Bison – The American icon

When we think of the most iconic American animals, a few come to mind.

The bald eagle, of course, is the definitive animal for many. On our national seal, names of countless patriotic companies, and even the name of a mall-based clothing store.

from Wikipedia

Wolves seem to be a controversial symbol of wildness in America. Some embrace this creature. Others demonize it. But whatever views held, a wolf does seem to speak to the atavistic feeling in many of us.

Gray Wolf – Wikipedia

Bears, be it black bears or their grizzly cousins, seem to exemplify a wild place for many. If there are bears, then the place must be wild.

To my mind, however, the most American of animals is the American Bison.

Besides being a large mammal, their historic range spanned nearly the entire width of the United States. And the bison itself evokes of a feeling of wildness, open space, and majesty that is part of our American mythology. Mythology evoked be it by visiting the historic range, portrayed in our media, or being adopted by many organizations. And, is in fact, the national mammal of the United States as of 2016.

Often associated with the High Plains, the historic range of the American Bison went far further than a single, if vast, ecosystem.

The historic range of American Bison. From the National Park Service.

And though the American Bison exist in Canada and went as far south as Mexico, the association with the American wild landscape and open spaces is the place most identified with bison in many ways.

The original inhabitants of the land venerated the bison and sustained them for generations throughout what is now America.

And after years of struggle, the land sees the bison roaming again:

With a population in excess of 60 million in the late 18th century, the species was down to 541 animals by 1889. Recovery efforts expanded in the mid-20th century, with a resurgence to roughly 500,000 animals today, largely restricted to a few national parks and reserves.

This most American of icons is making a comeback.

And I am not the only person, or agency, who thinks of the importance of the bison being intertwined with America’s wild spaces. Or even it’s cultural identity.

The emblem for the National Park Service features a bison.

From Wikipedia

And the Great Plains Trail Alliance prominently features a bison on their insignia, too.Media depicts the bison as quintessentially American, too.  A famous 1876 song romanticized bison (buffalo) and the open spaces even as the railroad, massacres, and war ended this idyllic vision. At least for a bit.

And though I think Goodfellas deserved the Oscar nod over Dances With Wolves, the cinematography and music do evoke a feeling of what it must have been like to go through a continent where millions of bison roamed.

And I think it is telling that British author Neil Gaiman, who now resides in America, chose to depict “the land”  in the book version of American Gods (*** spoiler! ***as a deity with a bison head. And this deity embodied America in a character’s visions.

If I see a bear, eagle, or wolf, I’ll be excited. And hope they are safely in camera range!

But it is the bison I seem to venerate perhaps on some level more. To me, they are the symbol of America’s wildness and open spaces. When I see bison, be it in the Badlands or even outside of Denver, I know I am experiencing a bit of wildness.

And for that, I am thankful.

As mentioned before, I tend to enjoy the High Plains. A pocket of wildness when even so-called Wilderness areas are increasingly more crowded and regulated. The PBS documentary Great Plains: America’s Lingering Wild is an apt description and well-worth watching!


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Though I am enjoying my new home in Moab, at times I do miss easy access to a particular ecosystem: The High Plains. Yes, this supposedly boring area is a place I grew to enjoy over the past decade. The subtitle of the PBS Great Plains documentary is apt “America’s Lingering Wild.” When the mountains areas are overly busy, and our national parks are often crowded with traffic, the High Plains provides a sense of wildness often not found in more popular areas. Besides the wildness, the scenic beauty of The High Plains if often under-appreciated. Wide open spaces, wildflowers in springs, and fauna not found as easily in more populated areas. Yes, the deer and antelope play. But so do a phenomenal amount of birds, coyote, prairie dogs, and that most iconic of American animals: the Bison. At this time of the year, I often camp in the High Plains. The light pollution rivals anything in Utah. And the early nights and crisp air is a perfect accompaniment to the Milky Way above. Here are a few photos. 1 of 2. … … #hiking #camping #highplains #greatplains #blackandwhite #blackandwhitephotography #wildlife #wildflowers #Texas #Colorado #NewMexico #Nebraska #Wyoming #nps #nps100 #findyourpark #bureauoflandmangement #nationalgrasslands #Pawneegrasslands #badlandsnationalpark #PaloDuroCanyon #TxStateParks #Palodurocanyonsp #caprockcanyon

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