“How many are your works, O LORD! In wisdom you made them all.”
I’d like to think of them as ours, but they aren’t—not really. Bison will be forever associated with the Great Plains, but evidence of their roaming has turned up from Florida to Alaska, from Maine to Mexico. They don’t “belong” to anyone, even to those of us who live here in the wide-open spaces they once loved to roam.
The common North American buffalo stands as high as six feet tall at the shoulder and may well be the best argument for vegetarianism. Strong and powerful, able to withstand extreme temperatures, a bison forages almost exclusively on grasses and sedges. Although their relatively short legs almost immobilize them in deep snow (unlike some cattle and most horses), standard-sized buffalo have pick up dense winter coats that add extra layers of insulation in crucial areas of their bodies.
They change their shape as frequently as Oprah, losing as much as 15 per cent of their body weight during the winter, when they go into a kind of winter funk, roaming less, eating less, living off their fat reserves. When April greens the prairies, they eat like as if they haven’t for years and get truly meaty.
Some say thirty, some fifty, some ninety—but no one will ever know how many millions used to roam the Great Plains. Why no more? Lots of reasons, one of them more important than any other: they were in the way. The American bison was, in a sense, the soul of many Native American tribes; and as the Europeans moved farther and farther west, the buffalo, like those Native people, had to be cleared off, like timber and the tall-grass prairie. Sounds awful—and it was.
There are less horrible reasons. Not long ago I visited the Fur Trade Museum, Chadron, Nebraska, a place that celebrates a way of life long ago vanished on the Plains—the era of the fur trapper, who made his bucks, basically, on beaver.
When beaver hats fell out of style among European muck-a-mucks, buffalo hides became the currency in those wilderness trading posts. Eventually, as everyone knows, buffalo hunters would shoot and kill bison by the hundreds, just for their tongues. When rifles got too hot from successive shooting, the hunters would urinate on the barrels to cool them, then keep pumping lead.
It’s a sad story, but the buffalo is not a passenger pigeon. Numbers are rising these days, and their resurgence is a beautiful thing.
A few years ago, a rutting bull decided, for reasons known only to him, to run beside our tour bus. Just outside the windows, he loped along on the side of the road for a mile or so, ran and ran and ran and ran, seemingly without tiring. But then, a bison’s windpipe is huge. Even though the average bull today weighs as much as 1600 pounds, he’s a cross-country star. Any of a dozen Native peoples knew they’d need extra horses to run those beasts down because the American bison can run marathons. They're fearfully and wonderfully made.
Is that spacious windpipe an illustration of God’s own creative genius, or is it something that developed through thousands of years by the constant warfare we call, since Darwin, “the survival of the fittest”?
I'll let others fight that one out? What we all know is this—we white Europeans almost killed them all; but, praise the Lord, they’re making a comeback, they’re rallying, even though their old world is now drawn and quartered by fences.
“How many are your works, O Lord; in wisdom, you made them all.”