de Vos: Meet the buffalo
May 12, 2016
It's true that we hold barroom spit buckets in higher esteem than Congress, but let's not overlook the tough legislation they hammer out once in a while that does improve the lives of everyday Americans. Monday culminated a five-year struggle of mind-numbing discussions, eternal meetings, failed votes and vicious arguments before Congress linked arms, mumbled kumbaya songs and anointed the buffalo as our national mammal.
It was a tough fight. Donald Trump tweeted that the buffalo were Muslims that snuck across the Bering Strait some 18,000 years ago. He would herd them all to Guantanamo (they can swim) after negotiating a 'yuge' discount on Cuba where he would stamp "El Trumpo" on a chain of gilded seaside casinos.
Okay, I apologize for that last part but our Congress drives me crazy! In light of the world today, how can they possibly justify spending five years to name a mammal? We have real problems, people!
Honoring the buffalo is a real government flip-flop anyway after encouraging their extermination a couple of centuries ago. In 1799, sixty million buffalo roamed freely across the West. Ninety years later, in 1889, William Hornady, Superintendent of the National Zoological Park in Washington, DC pleaded with his director to inform Congress that the buffalos' extinction was imminent with fewer than 200 left.
Why were 59,999,800 buffalo slaughtered over 90 years? Sadly, it was the surest way to get the Native Americans out of the way. Thousands were stampeded over cliffs for no reason but to drive off the natives who depended upon the buffalo for food, clothing and shelter. By 1894 the matter was settled, the buffalo were gone, and but for stragglers, starvation had forced the Indians onto reservations.
There are about 500,000 buffalo around today thanks largely to luck and Scotty Phillip, a South Dakota rancher. A neighbor rescued five calves from an 1881 hunt that nearly wiped out the species. Scotty bought those calves and raised them alongside the Missouri River, north of Fort Pierre. His herd eventually seeded bison reintroduction throughout the U.S.
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There were also a few stray buffalo that sheltered in a remote area of northwest Wyoming. It was such an astounding ecology that early explorers were dismissed as liars. Boiling rivers, petrified trees and water shooting a hundred feet in the air? Rubbish!
But it was true, and in 1872 Yellowstone became the world's first national park. But being first meant no experience and not a lot of rules. Loggers, poachers and miners began looting the park with abandon. Lacking not just experience, there was also no money. Park promoters promised that Yellowstone would add no government expense. The first park superintendent had no salary or allocated funds. With no money for enforcement, the park became fertile ground for encroachment.
Remarkably reminiscent of today, Congress decided that because the superintendent could not administer things effectively with no money, his administration must be ineffective. Therefore they could not, in good conscience, fund an ineffective administrator, so no funding. They told the Secretary of War to deal with it. In 1886, and for the next 30 years, the Army was in charge of the park.
Poachers were the problem predators, whittling away at park animals and the handful of remaining bison. A maximum sentence of life-time banishment meant only that poachers were back at work the next day. Forest & Stream, a popular magazine of the day, published a story on the disintegrating conditions in America's first park. That issue went viral (for 1894) creating an outcry for more park protection. In 1896, the National Park Protection Act secured the park we enjoy today.
Next: should we name a national reptile or elect one?