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A bison tale: From the Bronx Zoo to the Osage Nation

On March 22, 24 bison from the Bronx Zoo were released onto the Osage Nation Ranch, a journey that was 100 years in the making

One hundred and fifteen years ago, 15 bison were packed into crates then loaded onto a Wells Fargo Express passenger train at Fordham Station in the Bronx to begin what must have been an unpleasant 1,858-mile trip from New York City to Cache, Oklahoma.

“Naturally, the effect that two carloads of Buffaloes were being sent from a crowded eastern city back to the southern Buffalo range, attracted great attention; and in Oklahoma, the interest of the public reached the highest pitch,” say minutes of the American Bison Society dated 1907.

Upon their arrival at the former Kiowa/Comanche/Apache reservation that President Theodore Roosevelt had designated as the country’s first game preserve, the six bulls and nine cows were sprayed with crude oil in an effort to prevent them from becoming infested with cattle ticks. After such an insult, they balked at the idea of backing out of their crates, which had to be dismantled to free them.

The Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge still exists and has supplied the Osage Nation with many of the approximately 185 bison that now roam 3,000 acres on the Osage Nation Ranch.

In late January, the ranch had a reprise of sorts, receiving the first shipment of bison in Oklahoma from the Bronx Zoo since 1907: Three bulls and three cows that this time arrived by truck instead of train – and blissfully were not showered with a welcome-wagon of crude oil.

In the dead of night on March 22, 18 more bison trucked in, this time creatures who had wandered off Yellowstone National Park and wound up in the protective custody of Colorado State University. Soon all will be released, bringing the number grazing on the Osage Nation Ranch to 210 or so.

Twenty-four bison from the Bronx Zoo were released onto the Osage Nation Ranch on March 22. LOUISE RED CORN/Osage News

From ranch to preserve

­­It has been six years since the Nation bought media mogul Ted Turner’s 43,000-acre Bluestem Ranch, and just now the bison part of the operation is about to enter a new chapter in its history: It is becoming a bison preserve, to be spun off from the for-profit ranch and reorganized under the Osage Nation Department of Natural Resources.

The details are still being worked out, but the preserve will cover 3,000 acres to start and perhaps grow from there, said Jason George, the business development specialist for the Osage DNR who was deeply involved in the Bronx transfer.

The change means that bison will not be slaughtered for profit, although some in the herd will still be killed and their meat used if bison need to be culled for some reason: Age, genetics, overpopulation, or to control the bull to cow ratio, for instance.

“You can’t just take them and kill them or sell them,” said Galen Crum, the former chair of Osage Nation Ranch LLC who is now a consultant since that board was dissolved and put under Osage LLC.

“The board decided we’d run our buffalo herd as a conservation herd. We run them pretty much natural –  as natural as you can on fenced pasture.

“The only ones we’re going to remove are to cull.”

Crum figures that 3,000 acres will support about 250 bison.

Crum worked with the program at Colorado State to obtain bison who wandered out of Yellowstone, upsetting cattle ranchers who feared they might infect cattle with brucellosis, a bacterial disease that causes cows to miscarry, or mycoplasma bovis, a deadly respiratory bacterial disease.

“They got in touch with me about wanting us to take some,” Crum said. “They have a herd of 150 or so. I told them we could only take about 30.”

The university sent 18, all of whom have been in a lengthy quarantine and show no sign of sickness.

Ecological keystones

George said that turning the bison into a conservation herd also means that the Nation will study the ecological impact of bison, a subject that is dear to Cristina Mormorunni, the regional director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Rocky Mountain Program – and the woman who connected Osages with leaders at the Bronx Zoo.

Bison are cultural keystones, but Mormorunni said that there is increasing evidence that they are also ecological keystones with a remarkable capacity to restore grasslands to good health.

A 2019 study on the Blackfeet Reservation examined the health of soil on prairie that had been grazed by bison compared to land grazed by cattle, she said. Where bison grazed, the soil was much healthier; bison manure, it appeared, had created a sort of earthy microbiome that affected carbon levels in the soil that could help reverse climate change.

“It’s all about poop, everyone,” Mormorunni said. “Their hooves churn the earth and what’s in their poop brings microbes back to the soil, which in turn brings back beneficial insects.

“In their wake come healthier soil, grass, beaver, all sorts of things.”

Black and white photograph of a huge, towering pile of bison skulls to be used for fertilizer expanding in every direction. A man stands in front of the pile, resting one foot atop a bison skull, with another figure mirroring his pose from the top of the pile. Ca. 1870. From Collection of Kenyon College

A remarkable comeback, but not enough

These days, there are about 430,000 bison in North America, but less than 10 percent of those are in the wild.

Back in 1907, when the first Bronx bison arrived at the Wichita Mountains reserve near Cache, Okla., fewer than 1,000 American bison remained in the United States – down from 30 million to 60 million in the late 1700s.

In the early 1900s, only 25 of those bison lived in the wild, according to a bison census published at the time by the American Bison Society.

