Try as I might, my 21st century settler brain cannot comprehend the scale of bison herds that used to roam across the plains of North America. Early colonizers report riding for three days through a single herd of animals-a wealth of life that stops me in my tracks when I attempt to imagine it.
It’s equally impossible to conceive that an animal that dominated the landscape so thoroughly was reduced to fewer than 1000 individuals, but that was the case by 1884. Of course, bison weren’t only ecologically important, they were critical for Indigenous people-key to their prosperity and culture.
Today, efforts are underway to bring bison back to the North American plains. The herds are smaller, but the evidence is clear, bison have a impact on the prairie landscape that is distinct from cattle, their docile cousins. When bison return, they bring ecological diversity and traditional Indigenous relationships to the land, with them.
Ironically, efforts are also underway to return bison to the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe, where their populations were similarly destroyed. Large animals require lots of space, but perhaps we have finally come to the realization that allowing them that space is good for all of us.
Maybe one day we’ll again see herds of bison roam at will across the prairies. Until then, we’ll have to imagine the rumble of hooves and the crush of bodies of the thousands of buffalo that once thundered across the grassland.