The American bison, commonly known as the American buffalo, is the largest extant animal in North America. It is one of the nation's most iconic wild animals. An image of a buffalo famously graced the Indian Head nickel, a five-cent piece minted from 1913 to 1938.
Ironically, the actual buffalo pictured on the coin was not a wild buffalo, but most likely Black Diamond, who was given to the Bronx Zoo in New York by Barnum & Bailey circus. He was slaughtered in 1915 for his meat. "Black Diamond Steaks" were sold for $2 a pound.
The obverse side of the coin featured a composite portrait of three Native Americans: Iron Tail, an Oglala Sioux chief, Two Moons, a Cheyenne chief, and Big Tree, a Kiowa chief. Kansas, Oklahoma and Wyoming have adopted the bison as their state mammal.
In the mid-19th century, the bison population was up to 100 million. But they were hunted to the brink of extinction for their fur -- their carcasses were left to decay. In the mid-1880s, there were only a few hundred bison left.
Reintroduction programs have worked, and the population is around 350,000 today. But their troubles are far from over.
Recently, the Buffalo Field Campaign, which according to their Web site is "the only group working in the field, everyday, to stop the slaughter and harassment of Yellowstone's wild buffalo," captured exclusive video footage of a baby bison with a broken leg being chased along with other bison by federal and state agents in helicopters and on horses trying to move them out of land meant for livestock grazing.
The calf, who struggled mightily to keep up with its running mother, was eventually too injured to carry on.
The pastures where the bison were located are their breeding grounds outside Yellowstone National Park. However, at the time of the chase, these lands did not have any livestock on them according to Earthjustice, a leading non-profit environmental law firm dedicated to protecting the natural environment with a focus on the American West.
"This practice interrupts a crucial birthing cycle for the buffalo," asserts Earthjustice, "leading to the injury and death of newborn calves and their mothers."
Earthjustice is currently in court trying to secure the bison's right to land that traditionally has been theirs, asserting that the recent federal action against them was initiated due to a "perceived conflict with livestock."
As the courts decide the fate of the American buffalo, it is worth remembering the words of Crowfoot, a 19th-century chief of the Siksika First Nation. "What is life?" he asked. "It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime."
- Sign a Buffalo Field Campaign letter to President Obama urging him to take action to protect this American icon
- Make a tax-deductible donation to Earthjustice to help their court action to protect the bison
- Yellowstone Bison Get Help in Montana (April 30, 2008)
- Record Number of Yellowstone Bison Slaughtered (March 23, 2008)