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Once they were many, some 75 million in all, a vast, roaming expanse of powerful muscles, sharp horns and thick hides that stirred the dust from the cold reaches of Canada to northern Mexico; from Idaho to the Appalachians. Their flesh gave life to ancient peoples and the enormity of their population altered landscapes.
Food, clothing, shelter – nearly everything Native American tribes needed to survive – depended on their ability to hunt the bison (Bison bison), North America’s largest terrestrial animal. They followed the great herds in all directions, knowing that the life that traversed the continent on hooves would be the deciding factor in their survival. Eventually, political subjugating fueled by westward expansion of settlers and a seemingly insatiable market for their flesh, hide and bones would dwindle their numbers to around 1,000 by the dawn of the 20th century.
The story of the bison, whether looked at through the eyes of Native Americans, early settlers or the modern-day sportsmen, is a cautionary tale – a look at how close we came to forever losing this iconic monarch of the plains. But within this tale of near extinction there is also hope, the kind that shows every person who values wildlife that just as we are capable of nearly erasing a species from the planet, we can also reverse those bad fortunes and – through careful conservation and support – ensure their survival for future generations to enjoy.
Today, the bison (commonly referred to as the American Buffalo) has seen its numbers increase to nearly 500,000 in North America, thriving on private ranches and public lands throughout the United States and Canada. The quintessential American comeback story, the bison serves as a symbol of the American West, its enormous size and sometimes-unruly nature serving as a reminder of how wild and unsettled much of the nation once was. Often photographed and written about by naturalists, poets, presidents – even immortalized on currency – the bison is a constant reminder of how significantly one species can impact entire civilizations and the building of a nation.
Every year, on the 4th Saturday of September, millions of Americans will celebrate the survival of the bison and many other species as part of National Hunting and Fishing Day activities nationwide. National Hunting and Fishing Day began after a presidential proclamation in 1972 that sets aside the fourth Saturday of each September for the event. Since then, national, regional, state and local organizations have staged thousands of open house hunting- and fishing-related events everywhere from shooting ranges to suburban frog ponds, providing millions of Americans with a chance to experience, understand and appreciate traditional outdoor sports.
By saving the bison, millions of people have and will experience the thrill of seeing this symbol of America, to view it in its natural habitat and to imagine what it might have been like to see the great bison herds of the past. Conservation groups, sportsmen and women and wildlife watchers alike are all stakeholders in the future of the bison, to ensure that the proud beast dots the plains and hillsides long enough for future generations to see.