Thursday, November 13, 2003

8. Humans end perfect history

"Give me a home where the Buffalo roam, where the deer and antelope play," are opening the words of the romantic prairie song, "Home on the Range." The problem is that this place no longer exists- Buffalo, actually "Bison," no longer roam freely in this country. Whereas their numbers were estimated upwards of 60 million before the white man came, they now exist only through legislation in National parks and preserves. Their slaughter in the late 1800's reduced their numbers to as low as 250-300 in the early 1900's. Never before in history had a large animal of one species been so thoroughly exterminated.

Male Bison stand 5½ to 6 feet tall and weight as much as 2400 pounds. Females are smaller weighing in at 800-1000 pounds. They reached America about 1 million years ago, during the Pleistocene period, through a land bridge across the Bering Sea. In their peak, migrating Bison would travel in herds up to 25 miles wide! They live to be about 15-20 years old and females bear a calf every other year. With such a long period between births, and hence the slow population growth of the species, one can extrapolate the time it must have taken to reach 60 million. Even now, with national protection and the help of breeding farms, they only number around 300,000. It's dreadfully amazing what history humans can erase in such a short period of time.

What is more amazing are the reasons they were killed. One reason was that they had the nerve to hinder the western frontier expansion of Americans, namely, the construction of our railroads. The most famous (or infamous) character of this act was Buffalo Bill, William F. Cody, who once killed over 60 animals in an eight-hour period. And, of course, the railroad made the transport of fallen Bison to market much easier.

Another reason they were killed was sport, or just for amusement. The size of these animals made their butcher valuable, as well intensified the challenge of the hunt. When deer and other small animals moved out of range, they were not pursued. Bison however, were pursued for miles. It has also been noted that passengers on trains would lean out the window and shoot at the Bison as the train rolled on- as a lust for slaughter or entertainment.

Finally, and the most disgraceful reason for their massacre was to keep the Indians under control. The Indians for centuries relied on the Bison for survival. They only killed what they needed to survive and consumed every bit of the animal. Some say the Indians treated the Bison like their brother who sacrificed himself for the tribe. They also thanked the spirits for their good fortune. So the white man realized that killing the Bison also eliminated a valuable food source of the Indians. It also aided in keeping Indians on their reservations, for if there are no Bison, then there is nothing to chase. As a result, the execution of the Bison disarmed their nomadic way of life. Thus, the white men sought not only to take the land of the Indians, but also to remove their source of food.

From 1872-74, Bison were being killed at a rate of more than 5000 per day. In 1878 the last of the southern great herds was decimated, while 5 years later, by 1883, most of the northern herds had been ruined. Therefore, it is not without truth to note that in approximately eleven years, a million years worth of the life in America for the Bison had been destroyed.

Those who are religious might wonder why God went to the trouble to create so many species of animals, if it is our destiny to simply eradicate those not of our liking- with or without good reason. Might not he just as easily presented us with a checklist from the beginning to select those animals we might permit to survive our inhabitance? Although, on further thought... maybe he did. The Bison may have slipped upon the Arc when Noah was sorting through the numerous species of beetles.

If one takes a more naturalistic view, how even more tragic is the human infliction of (near) extinction for those species that simply lack a purpose in "our" world. What a waste of nature's time and the eloquent mechanisms of natural selection to create such a successful animal, only to have it destroyed in a blink of an eye. And how pathetic it is to imagine that a species of animal was nearly wiped out to obstruct the survival of a race of people from our own species.

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