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At Home on the Range

October 05, 1986|GARY KARASIK | Gary Karasik is a lecturer in the English department at UC Santa Barbara.

A large field, part of a much larger animal refuge, is enclosed by a fence of light-gauge wire. The prairie heat is fierce; yet the enclosure's lush, well-watered green nearly glows in contrast with the surrounding parched, yellowed grass. Thick dust covers the area all the way to the distant mountains of western Montana. Standing in a corner of the pen, gently pressing a shaggy hump and a smooth flank against the frail fence, is a big, dark, American bison. The horned animal's oddly flattened, bearded face gazes blankly through the wire.

When I first saw her (even a city boy can quickly determine a buffalo's sex), the buffalo was having her head scratched by a 12-year-old boy. Rangers at the visitor's center had warned me not to stray more than 10 feet from my car, so unpredictable and dangerous were the more than 400 wild bison wandering within the 18,541-acre National Bison Range, located near the tiny town of Moiese. But a woman was watching the boy from the doorway of one of the neatly kept staff houses.

"Why don't you pet her?" he asked.

From behind me his mother said, "Don't worry. Dum-Dum's real used to folks."

I reached through the fence and petted the long, coarse hair.

Later I asked Hugh Null, assistant manager at the range, why she is called Dum-Dum. "Actually," he said, "she's pretty smart, especially compared to cows. Every once in a while, someone'll leave the gate open too long, and last time out she got into my garage. She's very comfortable around people; she'll eat apples right out of your hand." Dum-Dum is 13. She is one of 20,000 bison in the nation.

Some estimates suggest that before the slaughter started, 100 million buffalo meandered from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from Canada to Mexico. More recent projections, based on the amount of forage needed to sustain a buffalo, put the number at between 30 million and 50 million. As the continent was settled by Europeans, the animals moved steadily westward; by the early 1800s, the herds were concentrated in the West.

Until the mid-1800s the survival of many Indian tribes depended on vast herds of wild bison; the natives hunted them on foot (using various strategies, including driving panicked animals off cliffs) and, after the 1600s, on horseback, when the Spanish reintroduced the horse to North America. Initially, Indians killed the bison for sustenance only, but when demand for buffalo robes and buffalo tongues--a great delicacy--developed in the East, they supplied the items to trading companies. During the early 1820s, nearly 200,000 buffalo were killed annually solely for their skins and tongues. During summer, when the buffalo's robe was poor, only the tongues might be taken.

In the 1830s, whites began to take over the killing chores. With Manifest Destiny steadily on the march, additional pressure on the buffalo herds--and on the Indians--came from the railroads rolling ever westward: Construction crews had to be fed, and the railroads contracted with buffalo runners (only novices referred to themselves as hunters) such as Buffalo Bill Cody, who in 18 months as a railroad employee killed 4,280 buffalo. To attract riders after construction was completed, the railroads advertised hunting excursions; as the trains chugged slowly through massive herds lining the tracks, macho sportsmen could maim buffalo without leaving the comfort--and safety--of their railroad cars.

In the 1870s, tanneries discovered that buffalo hide, properly prepared, provided a fine leather. Then the letting of buffalo blood began in earnest. One buffalo runner, Frank Mayer, estimated that nearly 5 million buffalo were killed between 1872 and 1874 just in the counties around Dodge City, Kan. About that time, the railroads developed refrigeration cars, increasing the demand for buffalo meat. As the herds were killed off in one area, the runners moved to new areas, sometimes in territory reserved by treaty for the Indians. That and other provocations brought on full-scale Indian wars.

It is difficult to imagine humans behaving more cruelly, except perhaps toward other humans. Among the reasons for the buffalo slaughter was a conceit of the time that held that "the buffalo was the Indian's commissary." Many in the government--especially in the military--felt that the best way to weaken the Indians' war effort was to remove their source of life. The Army went so far as to provide free ammunition to buffalo runners. President Ulysses S. Grant's Secretary of the Interior, Columbus Delano, wrote in his 1873 annual report: "I would not seriously regret the total disappearance of the buffalo from our western prairies, in its effect upon the Indians. I would regard it rather as a means of hastening their sense of dependence upon the products of the soil and their own labors." By 1900, only 20 wild bison were known to exist.

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