Cover image for Re-bisoning the West : restoring an American icon to the landscape
Re-bisoning the West : restoring an American icon to the landscape
1st Torrey House Press ed.
Physical Description:
229 pages : map ; 21 cm.
Prologue -- The landscape -- Tatanka -- The Great Slaughter -- Revival of a precarious species. Charles "Buffalo" Jones ; Theodore Roosevelt ; William T. Hornaday ; Charles Goodnight ; The American Bison Society -- Yellowstone's stigma -- Train ride to the future -- Parks and bison -- Rebounding across the West -- Conserving bison genes on a large-scale landscape -- Epilogue.
Millions of majestic bison once roamed territory stretching from Alaska to Mexico. This awe-inspiring species, designated the National Mammal of the United States in 2016, has come close to extinction-- and great effort is needed to preserve it for future generation. Award-winning journalist Kurt Repanshek traces the history of bison from their Ice Age ancestors to present-day strategies to bring them back to the landscape-- and the biological, political, and cultural hurdles confronting this work. Repanshek explores Native Americans' relationship with bison and presents a forward-thinking approach to returning this keystone species to the West and improving the health of ecosystems.


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Book 333.959643 REP 0 1

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"A much-needed look at the exceptionally fraught relationship between bison and people...engaging and comprehensive."

"A fast-paced and readable look at the recent history and immediate future of bison in the American landscape. Recommended for those interested in conservation efforts, especially in the American West."

"Impressively informative and exceptionally well extraordinary and detailed history of species restoration of paramount importance for community and academic library collections, as well as the personal reading lists of the non-specialist general readers with an interest in the subject."

"A fascinating perspective... Re-Bisoning the West demonstrates the complex relationships the species maintains with the earth and humanity itself."

"Repanshek paints evocative scenes...he describes efforts to protect the last remnants of bison and addresses their conservation status today."

"Kurt Repanshek eloquently lays out the case for how we might bring bison back in sufficient numbers to restore vibrant life on the land. Deep knowledge and cool-headed reasoning inform a narrative for redressing historical wrongs and helping to ensure a palatable way forward."
-- MARY ELLEN HANNIBAL , author of Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction

Award-winning journalist Kurt Repanshek traces the history of bison from the species' near extinction to present-day efforts to bring bison back to the landscape--and the biological, political, and cultural hurdles confronting these efforts. Repanshek explores Native Americans' relationships with bison, and presents a forward-thinking approach to returning bison to the West and improving the health of ecosystems.

Author Notes

Kurt Repanshek, an award-winning journalist whose career stretches into four decades, is well-versed in public lands, wildlife, recreation, and environmental issues. His writing has appeared in Smithsonian , Audubon , National Geographic Traveler , and numerous other periodicals. He is the founder of, the only editorially independent media organization that is dedicated to daily coverage of national parks and protected areas.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Despite the title, Repanshek, editor-in-chief of National Parks Traveler, offers more of a retrospective rather than prospective look at bison in America in this unsatisfying study. He explains that for "tens of thousands of years, and still today, the largest animal on this landscape has been the plains bison," and he paints some evocative scenes describing the animal's existence. With a population as large as 60 million when Columbus reached the New World, bison have been described as, in their heyday, "ecologically functioning biological engineers on the land," capable of making an ecosystem suitable for a host of diverse animal and plant species. This massive population was brought perilously close to extinction in a shockingly short period of time, in the latter half of the 19th century. Repanshek describes early efforts, in the early 20th century, to protect the last remnants of bison, including through interbreeding with domestic cattle, and he addresses their conservation status today. Disappointingly, though Repanshek mentions some of the controversy associated with modern-day bison's mixed genetic status, he does not interview a single member of the opposition to the current conservation approach. Readers looking for insight into how bison might once again become a dominant part of the American environmental scene are likely to feel let down. (Sept.)

