Bye-Son: The Extirpation and Reintroduction of the Bison in the Ohio Country
By Tim Pawlak
O give me a home, where the buffalo roam…”
Bison at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Colorado (Photo: Jim Carr, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)
Did you know that the bison, often (incorrectly) referred to as buffalo, once roamed in your back yard? Hundreds of years ago, the American bison called this land, and much of North America home. The American bison, one of the most recognizable symbols of America’s parks and natural lands, once roamed the lands of Ohio in great herds. At one point, an estimated 30-70 million Bison lived in North America. The bison, or more scientifically Bison bison, is the largest extant land mammal in the United States and has been since the end of the last Ice Age. A full grown male bison, called a bull, can reach 6 feet at the shoulder and weigh a staggering 2,000 pounds. That is not to say that this animal is not nimble on its hooves. At full clip, a Bison can reach 35 mph for short distances. There are stories of a single Bison herd stampeding across the plains for hours, with millions of individuals in its ranks.
So what happened and why aren’t they here anymore? Decades of over-hunting and loss of natural habitat pushed the mighty bison out of the Ohio Country and nearly off the face of the earth. That is not the whole story of the Bison in Ohio, though. For that we need to go back over 500 years, before Europeans lived in the Ohio Country.
Photo from 1892 of a man standing on mountain of bison skulls. (Digital Collections at the Detroit Public Library)
The American Bison has always been held in high esteem by the American Indian tribes who hunted and used the bison in many aspects of their lives. From using the Bison hair for headdresses and ropes to utilizing the bones for jewelry and eating utensils, there was and still is great respect for “Tatanka,” as the Lakota peoples called it. To many American Indian Nations the Bison is seen not just as an animal but an ancestor and a brother to them.
Things began to change as pioneers and settlers moved into the Ohio Country, bringing with them new hunting technology, deforestation and bovine disease. The bison were an economic boon to the new people of Ohio. The meat and leather trade exploded, attracting commercial interest in this commodity. Even the bones were prized as commercial fertilizer. Over 50 million bison were slaughtered by hunters during the 19th century resulting in the near extinction of the creatures and the local extirpation of the bison from the Ohio Country and lands east of the Mississippi River. The last of the bison in Ohio was shot and killed in Lawrence County in 1803.
Leather from thousands of Bison. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The story of the Bison today is very different from that of 200 years ago. Although this majestic symbol has made a comeback in the United States, and current estimates place the population at over 290,000, that is only telling half of the story. The vast majority of those 290,000 bison live on private lands as livestock. Roughly 10,000 bison remain in the wild on public lands, about half of those residing in Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone is the only place in the United States that has been home to the American bison consistently since the end of the last Ice Age roughly 12,000 years ago.
Back in Ohio, you don’t have to travel far to experience the American Bison. For a historical perspective, you can enter the Nature of Ohio exhibit and Gallery 3 at the Ohio History Center to see bison remains and a full taxidermy bison. To see live bison, you don’t have to travel much farther outside of Columbus. The Columbus Zoo has two American bison that are on exhibit year-round. If you are looking for bison in a more natural habitat, you should head on over to Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park. The metro park is home to a small herd of bison that were relocated from The Wilds back in 2011, so as to help transform parts of the park back into a prairie landscape. The eight Plains bison (Bison Bison Bison) live on several paddocks, or pastures, and enjoy a mostly wild existence. With the exception of the fences, mostly for safety of the animals, the bison are not subject to any outside influence. Food comes from and wild grasses, water comes from a creek that runs through, and they have freedom to roam an enclosure that is roughly 25 acres. The Columbus Metro Parks plan to welcome some new calves to the herd in late 2018.
American Bison Skull in Gallery 3 of the Ohio History Center.
Bison at Battelle Darby Creek Metropark. (Photo: Stacie Osborne, Ohio.org)
The story of the American bison in Ohio is a story of loss but also of redemption. We may never see the mighty bison roaming wild in Ohio again, but we can still learn from our past mistakes and try not to make them again. We need to remember that the choices we make can have far reaching consequences, both good and bad. The choices that people made in the 19th and 20th centuries to begin to conserve and protect the bison is the reason we can enjoy them today.
4th Grade Discussion Questions:
What are some other animals that you can think of that used to live in Ohio?
What factors can you think of that threaten animals today?
What are some ways that we can help protect animals that live in Ohio?