Return of the Ché: Ancient Animals in an Industrial Landscape
In 1859, Robert White Cloud, an Ioway, was interviewed by the ethnologist Lewis Henry Morgan: “He says they also regard the buffalo as a god. . . . He said the Indian believed the buffalo after being killed and eaten by him had power to cover his bones again with flesh and come to life again, and that he did thus come to life again after being killed.”
-Lance Foster (Ioway)
The number of plains bison in North America before the arrival of Europeans can never be known precisely. Estimates have ranged from 20 to 100 million, but even the low end of that range suggests an impressive number. Prior to 1800, the population of plains bison fluctuated, with drought as well as predation by animals and Indians keeping the number in check. In the nineteenth century, the arrival of White settlers, their cattle, and the railroad brought the bison close to extinction; according to Princeton historian Andrew C. Isenberg, only a couple hundred remained in the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Since then, the bison – Ché to the Ioway – have been making a comeback across the prairie-plains region. Part of their comeback has occurred thanks to the efforts of private individuals and state and federal governments to create preserves where bison can live and reproduce in safety. In Iowa, the Neal Smith NWR near Prairie City has the largest protected herd in the state. Equally important has been a growing interest in bison as a source of lean red meat, significantly lower in fat and cholesterol than beef. Responding to this interest, ranchers and farmers across the Midwest and West have embarked on “the bison business.” Dozens of commercial herds are now found in Iowa, some as small as twenty animals but others numbering in the hundreds.
In the fall of 2011, Kayla Koether, a Grinnell College senior from McGregor, Iowa, undertook a study of bison rearing in Iowa as a senior thesis for her independent major, “International Agriculture and Rural Development,” co-directed by Professors Kathy Jacobson (Biology) and Jon Andelson (Anthropology). Kayla presented her thesis findings, based on interviews with refuge managers and private bison owners, on January 31. You can read her paper here.