It’s entertaining to walk along the Blue Ridge and imagine life here, sometime in the past. And the past doesn’t have to be that far back. Only two hundred and fifty years ago, you could enter a Rockfish Gap and find a dozen plains bison, shuffling their way through. While bison weren’t common in the Piedmont, some did travel through mountain gaps and river gaps. In our region, the major influx came through the James River watershed, following what’s now US 60 from Lynchburg to Charleston, Huntington and beyond. In fact, US 60 is called The Midland Trail, for the old road that followed the well-worn bison trail.
Although centered on the grass prairies of the west, bison ranged eastward throughout the Alleghenies into the trough of the Great Valley, including the Shenandoah Valley. Found as far north as the Kittatinny Valley of northern Pennsylvania and New York. South of the James, bison traveled through the Cumberland Gap, as well as the Holston and French Broad Rivers, to get to the Great Valley of East Tennessee. Large southern populations resided in the Cumberland Valley near Nashville, TN. I would presume the use of fire by the Native Americans benefited their eastward expansion.
American bison, or buffalo, were still abundant in the Charlottesville area at the time of Thomas Jefferson’s birth (1743). Bison were particularly common in the Mount Rogers area of Virginia. Even today, in the Elk Garden area of Mount Rogers, the remains of a once huge bison wallow can be found being used by cattle grazing the land.
This summer, Jane and I visited Custer State Park in southwest South Dakota. This is the
home to 1,500 bison, one of the largest publicly held herds in the world. Driving over a slight ridge, we approached a herd of a couple hundred buffalo, many which were crossing the road. Everybody stops; either on the shoulder or in the road, it doesn’t matter. My first bison jam. It’s profounding to see these bovines upclose and in such numbers. Add half a dozen pronghorn antelope and a prairie dog colony to the scene, and you have what was before us.
More bison were seen in Yellowstone National Park. Recent DNA work by James Derr (Bison Conservation Genetics and Disease; Texas A&M) indicates that the Yellowstone NP bison herd is the only genetically pure natural population of bison, free of domestic cattle DNA. The few other populations without cattle DNA have descended from this population (Henry Mountains in Utah, Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota, and on Elk Island in Alberta, Canada).
An adult male buffalo stands nearly six-and-a-half feet tall at the shoulders and can weigh up to 2000 pounds. On two different occasions, I found myself in my drivers seat, pacing along with this incredible creature a hand’s distance away, as he nonchalantly walked in the other lane (I was elated - Jane wasn’t – I couldn’t tell how the bison felt!).
So, what is their temperment? Thinking of their social structure, these creatures are huge and found in herds of thousands. Why would they need to be aggressive? Their food is under their feet. In such large groups, aggressiveness would seem a liability. Even during the rutting season, the extent of the bulls’ activities is pawing the ground, snorting loudly, and head butting. Nor is the maternal instinct particularly strong.
In an 1877 US Dept of Interior (USGS) publication titled History of the American Bison, by Joel Asaph Allen, the following comments are made:
“The buffalo, when taken young, is easily tamed, and soon becomes thoroughly domesticated… The American bison, like the other species of the bovine group, is characterized by a rather sluggish disposition, and is by no means remarkable for alertness or sagacity, being not only unwieldy in bulk, but also ‘the stupidest animal of the plains.’ A Colonel Dodge remarked, “Dangerous as he looks, he is, in truth, a very mild, inoffensive beast, timid and fearful, and rarely attacking but in the last hopeless effort of self-defense. The domestic cattle of Texas, miscalled ‘tame,’ are fifty times more dangerous to footmen than the fiercest buffalo.”
Bison are easily herded and handled. In fact, bison were themselves bred in captivity and with domesticated cattle in Virginia, with both bison-calves and mixed breeds commonly found among western settlements of Virginia in the late 1700’s. (A little more about the domestication of bison can be read in the discussion of John James Audubon’s Quadrupeds of North America at http://bobpickett.org/john_james_audubon.htm.)
The last bison in North Carolina was recorded about 1760. The last bison killed in Pennsylvania was in Union County, in 1801. The last bison in Virginia was said to be killed by Nathan Boone, a son of Daniel Boone, in 1797 along the New River. The last bison killed in West Virginia was killed near Valley Head, Randolph County in 1825. The last bison in Kentucky are dated to 1800, and in Tennessee, between 1800 and 1810.
From an original pool of 60-70 million bison, 30 million bison existed in 1870, with less than 1,000 existing by 1889. Today, there are approximately 500,000 bison, both in public populations and private ranches. At the Flying D Ranch near Bozeman, MT, Ted Turner has about 5,700, with another 2,100 at a ranch in New Mexico.
It is estimated that there are as few as 12,000 to 15,000 pure plains bison (Bison bison bison) in the world. The other subspecies in North America is the wood buffalo (Bison bison athabascae), found more in the plains and coniferous forests of Canada.