Booklist Review

Magazine editor and writer Repanshek takes a long, much-needed look at the exceptionally fraught relationship between bison and people in this engaging and comprehensive report. Some of the ground he covers is necessarily familiar as he chronicles the infamous great slaughter during the construction of the transcontinental railroad, which brought Buffalo Bill and others to fame and almost resulted in the extinction of the animal. The hard work to save the bison undertaken by Theodore Roosevelt and others is highlighted as well, and this is all relevant and interesting. But the book's true success is Repanshek's review of current programs to expand the bison's range, especially the efforts to return the herds to Native American lands, and the political battles being pitched to thwart those efforts. As a keystone species in the West, the bison presents a powerful challenge to those complacent about environmental matters. While the past cannot be ignored, Repanshek is clear in this thoroughly researched title that it is the bison's future that demands our caring attention.--Colleen Mondor Copyright 2010 Booklist



Prologue It was late September, and the night was growing colder in the backcountry of Yellowstone National Park. And growing darker, as well. We had a campfire burning, and a reasonable pile of sticks and branches to feed it until we were ready to call it a night and crawl into our tent. Flickering shadows danced skyward against the lodgepole pine canopy overhead, and a faint glow from the campfire was cast out across the forest floor. Though not our first backpacking trek through the park, there were still the understandably nervous thoughts of grizzlies clacking teeth in the middle of the night. What we didn't count on was the bison. As the animal ambled along the edge of firelight, we couldn't make out in the fading twilight whether it was a bull or a cow. But at a weight of 1,000 pounds or more, male or female, it didn't matter. If it were so inclined, it could inflict serious injuries to us and trample our tent just by turning around. Feeding a few more sticks of wood into the flames, we watched the bison linger at the edge of firelight, and then settle down. For the night. Bison are deceptive. They seem ponderous in their bulk and movements, and their expressionless demeanor lends the notion that they are doltish. But they are quick to defend their young, always conscious of nearby predators, and can turn on a dime and accelerate to 40 mph if needed. The individual next to our campsite was an ancient animal, figuratively. The bison genus stretches back some 2 million years to Asia. It somewhat recently arrived in North America, about 200,000 years ago during glacial periods that dropped sea levels and connected Asia to the land we know today as Alaska via Beringia, a 1,000-mile-long strip that now has been underwater for about 20,000 years. Today's bison don't look too much different from their ancestors. But they are smaller, more compact. We know that because of Walter and Ruth Roman. The couple literally scraped a living from the land with their Lucky Seven Mining Co. Summer into early fall 1979 found the Romans at their placer mine in Pearl Creek above the Chatanika River 16 miles northeast of Fairbanks, Alaska . There they wielded a pressurized hose that spit out a nearly six-inch wide torrent of water used to cut through frozen muck and, hopefully, expose gold-bearing rubble. Known as "hydraulicking," the practice dates to the Roman empire. Miners during the California Gold Rush of the 1850s greatly improved the technology by adding a nozzle that helped create the forceful fountain of water that tears into hillsides. What the modern-day Romans found as they slowly eroded the hillside into muddy torrents in 1979 was not gold, but not entirely invaluable, either . Under their watchful eyes, and the slowly turning hose, the jetted sluice of water raked back and forth across the slope, thawing and then washing away the sediments, pulling rocks and soil and debris from the past 36,000 years away. No gold, but what did appear mired in the muck were the hindquarters of a steppe bison (Bison priscus), jutting out like some massive tree trunk with a tail affixed. It must have been a magnificent animal when breath filled its lungs and blood flowed through its veins and rippled muscles flexed as it walked. Standing almost seven feet tall at the shoulder, and weighing a ton or so, the bull had horns ranging more than three feet from tip to tip. The horns were designed for defense, not show, and, when driven forward by those 2,000 pounds of bone and brawn and fury, they could be particularly effective. The animal's size and strength enabled it to endure on the mammoth steppe of 36,000 years ago. It was a cold, somewhat arid place, covered with grasslands that rolled across the landscape then as they do today in the Great Plains of the United States. Here grew forbs, ground-hugging