Oh Give me a home where the buffalo roam” goes the old cowboy song, but the fact that 21st century citizens can still enjoy the star of this song was a very close call. According to the U S Fish and Wildlife Service estimates of the North American bison population at the time of European contact range from 30-75 million animals. However, by 1900 intensive hunting and a purposeful program of eradication to deprive American Indians of their livelihood had reduced the population to near extinction. At that time Yellowstone National Park counted only 25 bison in residence. Thanks to a citizen’s campaign, Congress allocated funds to purchase 21 additional animals from private sources and begin a breeding program at what is now known as the Lamar Ranch in the park’s Lamar Valley.
This is a success story. Today over 4,000 bison roam the range in Yellowstone National Park and they are a character defining part of the landscape. The evocative Lamar Buffalo Ranch, with its quintessential weathered western buildings (1905- 1930), is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Visitors who stop by the ranch can get a short history from an interpretive sign. But less well known, is the role the ranch played in the reintroduction of wolves to the park.
The last wolf pack in Yellowstone National Park was eliminated in 1926. Again after a long campaign and much controversy, Congress appropriated the funds for a reintroduction program. In 1995, thirty-one Canadian Grey Wolves were brought to pens at the Lamar Buffalo Ranch to acclimatize to the park before being released. Today there are approximately 100 wolves in the park with many of the packs concentrated in the rich hunting ground of the Lamar Valley. The ripple effect on the elk herd specifically and the park’s ecosystem overall of the introduction of a top predator is fodder for another story at another time.
I would like to make a different point. Millions of tourists come to Yellowstone every year. Thousands of them line the roads through the Lamar Valley – getting up at dawn and watching for hours to marvel at herds of buffalo and to catch a glimpse of a wolf. The Lamar Buffalo Ranch now serves as an education center for the Yellowstone Association and the buildings have been restored as models of off the grid environmental stewardship. But I wonder how many understand the full story of human intervention into this place. Preventing the American Bison from disappearing from this landscape took intense effort. As for the Lamar Buffalo Ranch, the park web site describes the work that took place there in the following terms, “ A program to raise bison like domestic cattle in Yellowstone may seem incongruous and unnecessary in retrospect..” I am not sure that is how I would tell the story. Yes, yes the vista of grazing herds in the Lamar Valley may seem so natural us today that we may think it always looked that way. And yes, we may want to repress the role that humans played in wrangling bison back into the landscape, let alone the tale of how we slaughtered the millions. But that would be a mistake.
And as for the wolves, the reintroduction is still so controversial that the park’s web site looks like the docket of a small claims court of environmental justice where wolves are listed and delisted as endangered species with head snapping frequency. The role of the Lamar Buffalo Ranch in the wolf story has not yet even made into the official history. But when you go to Yellowstone (and I hope you will) head to the Lamar Valley, stand in front of the ranch, and contemplate the role we as humans have played in creating and almost destroying the wildlife that we enjoy today. And know that nothing is static, and only continued advocacy and at times active intervention will conserve these landscapes for future generations. .