, a collection of interactive tools and resources that allow users to explore and visualize the many benefits people receive from nature, what she and other scientists refer to as “ecosystem services.” It also provides information linking the environment and human well-being, including the Eco-Health Relationship Browser tool, which shows how ecosystems contribute to human health.

Of course, instead of colored circles and herd numbers, EnviroAtlas combines multiple ecosystem-based data sets, sophisticated geographic information systems, and visualization tools to present fine-scaled, multilayered maps and other resources that people can download and use as they seek to make decisions that will keep their communities healthy and resilient.

EnviroAtlas, which includes more than 300 data layers, serves as the ecosystem services “resource hub” to the larger EcoINFORMA initiative, a data resource designed to facilitate assessments of the impact of climate change, pollution and other stressors on ecosystems, biodiversity and ecosystem services, as well as assessments of management responses to such stressors.

EPA's EnviroAtlas

EPA’s EnviroAtlas

EnviroAtlas and Data.gov’s EcoINFORMA aim to provide the same insights that William T. Hornaday used some 130 years ago to understand the plight of the American bison. It’s a modern, high-tech approach to the same basic questions: how are today’s actions likely to impact future resources, what is the state of the environment, and what do we need to consider to make the best decisions for long-term sustainability and human well-being?

With EnviroAtlas and other resources, EPA researchers and their partners are working to help communities make the right decisions, and ensure that future generations can look back 130 years from today to the opening chapters of environmental stories that feature happy endings.

About the Author: Aaron Ferster is the lead science writer for EPA’s Office of Research and development, and the editor of It All Starts with Science.

 

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.