shrubs, and other forage the great beast could consume and, in turn, transform into muscle. "Blue Babe" shared this landscape with other bison, of course, but also woolly mammoth, musk ox, and horses. And Ice Age American lions. These cats were some of the biggest apex predators on the landscape, much larger than today's relatives. They lacked the manes of African lions, but the males of 36,000 years ago weighed more than 900 pounds--possibly as much as 1,100 pounds. While females were smaller by several hundred pounds, their tendency to hunt in small groups enabled them to overwhelm their prey from all sides and so tilt the battle in their favor. They'd stalk, and charge, take swipes and bites, always searching for a weakness, for an opening to launch a fatal attack. And for that, Blue Babe, the steppe bison, had no chance. It was, in the end, doomed, even though it was itself a formidable beast. In that battle 36,000 years ago, you can envision the bull bison attacked from behind, either by surprise or caught in flight. Claws raked its flanks, teeth pierced the thick hide that bore scars from past battles survived. Even though the bison outweighed the lion by at least 1,000 pounds, and had those massive horns, it was no match. Stumbling to the ground was fatal, as the lion, or lions, tore at the bison's girth, determined to rip through the leathery hide to reach the muscle and organs shielded by the rib cage. It was a battle that attracted scavengers, who patiently waited their turn. But R. Dale Guthrie, a University of Alaska paleontologist the Romans called in to examine their find, was not sure the battle was over so quickly. During a necropsy on the remains, he "found a puncture mark on the snout and blood clot stains on the interior of the nose skin. This hemorrhaging indicated the injury had occurred while Blue Babe was still alive." He noted this in a book he wrote about the discovery, Frozen Fauna of the Mammoth Steppe: The Story of Blue Babe . "Because large bovids have exceptionally thick skin and large muscles on their necks, lions and tigers cannot use their regular neck bite to kill these animals; instead lions actually kill bovines by strangulation. Using claws for a secure hold, a lion will throw a buffalo down and clamp the buffalo's entire nose and mouth in a firm bite or clamp the trachea closed." But the lion lost its grip, Guthrie speculated, and Blue Babe got away. "I thought Blue Babe must have escaped because a large pride of lions would certainly have stayed with the carcass until it was totally eaten," the paleontologist noted. "The successful escape explained incomplete use of the carcass and signs of small animal scavenging." But the damage was done, and the bison eventually collapsed and died. Because so much of the carcass was intact 36,000 years later for the Romans to stumble upon, the paleontologist surmised that Blue Babe died in winter, when bitterly cold temperatures hardened the bison's skin "almost like sheet steel; a heavy, frozen hide is difficult for a predator or scavenger to penetrate." Before spring thaw could soften the skin, bloat the carcass, and spew the odors that would bring the predators and scavengers back, sediments buried Blue Babe, very possibly in one large swoosh by a muddy torrent unleashed by snowmelt. More layers were added and then frozen, a process that was repeated, locking the bison's remains in permafrost, out of reach of predators and scavengers. When the Romans reached out to Guthrie in July 1979 to determine what they had found, he was astounded by the find. "Like all good things, the frozen bison was a mixed blessing. It certainly caught me at an awkward time," he said. "I was getting ready to leave for a year's sabbatical in Europe, and other constraints made the time seem terribly short. Roman was near the end of his summer cleanup, and he needed to finish sluicing before water ran out or froze up. Frozen silt surrounding the bison was in the way, but Roman was able to wash out around the bison and gave us a few weeks' grace to excavate the mummy." As Guthrie, assisted by his wife and son, walked up to the muddy wall from which the well-preserved bison protruded, he was struck by the smell, "a rich, pungent rottenness, like nothing else I have smelled. "It was a rottenness aged for millennia in the frost--not a stench, but a sweet, intense tang," he recalled. Though smelly, the 36,000-year-old animal was not completely rotten. The preservation of the find, the seeming freshness of it, Guthrie told a gathering at the 32nd Alaska Science Conference in 1981, was simply astounding. "Red meat in the mud. It is really a dramatic thing to all of a sudden fall into your lap, to see this coming out--an animal that no longer exists, with black hair, wool, and fat." Though it did smell after its long internment, Guthrie sampled the 36,000-year-old meat. It tasted, he said, a bit like jerky. Dubbed "Blue Babe" after the mythical Paul Bunyan's oversized