There is no greater image that represents the Great Plains of the United States as the wild bison or buffalo. However, that iconic symbol is an emblem of a long ago past when massive herds of bison roamed free, when nature had not yet felt the sting of industrialized society. By the late 1800's only a few dozen wild bison existed, the majority - in the tens of thousands - having been wiped out to meet the demand for their hide.
The nomadic Native American Indians that depended on these herds for meat, clothing, and shelter found the foundation of their lifestyle crippled with the loss of the bison. Their ability to live in harmony with nature was in jeopardy as traders and settlers from the east encroached on their lands. A culture was being undermined and cast to the winds.
In March, the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana received 61 genetically pure wild bison from one of the last remaining herds in Yellowstone National Park. The transfer was many years in the making, with additional pressure being exerted on Montana state agencies by the Defenders of Wildlife, a conservation organization that focuses on many threatened wild species in the U.S. like bison and wolves. The bison will run free within the reservation's over 7,000 acre reserve.
There is an ecological significance to the expansion of territory for this once prevalent species. But the cultural significance is probably of greater import. Bison are grazers and as such they kept prairie food supplies and the animal populations that depended on that grassland in check. Occasionally a juvenile bison might be prey to wolves. However, in today's world of bred cattle and urbanization, the extinction of the bison would probably not have any serious ecological consequences - not like the loss of, say, wolves which help control the deer and, in particular, the small varmint and rodent populations.
It is on a cultural level that the return of the bison has tremendous resonance. Again, the bison is an iconic image of a lifestyle in harmony with nature, a reminder of a time before the loss of innocence to the forces of progress of western civilization.
“These majestic animals have played a very significant part in the
history, religion and culture of our native people of the Fort Peck
Reservation. These bison have sustained our ancestors for thousands of
years and they are in need of us returning the favor. We are here to
make sure they will always be here for our children," told Floyd Azure, Fort Peck Reservation Tribal Council Chairman to the Associated Press.
That same attitude regarding mankind's role in the fabric of nature, that interaction and interdependency, can be found in other cultures, particularly with island nations and their relationship with the sea. From Hawaii to the South Pacific to Malaysia and beyond, their histories are culturally intertwined with the oceans and the animals that live within. It is a spiritual relationship that impacts their entire way of life.
"Civilized" industrialized man has chosen technology as its spiritual guru and while it has certainly improved the material quality of life, there is a price that we are now learning which must be paid. All of the environmental issues we face today have their fundamental root cause in this greater devotion to technology over that of nature.
What to do? Well, we're not ready to give up our cars, flat screens, and cell phones for teepees and buckskin. However, we can learn from these nature-bound cultures as to how to strike a new balance, to redefine "in harmony with nature" in a manner that meets our needs while protecting our natural resources.
Conservation should not be viewed as a form of sacrifice or denial. It should be seen as a means to preserve what we have so that we can responsibly continue to prosper in what we are realizing is a finite world.
Source: Defenders of Wildlife