Penn State Bisontennial

Females Are Off the Pill
To Save Historical Herd

When bison from the Lehigh County’s heritage was introduced to Schnecksville, Pennsylvania, one hundred years ago, the animal was still associated to its iconic role in the conquest of the West and visceral connection to native American culture. By then, the 50-plus million population that early Europeans settlers had encountered in North America was already considerably reduced and by 1890, the species was on the verge of extinction. It took an orchestrated, multinational effort to protect it, nurture it and reintroduce it to a wide range of regions throughout the continent, to assure its survival.
It’s ironic that it was an avid hunter, Gen. Harry Trexler, who led such efforts in the East in 1911. From then on, the bison faced overpopulation, poaching and disease before starting to thrive again. In the mid-century, as herd numbers stabilized, programs to manage its growth were ultimately successful in establishing the current figures of about 500 thousand heads, split mostly between the U.S. and Canada.
At the 1,108-acre public Trexler Nature Preserve, though, the century-old historic herd has been reduced to only nine females, which has prompted it to develop a new program to make sure it’ll survive. That’s why the cows are being taken off the pill.
But since that in itself doesn’t guarantee they’ll be able to conceive, other steps have been taken to help the dominant male to get to work, say, under optimal conditions. That includes the possible addition of more fertile cows, the building of a new 9.5-acre “honeymoon suite,” periodically rotating the herd through different fresh grass patches and other measures.
For such a tame but undomesticated animal, the connection between human beings and the bison is surprisingly nuanced and not altogether rosy. For native Americans, the animal represented a food source, a cultural icon, and a metaphor for its own survival. When the U.S. government decided to encourage the killing of the animals by hunters, even that such decision was taken based on the mistaken assumption that the herds were somehow unlimited, the idea was also to drive the natives to ever smaller regions. The mass killing of bison equated to the mass starvation of indians for several decades of the 19th century.
Fortunately for the latter, that cruel misperception evolved and changed; but for the animals, not so much. Instead of natives, bison began to be hunted by every settler who’d take pride in killing them mostly for pleasure, not nourishment, and often from the window of a train in movement. Despite the considerable value of its carcass and hides at that time, most animals were shot and left to rot by the railroad.
Going back 200 years, too, it’s in everybody’s minds that brutal picture of bison being driven off a cliff supposedly by indigenous peoples who lived in North America about five thousand years ago. There’s no definitive study connecting such people with later generations of natives that roamed this land, except for a few artifacts and customs that resembled the ancient ritual. The image is indeed gripping, the habit seems to have existed in some form until the time when early settlers appeared, but the whole culture to which is was based has been lost for centuries.
That’s all in the past, of course, and as far as the carnage is concerned, not a century too early. There are two things, though, that remain current, even though one is erroneous in concept, and the other one never seems to catch on. It’s wrong to call this North American animal a buffalo, which is a relative, for sure, but does not belong to the same bovine subspecies. Also, meat producers have been for years trying to make it into a staple of the burger loving crowd, with not much success. Perhaps because their main selling point, that bison meat is leaner than beef, is an argument better swallowed by people who don’t care for meat anymore.

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