Opinion | Why We Should Bring Back the Buffalo

Native tribes — whose lives had been physically and spiritually intertwined with the buffalo for more than 10,000 years, before their sacred connection was so abruptly severed more than a century ago — are doing the most significant restoration work. The InterTribal Buffalo Council, whose membership now includes 83 tribes in 23 states, has already returned approximately 20,000 buffalo to their ancestral homelands.

If anyone doubts that the trajectory is now pointing in the right direction, consider this. One hundred and fifty years ago, during the hide hunters’ final frenzy of annihilation, Columbus Delano, who was then the secretary of the interior, proclaimed that the buffalo’s eradication would be a good thing for the nation, principally “in its effect on the Indians.” Now the bison has been officially designated our national mammal, and the department’s top official, Deb Haaland, is a Native American with ambitious plans to restore larger herds on more reservations. Her $25 million initiative will also support projects that combine bison restoration with grassland restoration, making large swaths of the prairies healthier and helping them store more carbon to combat climate change. Other federal agencies, like the Forest Service and the Department of Agriculture, are also supporting the revival.

All of this is good news at a time when that’s hard to find. But these exciting initiatives risk losing momentum without an infusion of public and private philanthropic investment that can dramatically increase the scale of what’s been started.

At a larger scale, these combined efforts can be a much-needed redemptive act of healing: for the grassland ecology, for Indigenous food security and cultural preservation, and for the nation at large. It will show that “The American Buffalo,” the “biography” of the animals that Ken Burns and I have recounted in a PBS documentary and in a book, is actually a story that is still being written. It is crucial but unfinished business.

As the environmental historian Dan Flores told us, “You don’t get a lot of chances to correct history’s mistakes. You get a few. And when you get them, you damn sure better take advantage of them. I think we’ve got an opportunity to do this with buffalo. And if we do, I think America can look back on its history and say, ‘We got wise.’”

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