Their slaughter had been legion, engineered by the U.S. government to rid the land of a major food source for Native Americans.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Bronx Zoo was at the forefront of the effort to bring back the animal thanks to the leadership of its first director, William T. Hornaday.

Hornaday was a taxidermist who became transformed into a conservationist because of the appalling bison slaughter. The New York Zoological Society – today called the Wildlife Conservation Society – tapped him to create a world-class zoo, an opportunity he seized to acquire 40 bison to breed.

He was also instrumental in forming the American Bison Society, a then-powerful organization that lobbied for protection and the expansion of bison preserves until it was disbanded in 1935. (It was revived by the WCS in 2005 to continue its original mission.)

A movement across Indian Country

In 1991, 19 tribes gathered in the Black Hills of South Dakota to put aside their differences for a common goal: To bring back bison to Native land. The following year, they formed the Intertribal Buffalo Council, and a movement began.

“To reestablish healthy buffalo populations on tribal lands is to reestablish hope for Indian people,” the ITBC says on its website.

The group obtained federal funding, set up headquarters in Rapid City, S.D., and got to work. Thirty years later, more than 60 tribes, including Osage, are members, and the council has spearheaded the return of 20,000 bison on almost a million acres of Indian land in 19 states.

It’s a start, but Mormorunni of the Wildlife Conservation Society wants so much more.

“We celebrate the bison, but they are ecologically extinct,” she said. “We don’t have that many buffalo and we certainly don’t have significant free-roaming herds.

“I’d be excited about 30 million buffalo. Why not? It’s great that we have buffalo out there but there’s so much more that we owe that relative.”

Mormorunni, who is of Métis descent, said the Osage ranch presented a ripe opportunity to further a growing movement in Indian Country to “re-wild” bison.

“Forty-thousand acres is nothing to sneeze at in terms of conservation,” she said. Because of the influx of federal money into the Osage Nation, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, relationships between conservationists and the tribe’s leaders – Chief Standing Bear, Natural Resources Director Jann Hayman, Director of Operations Casey Johnson, DNR’s Jason George, and others –  were built through the mad-dash effort to build Butcher House Meats, the Nation’s new meat processing facility in Hominy.

“The seed was sown,” Moromunni said. “I was like, ‘I like you! What can we do together?’”

The WCS owns five zoos and has conservation programs worldwide, so Mormorunni took matters up directly.

“I flew to New York and sat with the assistant director (of the Bronx Zoo) and said, ‘You have too many bison and the Osage are really interested in increasing their herd.”

The solution was obvious: Send the extras to the Osage Nation.

Twenty-four bison from the Bronx Zoo were released onto the Osage Nation Ranch on March 22. LOUISE RED CORN/Osage News

A cultural connection

Roger Fragua, President of Cota Holdings, a consulting firm that supports tribal community and economic development, was hired by the Osage Nation to help with what he calls “Mission: Impossible” – getting Butcher House built, licensed and operating in seven months.

He was immediately enthusiastic about­ the bison transfer from the Bronx Zoo and offered to drive them through the streets of Manhattan then to Oklahoma.

“They let me know, ‘Roger, you’re not the guy.’

“I’m still a little wounded.”

Having grown up in the Jemez Pueblo of New Mexico, bison were a huge part of his cultural and spiritual upbringing, as they remain today.

He said his first awareness of the bison’s relationship with the Osage was when, in 2018, a photo of five Osage chiefs was taken. As the chiefs stood on a ridge at the Tallgrass Prairie, several bison strolled up behind them and hundreds more grazed in the background.

“The bison came right to them” Fragua said. “I just knew intuitively that the Osage are real with their cultural connection to the bison.

“The bison coming out of the Bronx is an Osage story.”

A story, Mormorunni hopes, that will be passed down for generations – with the help of the bison themselves.

And also, with the help of the Bronx Zoo, which is sending a crew to the Osage Nation to film a documentary about the rehoming of the bison on the ranch – a story Mormorunni sees as one of hope for the future.

“Humanity is pretty clearly going down, but there’s a chance that we can wake up and turn it around,” she said.

“What really inspired me is what I heard from Osage leaders, that these animals are a keystone culturally and ecologically, and they can create a different future for the Osage Nation, its homeland and those grasslands.”

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Louise Red Cornhttps://osagenews.org
Louise Red Corn has suffered from wanderlust for decades: She has lived and worked as a journalist and photographer in Rome, Italy, New York City, Detroit, Kentucky, Mississippi and Oklahoma, where she published The Bigheart Times for 12 years. She loves diving in-depth into just about any topic but is especially fond of covering legal issues, perhaps because her parents were both lawyers. She is married to Assistant Principal Chief Raymond Red Corn, who enticed her to move to the Osage Reservation in 2004. She and her husband live south of Pawhuska with one extremely large dog named Max, one extremely energetic dog named Pepper, and, if he bothers to make an appearance, a surly cat named Stinky.
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