The Buffalo Way: A Path to American Unity, Resilience, and Health

By Cristina Mormorunni | June 18, 2020

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The Blackfeet Nation is working to restore wild, free-ranging bison on its reservation in northern Montana. Photo credit: ©Kelly Stoner/WCS

Rewilding bison and restoring this American icon to its native lands demonstrate the transformative potential of crisis. Crisis brings danger, calamity, despair. We know this all too well in this time of pandemic — a great “revealer” that has brought all of society’s fissures and fault lines into stark relief.

But if working for a 125-year-old conservation organization has taught me anything it is that time and again, in crisis we also discover turning points, defining moments, watersheds — opportunities to turn into the storm, rather than away from it, and ​#FacetheWind as we work to create the future that we want and need.

Like Buffalo, who defines the history and legend of the West, we have learned that to shapeshift crisis into possibility we need catalytic leadership and acts of collective will. And in doing so we draw on leadership, partnership, and — maybe most importantly — a commitment to imagine the unimaginable and bring the hint of what could and should be into bold being.

Bison once thundered across North America 30 million strong, feeding and sustaining human and natural communities. ©Peter Mather/WCS

Bison once thundered across North America 30 million strong, feeding and sustaining human and natural communities, leaving an indelible mark on the heart and soul of America’s culture and heritage. Their hoofprints crafted an exquisitely woven wild tapestry of life, which in the wake of their near demise, grows increasingly dewilded, fragmented, and frayed.

Secretary of the Interior Bernhardt’s recent launch of the 2020 Bison Conservation Initiative (BCI) embodies the collaborative vision we are all looking for in this time of paralyzing uncertainty. This intrepid plan draws on cutting-edge scientific research WCS was proud to lead and establishes a blueprint to guide the ecological and cultural restoration of our national mammal over the next decade.

“Many suggest that the Great Plains were carved in part by the action of millions of bison who once roamed the American west.”

The BCI takes a strategic approach grounded in the knowledge that to help bison resume and fulfill their once-transformative ecological and cultural role, we must recognize first and foremost that they are wildlife. They must be managed as wide-ranging herds in deep collaboration with Tribes, ranchers, state agencies, and conservation organizations across the American West’s complex matrix of Indigenous, public, and private land.

Many suggest that the Great Plains were carved in part by the action of millions of bison who once roamed the American west. And, indeed, extensive scientific research demonstrates that by grazing, tramping, and wallowing, bison engineer their habitats, shift fire patterns, and create micro-ecosystems that support diverse species of grasses, mammals, birds, and insects.

We can learn a lot from Buffalo and Nature. We’re all in this together. It’s time we work together. Video narrated by actor Mark Ruffalo.

But by the 1860s, the buffalo slaughter was well under way. It is estimated that upwards of 4,000 animals were killed every day and not surprisingly, by the turn of the 20th century this mythic creature had been reduced to some 500 animals, wreaking devastation on the cultural and ecological systems with which they were intimately intertwined.

“Our commitment to the ecological and cultural restoration of bison embodies a new and much needed conservation model.”

WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) was born out of this unparalleled tragedy — a clarion call that spurred the Bronx Zoo to initiate what many cite as the start of the modern conservation movement as it orchestrated an extraordinary journey for 15 bison from the Bronx. In 1907, the animals left by train from New York City’s Grand Central Station bound west for Oklahoma, thereby launching the world’s first rewilding effort.

With the 2020 Bison Conservation Initiative firmly in place, it is time to take similar bold and transformative conservation action and put the initiative’s aspirational vision to work in real-world, collaborative, “hooves on the ground” projects that will bring Secretary Bernhardt’s initiative to life.

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Celebrating Iinnii (Bison) Days on the Blackfeet Reservation, May 2019. Photo credit: ©Cristina Mormorunni/WCS

The language of conservation has tended to the linear, the reductionist, leading us to measure success by acres, miles, and conservation designations. The values embedded, consciously or unconsciously, reflect a language of ownership, control, dominion over — a language of separation from nature as opposed to the indissoluble bonds of kinship.

Our commitment to the ecological and cultural restoration of bison embodies a new and much needed conservation model — an integrated approach that draws on different values, identities, and knowledge systems and embraces the tools that science, culture, law, economics, art, policy, and civic engagement offer. Our national mammal embodies the loftiest of America’s goals and ideals: Unity. Resilience. Health. There may be no time in human history that these words carry more weight.

We stand with Secretary Bernhardt and his visionary staff at Department of Interior as they work to bring vision to life. With the BCI, we launch a new conservation paradigm that breathes life into the principles of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice, while restoring an American symbol to its former glory.

There is no time to waste. If we have learned one thing in the last few months it is surely that life is precious. In this wild journey we call life, we are all connected. We rise and fall together.

Cristina Mormorunni is Rocky Mountains Regional Director at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).

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WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.

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