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American Bison: Gaining in Numbers -- and Opponents

The treatment of bison in the United States has a curious history. Also known as American buffalo, the bison once numbered in the millions until they were almost hunted to extinction in the 19th century. They made a comeback under government protection in the 20th century.

To fans of Western movies, the buffalo stampede is an iconic American image. Recently, near Yellowstone Park in the U.S. state of Montana, that dramatic picture was supplanted by another image -- hunters huddled over a freshly killed bison.

Montana authorities granted limited hunting privileges if bison wander out of Yellowstone National Park, where they are protected under federal law.

Bison once blanketed the Great Plains from Canada to Mexico in such large numbers, early explorers described the country as "one black robe." The Native Americans were dependent on the bison for their existence.

Emil Her Many Horses, a curator of the American Indian Museum in Washington, D.C. "Some people say it [a bison] was like a refrigerator on hooves."

Indian tribes used all parts of the bison carcass for their food, clothing, shelter, and weapons -- even glue.

Mr. Her Many Horses explains the deep connection between Native Americans and the buffalo.

"Well, I think there's always a spiritual connection with the buffalo. Because the buffalo was the main animal that helped sustain the people, clothe them; it was also used in a main source for the ceremony life also."

During the 19th century, pioneers and settlers moving through the Great Plains region killed bison herds en masse for sport, and as a strategic maneuver, to clear the country of Indians.

The bison population dropped as low as a few hundred in the early 20th century, prompting the U.S. government and nonprofit groups to intervene. Today, the bison population is up to approximately 450,000, and "seed" buffalo to start new herds continuing to be released in some western U.S. states.

Hunting is permitted to keep the bison population down, and limit the bisons' movements. Some bison carry disease, and local ranchers fear the disease could be passed on to their cattle.

Jay Bodner, of the Montana Stockgrowers Association, says ranchers are dissatisfied, "The ranchers are very disappointed, that one of the few reservoirs that exist of brucellosis in Montana, exist in the Yellowstone bison population in and around Yellowstone National Park."

Brucellosis is a disease that causes fetuses to abort in cattle. The Nature Conservancy's Karen Foerstel says bison in their care, which does not include the Yellowstone herd, are inoculated against diseases like brucellosis.

"We inoculate them [bison]. We check them for diseases. We make sure they're disease free."

Ms. Foerstel says bison have always been part of the American landscape.

Mr. Bodner feels the number of bison should be limited. "Scientifically, there is no real need for bison to be on the range within Montana. Bison are a 5,000-year-old species and they basically evolved with the prairies and grasslands of North America."

According to Ms. Foerstel, the bison's roaming and grazing instincts promote biodiversity in prairie animals and plants.

The bison may never again be "one black robe" across the plains. But the sight of the herds is still breathtaking, and some wish that the future of the Great Plains can be more like its past.