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Bison Still Thriving in American West - 2004-05-15

In his journal, Meriwether Lewis described in detail the plants and animals encountered on the journey, many never seen before by a non-Native American. Before the expedition left, there was even some wild speculation about possible encounters with dinosaurs. That, of course, never came to pass.

They did however encounter the American bison, sometimes referred to simply as ?buffalo.? On one occasion Lewis described a buffalo stampede. The herd, he noted, was so large that even at a full run, it took an entire day for the animals to pass. In 1804 the American bison numbered in the tens of millions. They had roamed the Great Plains for thousands of years, and had offered the Plains Indian all they needed to survive. Those herds are now gone, the plains transformed into agricultural land. But, as the buffalo have survived and in some places are thriving.

Eric Rosenquist is driving to work. His job is to take care of a herd of buffalo.

?By looking at that number - that?s an individual identification for each animal,? he explains.

Eric is the preserve manager at the Cross Ranch near Bismarck, North Dakota.

?I think they are a perfect mix for the northern Great Plains when you figure the vegetation that?s here, the climate,? he says.

The American bison, or buffalo as they are commonly called, are symbols of the American West. Today, herds like Eric?s at the Cross Ranch have been able to revive from a past that nearly wiped them out.

?Bison are considered one of those recovery stories [of a species] that was nearly extinct,? he says. ?At one time, there are estimates that there were 30 to 60 million. Bison are not endangered today. I think there are 300,000.?

The slaughter of the buffalo in the 19th century reduced the number of animals to as little as a few hundred. Here, men sit on piles of buffalo hides and a hill-sized mound of buffalo skulls. The slaughter was not only wasteful but, some say, deliberate. There are claims that the U.S. government sought to destroy the buffalo herds to undermine the Plains Indian tribes. The buffalo was the primary source of sustenance for the Indians, according to Rod Fried of the Dakota Zoo.

?When you rely on one thing that is that important to your way of life, and to that group of people that?s everything: That?s food, shelter, clothing,? says Mr. Fried. ?That?s all they knew. That?s where their life came from, the Plains Indians, was from this animal.?

?They used the meat products that came from the animal,? adds Eric Rosenquist. ?The hide is incredibly warm. The bones were used for tools.?

The buffalo hides, also called robes, gave shelter and warmth to the Plains Indians during the harsh winters. A thick mat of fur makes them great thermal insulation. The Indians developed some clever techniques to kill buffalo.

?They would have buttes that they would run these animals off of, and go ahead and harvest them that way,? explains Rod Fried. ?When the horse appeared, they would hunt them on horseback. And when you do that and you can think of this animal riding, [and being] beside it with a bow and arrow, I?m in awe.?

Now that the species has regained its numbers, buffalo meat is sold commercially.

?I love bison burger,? says Eric Rosenquist. ?It?s very healthy, from what I understand. It?s low in fat.?

Buffalo can be domesticated and even ridden. A man rode one in President Kennedy?s inaugural parade. The buffalo now again is part of the Western American landscape.

?When you come out to the west, you expect to see buffalo, whether you see them out at a national park or in a private herd or at the zoo,? says Rod Fried. ?It?s one of those animals that is what the West means. That?s what they symbolize.?