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I don’t know why you’re so excited,” AA said. He was not impressed. Apparently, a herd of buffalo was not worth leaving the air-conditioning for. So far my plan to instill upon him the majesty of Yellowstone wasn’t going well.
“We have cows hanging out in the streets in India and you think I’ll be excited about a random buffalo 30 feet away?” Still, AA reluctantly left the car and took the obligatory picture.
We had just four states left to see and had planned a long trip to cover them all. We would fly into West Yellowstone, Montana and spend a few days in Yellowstone, then drive through Idaho to Salt Lake City, Utah. From there, we would take a flight to Anchorage, Alaska. It involved a lot of traveling, but we were going to see some of the most beautiful parts of the US.
“And don’t call them buffalo,” AA continued. “My buffalo are buffalo, yours are bison.”
A google battle ensued.
It turns out AA was right. In fact, our national mammal is more closely related to the cow than the buffalo. The true buffalo are a family of Asian bovines, which include the ubiquitous domestic water buffalo. The American buffalo is really a species of bison called the American Bison (Bison bison)…actually the buffalo we see in the continental United States are members of a subspecies of the American Bison called the Plains Bison (Bison bison bison, or B3 shall we say). Their closest relative is the European Bison, which is smaller and less hairy.
The bison of Yellowstone are something everyone should see at least once – a pocket of the American West of old and one of the few remaining herds of wild B3 bison in the world. The herd in the national park now numbers close to 5,500 and altogether there are about 20,000-23,000 wild individuals scattered across Oklahoma, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, Iowa and Nebraska. A far cry from the 30 million or so that used to range across the great plains, but much better than the 300 left after the killing spree of the 1800s wound down.
Yet, the Plains Bison are not out of danger – when their numbers dropped to near extinction levels, the genetic diversity of the population was severely diminished. On top of this, interbreeding with cattle in commercial herds is further tampering with the genetics of the stock, and conservationists today are working to remove hybrid DNA in the existing herds. More than reason enough to be excited about witnessing a bison herd in the wild – it’s a miracle of conservation efforts that they still exist.
Visiting Yellowstone, I couldn’t help but admire our country’s investment in the conservation of these great animals. Yet, it also makes me sad. Like it’s small bison herd, Yellowstone represents just a fraction of what the US once was. A managed patch of the great wilderness that used to cover the west.
The west matters because the natural land we inhabit shapes our sense of self, of what is important. I know I will always consider myself a Midwesterner, having spent hours in the dirt planting little swaths of prairie around town. And my mother will always call herself an Arizonian, for the desert is in her blood. Each state has its own unique characteristics that shape its inhabitants, but Yellowstone is national land. It represents an image of the United States as a whole.
This national image, as Turner pointed out so long ago, is one of boundless, immeasurable, fertile tracks of land. Vast acres of mountains, valleys and forests where for generations the young and restless could venture in search of opportunity. Yet that opportunity was also taken – from the native peoples and from the wilderness itself.
Still, all that land represented freedom and unlimited possibility – space where one could go to start over and build a life through hard work and perseverance. The beginnings of the American dream and our love affair with personal freedom. One made possible only through our geography, so different from the constrained landscape of Europe. Maybe it is overly simplistic, but who knows, perhaps our values, our sense of self, will change if we lose the west completely.
But Yellowstone won’t disappear – and if it is protected, then there will remain some land for our buffalo.
Yes, I’ll still call our lovely B3 ‘buffalo’ – it’s the patriotic thing to do, plus “Oh give me a home where the bison roam” doesn’t have the same ring.