Where the Buffalo Roam

Oh give me a home where the buffalo roam, Where the deer and the antelope play, Where seldom is heard a discouraging word, And the skies are not cloudy all dayHome, home on the range . . .” ~Dr. Brewster M. Higley, 1873

Papa Bison and Family at Mohawk Farm in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer http://agardenforall.com

Papa Bison and Family at Mohawk Farm (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

There are times when I wish I could travel back in time to experience what life was like in the 17th and 18th centuries.  As an avid reader with special interest in Native Americans, I’ve always been intrigued by their lifestyle and beliefs.  They were a spiritual people who lived off the land, showing respect and gratitude to all they cohabitated with, both man and mammal.  During that same time period, the American bison roamed the prairies by the millions, grazing on native grasses and hedges that once covered the range.  The bison were especially revered by the native Indians because they provided the food, clothing and materials to build their huts; the bison were their sustenance, a crucial and integral part of their lives. This peaceful life of give and take existed for hundreds of years, until tremendous numbers of white settlers came to explore and lay claim to areas of the great west in the early 1800’s.

bison skulls in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer http://agardenforall.com

Massive pile of hundred of thousands of Buffalo skulls around 1870 (photo courtesy of earthjustice.com)

With the introduction of early settlers came the literal slaughter of millions upon millions of bison, ultimately leading to the demise of a most precious way of life for the Native Americans.  In just a few decades local settlers and explorers were able to drive the American bison close to extinction, which seems miraculous considering fossils of these magnificent beasts date back to over 500,000 years ago.  Using fast horses and deadly weapons, groups of men shot down entire herds of bison in an effort to deprive the Native Indians of their main food source.  Other times, the massacres were performed solely for entertainment.  Finally, with the herds almost completely decimated, an unlikely advocate intervened, ultimately saving the species through education and live demonstration.

Mother and calf at Mohawk Farm in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer http://agardenforall.com

Mother and calf at Mohawk Farm (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

William Temple Hornaday played a crucial role in bringing the bison species back from the brink of extinction.  The ironic part is that before he took the great strides to rescue and revive this majestic animal, William Hornaday was traveling throughout India, Asia, and other foreign countries killing and stuffing all sorts of exotic animals for a living. His path started to shift when, as chief taxidermist for the United States National Museum, Hornaday decided he needed to obtain better examples of bison.  In 1867 it was estimated that approximately 15 million bison roamed the western plains of the U.S., yet by the time Hornaday headed out west to collect his specimens in 1886, the buffalo population was presumed to be near extinction (less than 500).  The decimation of such a noble creature made an incredible impact on Hornaday (he had an “A-Ha Moment”), ultimately steering him away from taxidermy and into the field of conservation.  He created the Department of Living Animals in Washington D.C. in 1889, from there was appointed director of the New York Zoological Park (now known as the Bronx Zoo), where he remained for the next thirty years.  In addition, Hornaday became the president of the Permanent Wildlife Protective Association, co-founded the American Bison Society with Theodore Roosevelt, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt named a mountain peak in Yellowstone National Park in his honor.

Hangin' Out at Mohawk Farm in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer http://agardenforall.com

Hangin’ Out at Mohawk Farm (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Flash forward a century to pioneer Ted Turner (www.tedturner.com), the second largest individual landholder in North America, owning approximately two million acres, some of which are home to one of the largest commercial bison herds in North America.  Numbering over 55,000, Turner’s bison are spread across 15 ranches throughout Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and South Dakota.  These various ranches rely on bison, hunting, fishing and tourism to remain in operation, but Turner also keeps an eye on the horizon with his ecologically sustainable practices and support of numerous environmental projects, including water resource, timber management, and the reintroduction of native species to his properties. With partner George W. McKerrow Jr. (founder of the Longhorn Steakhouse chain), Ted opened 44 Montana Grill restaurants in 16 states, offering an authentic “Old West Saloon” atmosphere and the largest variety of bison dishes you’ll find anywhere, all while embracing his commitment to eco-friendly practices by reducing waste and energy consumption.

Rare White Bison,Yellow Medicine Dancer in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer http://agardenforall.com

Mohawk’s Rare White Bison,Yellow Medicine Dancer (photo courtesy of Mohawk Bison)

Although bison are becoming more popular, thanks to ranchers like Ted Turner, raising and handling bison is not like raising domestic cattle for one simple reason; bison are wild animals.  That’s not to say that they are ferocious beasts, but according to fourth generation farmer Peter Fay, owner of Mohawk Bison Farm in Goshen, Connecticut (www.mohawkbison.com), they need to be handled with caution because of their size (adults easily over 1,000 lbs., with bulls ranging well over 2,000 lbs.) and their ability to charge or run when startled.  The mothers are very protective of their young and Peter always keeps a respectful distance to avoid upsetting the herd.  Mohawk’s bison are primarily raised on pasture, though some get grain in addition, and it takes up to three years to raise an animal to the saleable weight of a thousand pounds.  Utilizing his prior livestock experience, Peter made a somewhat natural transition to bison in 2007, and he is proud to share the healthy benefits of bison meat versus traditional beef, fish or chicken: approximately 70% less fat than beef or chicken, lower calories and less cholesterol than chicken or fish, yet more filling because of the higher protein (I can attest as I had my first burger there, delish and it filled me up for the day). With the rare addition of a white bison born in 2012, Yellow Medicine Dancer, and his herd presently numbering over 70, the future looks good for the bison population in Goshen, Connecticut as well.

Mohawk Bison in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer http://agardenforall.com

Wonder what this bison is thinking? (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Peter Fay was gracious enough to allow me “behind the scenes” so that I could observe and photograph the buffalo, as long as I promised to remain behind the fence (for my own safety). I was able to sit and listen to them communicating with a series of grunting noises similar to pigs, but I didn’t hear anything akin to mooing.  I studied their body shape, far less resembling a cow than I imagined.  Instead, the bison’s bodies are much broader, with high humped backs and heavy lion-like manes.  Their coats are thicker and courser to protect them through the seasons, yet they have cow hooves and wet cow nostrils.  And, cow curiosity.  If you sit quietly, they want to get closer to observe you, but no sudden movements or the entire herd quickly heads away.  The bison’s behavior is similar to other herd animals in that they constantly keep watch for danger and instinctively stay close to each other, especially to protect the young ones.

Mysterious morning mist in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer http://agardenforall.com

Mysterious morning mist (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

As I readied to go, a mysterious mist created by cool morning air mingled with warm buffalo breath gently swirled about the matriarch’s massive head.  This luminous haze lingered amongst the herd like the spirits of their long lost ancestors, gone . . . but not forgotten.

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Comments

  1. Although it makes me sad to read about the senseless slaughter of buffalo herds all those years ago, I’m grateful for the happy ending. Thanks for taking the time to research and write this interesting article. I’ve never eaten buffalo meat. Perhaps it’s time to give it a try.

    • I’m just starting to sample the meat myself, it has a little stronger flavor than beef-but is so much healthier. What really struck me when I looked at these huge animals was that Indians actually rode horses along side of them-bareback-and shot them with a bow and arrow. I have even more respect for them, their skill and bravery. Thanks so much for writing and for your kind words, Sue!

  2. What a beautifully written, insightful and thoroughly researched post! Thank you for doing this so I can be enlightened without having to do the research myself! The photos make me feel like I can reach out and touch this gentle beast. Lovely article Kathy.

    • They are indeed magnificent animals, which I hope you can see despite the difficult lighting. I felt honored to be in their presence, and to be accepted on a level which allowed me to attempt to capture their wondrous nature on film. Thank you, Dina, for your gracious comments and taking the time to write!

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