ox, as well as for the bluish hue left on the bison's skin from a chemical reaction between minerals in the surrounding soil, phosphorous from the skin and air, the bison was just one of the ancestors of today''s bison. Coexisting with it for a time, but eventually succeeding it, was the Ice Age bison (Bison latifrons), or long-horned bison, a massive beast at more than eight feet tall and over two tons. It shared the landscape for about 100,000 years with Bison antiquus. Then arrived Bison occidentals, and finally, today's Bison bison. Collectively, the various subspecies demonstrated how, down through the millennia, bison populations rose and fell, victims of both climate change and predation, by both four- and two-legged predators. Their numbers and physiques evolved with the times, standing large and massive when the climate was suitable for seasons that produced plentiful vegetation, and shrinking, becoming smaller and less hulking during glacial periods when forage was comparatively scarce. Early man revered bison much as we do today. Paintings adorning the walls of caves at Altamira, Spain, are bold, handsome depictions of bison. Many of those depictions, some of which are life-size, were done in life-mimicking pigments. Ochre, hematite, and manganese were used alone, or diluted or mixed with other substances to produce the various shades of color. Further respect for the animals was displayed by the artist's use of uneven wall contours, which added some heft to the paintings. But the animals also were hunted, even 36,000 years ago. When Blue Babe was being attacked by that lion, in Europe, "Neanderthal families were still lounging on bison robes beside their fires, eating bison that closely resembled Blue Babe," Guthrie tells us. That idolization of, and reliance upon, bison came with humans to North America. Bison were the equivalent of today's groceries, offering hunters food, shelter, clothing, fuel, ornamentation. Hides became tepees, robes, and "bull boats," ribs became runners for sledges, while sinews launched arrows from bows. And, of course, the meat was the richest protein around. On the Great Plains, bison were akin to deities, perhaps rightfully so considering the reliance tribes placed on them. "The buffalo represents the people and the universe and should always be treated with respect, for was he not here before the two-legged peoples, and is he not generous in that he gives us our home and our food?" recalled Black Elk, an Oglala Sioux holy man. "The buffalo is wise in many things, and, thus, we should learn from him and should always be as a relative with him." But predators, particularly those with two legs and white skin, greatly decimated bison in the 19th century, pushing them to the brink of extinction. So great and widespread were the killing fields that a Paiute medicine man, Wovoka, near the end of the 19th century instructed his people to perform a dance that he maintained would drive the whites from the landscape. Once that was achieved, the earth would be born anew as it was before whites came West with, most notably, endless herds of bison. The revival of the Ghost Dance by Wovoka came from a heady vision, one he claimed he had during the total solar eclipse of January 1, 1889, that involved past dead returning to Earth while whites were swallowed by it. But the return of bison was not spawned by his vision or Ghost Dance rituals. Rather, they came back largely, but not entirely, through the efforts of four men who saw the end coming and worked to prevent it. A convergence of a small number of players--surprising when you consider how sparsely populated the West was at the turn of the 20th century--with a rich, diverse pool of bison genetics stretching from Texas to Montana and from Alberta to New Hampshire affected the species' destiny. The four central players each had oversized personalities; they were proud of their accomplishments, and not ashamed to let them go unnoticed. Each of the four would come to recognize the fate confronting bison, and work to see the animals avoided it. To a large degree, they succeeded in seeing bison numbers rebound. Not to the millions that once roamed the West, but to hundreds of thousands that seemingly protect the species from vanishing. Today national parks, from Canada's Wood Buffalo in the Northwest Territories far south to Yellowstone and on down even to Grand Canyon, feature bison on the landscape. But a century after efforts to preserve bison began, the species faces a puzzling predicament. Though sheer population numbers early in the 21st century showed an estimated 500,000 bison on the North American landscape, the lack of genetic purity had some conservationists arguing that the species needed the protection of the Endangered Species Act to survive. Otherwise, they'd vanish. Excerpted from Rebisoning the West: Returning an American Icon to the Landscape by Kurt Repanshek All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.