Climate debate hearkens back to days of the bison


An old bison bone on my desk has me thinking about air pollution, climate change and the American mind.

You remember the basics from history class: Tens of millions of bison roamed the Great Plains. Along came Manifest Destiny and market hunters shot them for hides, tongues and just to get the great beasts out of the way.

In the decades after the Civil War, scientists like William Hornaday warned America: we were shooting bison into extinction.

A few folks paid attention – bold leaders with a head for science. Theodore Roosevelt, probably the most scientifically minded person ever to occupy the White House, tops the list.

But nationwide, the response was a collective “Huh?” The idea that the once endless herds of bison could be shot out in a few years was simply inconceivable to most. “Bison have been here forever,” was the prevailing view. “How could something as puny as people wipe out buffalo? Bah!”

But when the railroad crossed Montana, it triggered an avalanche of killing and the fabled northern herd was destroyed within a decade.  

Most Americans never saw it coming. Dandified hunting parties struck out from Miles City, with wagonloads of ammunition for killing bison in the late 1880s. They wandered the prairie whopper-jawed, unable to find a single target.

Of course, many powerful people didn’t give a rip for bison. The military shed no tears, seeing bison as a commissary for troublesome Plains Tribes. The railroad and telegraph companies found the big woolies to be tremendous pests.

TR and Hornaday, Charles E. Conrad and Sam Walking Coyote, Yellowstone Park, the National Bison Range and the Bronx Zoo pulled the bison back from the brink of extinction. But it was close as a razor’s edge.

The modern parallels to the problems posed by air pollution are striking. The American mind, perhaps out of naiveté or optimism or plain cussedness, has trouble grasping the problem. “What? Trouble in the atmosphere? How so? It’s so big, and we’re so small. Certainly, those scientists are full of applesauce.”

Today, under the bones of the bison, we’re digging up eons’ worth of coal and spewing the carbon into the air. One coal plant in Montana spews more CO2 pollution annually than Mt. St. Helens did when it exploded in 1980. Even if you disbelieve climate change theories, there are plenty of other reasons to care: air pollution contributes to ailments from asthma to acid rain.

When it comes to air pollution, we’ve got our William Hornadays – the scientists who grasp the problem and are trying to warn us. And we’ve got the powerful industrial interests who would rather ignore the whole problem.

But who is our Theodore Roosevelt? What political leaders have the guts and the smarts to do what TR did with the bison – save the game in the final innings? 

Image: Bison skull unearthed after centuries in a riverbank on the Montana/Alberta border. (c) Karen Nichols.


Ben Long is lives at the bottom of Buffalo Hill, Kalispell, Mont., where the Conrad Bison Herd helped rescue the species from extinction. He is senior program director for Resource Media.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

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