Recently, during our annual whitewater rafting trip in Utah, we were fortunate to witness the newly named national mammal in the wild.
We had just pulled off the river and had begun unloading the boats to set up camp for the night when my nephew, Tommy, shouted for us to look across the river. There on the opposite bank was an American bison, commonly referred to as buffalo. He was huge and magnificent! He came up out of the brush at water’s edge and climbed about 15 feet above the river to a small trail running along the canyon edge.
I was in awe at the size of this beast and how delicately he maneuvered this fragile, rocky trail. Before I could even get to my camera, he cantered down along the trail and up river through the brush and he was gone. We watched for a while fully expecting to see more but, to our disappointment, he was alone in the canyon.
While I have seen buffalo before, some domestic and some in national parks, this was the first we have experienced in the wild during a river trip.
It was very fitting that we should witness this magnificent animal just a few short weeks after President Obama signed into effect a law naming the American bison as the official national mammal – a symbol equal in stature to the American eagle as the national bird. The bison is North America’s largest land mammal with a mature bull weighing in at over 2,000 pounds.
Despite their size, the animals are surprisingly quick and can reach speeds of up to 35 miles per hour. Bison are intelligent social creatures that often travel in herds. Once nearly killed off in the U.S., the species has since somewhat recovered. Most of them are preserved in national parks; however wildlife management efforts are having positive effects of establishing herds throughout many areas in the west. The buffalo that we enjoyed viewing along the Green River in Desolation Canyon was likely from a small herd the Utah Division of Wildlife relocated from the Henry Mountain range a few hundred miles south of this area.
The American bison has a storied past. According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, “ In prehistoric times, millions of bison roamed North America — from the forests of Alaska and the grasslands of Mexico to Nevada’s Great Basin and the eastern Appalachian Mountains.” Yes, bison were even here in Ohio at one time. “But by the late 1800s, there were only a few hundred bison left in the United States after European settlers pushed west, reducing the animal’s habitat and hunting the bison to near extinction. Had it not been for a few private individuals working with tribes, states and the Interior Department, the bison would be extinct today.”
Bison have been integral to Native Americans’ tribal culture, providing them with food, clothing, fuel, tools, shelter and spiritual value. Tribal councils have been working with the National Park Service to transfer bison from national park lands to tribal lands. The land that we were rafting along down the Green River is part of the Ute Reservation or tribal land and I assume the relocation of the buffalo from the Henry Mountain range is an effort to restore buffalo to this reservation.
As a cowboy-wannabe from birth, I am thrilled that this grand symbol of the old West is finally recognized as such an important symbol of our nation. If you want to learn more about the American bison, go to the U.S. Department of Interior’s website.
Brad Ross is communications specialist at the Delaware Soil and Water Conservation District. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.