In prehistoric times, millions of bison roamed North America — from the forests of Alaska and the grasslands of Mexico to Nevada’s Great Basin and the eastern Appalachian Mountains. But by the late 1800s, there were only a few hundred bison left in the United States after European settlers pushed west, reducing the animal’s habitat and hunting the bison to near extinction. Had it not been for a few private individuals working with tribes, states and the Interior Department, the bison would be extinct today.From the US Department of Interior blog
I have made the American bison my totem. This majestic bovid, the largest mammal on the continent, is powerful and moody and unpredictable. Bison are stunningly calm up close, and yet they can quickly rise with pique and flatten a car.
I never considered the beast before now, though I remember seeing the diorama on my many trips to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. It depicts a Wyoming prairie in the mid-1800’s, teeming with wild bison shortly before the “great slaughter.” The scene showcases their grandeur, their oddity, their warmth, and their enormity. I read they found prehistoric fossils that put an ancestor’s horn at 9 feet, tip to tip. Though I can sit here and try to describe their majesty, to experience it is better.
Luckily, a small group of caring individuals saved the bison from extinction, so the herd population is growing again. Though their lifespan is about twenty years, the cow starts having babies at the age of two, and as of today, about 10,000 bison inhabit public parks across America. They’re making a comeback.
I suppose my reason for thinking about the bison is related to my current location. I moved to San Francisco last week, choosing a neighborhood that suited my needs, not realizing I couldn’t have planned any spot better than where I landed. Golden Gate Park is across the street and Ocean Beach is a few blocks west and I’m a short bike ride from the Sutro Baths and Lands End. But one of the most fascinating stops within walking distance is the Bison Paddock in the park. Thus, my new fascination.
I almost fell off my bicycle the day I rode past the pasture with the grazing herd of bison. They were so out of place, so unexpected, as rare as they are, I was giddy. The following day I went for my morning jog through the park on my way to the beach and passed them again. This time I was even closer, on the opposite side of the paddock, half a mile from my home.
I’ve seen them almost everyday since moving in. I named them Bob. I suppose I’ve assigned meaning to my bison sighting because it reminds me I am rare, too. That I can see the bison today, knowing they were almost hunted to extinction, reminds me my existence is fragile. No one owes us time, and we can’t earn more. The hours are precious, and so are we.
If you forget that, go find your bison. Seek out the sights that remind you of your rarity. My outlook has improved since my first sighting, since paying witness to the simple propagation of a fantastic beast I almost missed due to man-made extinction. All I can think is thank goodness for everyday miracles.