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.
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.
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.