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Posts Tagged ‘American bison’

bison and calf

The name of the killer has been lost to the annals of history.  All we know is that he killed, and then there were none.

The whole story has been nothing more than a footnote in one forgotten chapter of wildlife in America. What follows is my conjecture about what happened:

The year was 1825. The bison cow and calf wandered down along wide valley.  They were wary beasts, for their kind had been slaughtered relentlessly in these mountains for 50 years.  For the past two decades, the only ones that remained were those that lived in these high mountains and knew how to hide their massive forms in steep hollows when the scent of man crossed their noses.

The pair had been the last survivors of herd that was massacred two weeks before. Buffle hides were demand, and there were mountain men who would oblige the market.

It is easy to blame the hunters for their rapacity, but the resource seemed inexhaustible. In the early days, every one that was shot was soon replaced by another three that came filtering in from west.

And it was that way until these early decades of the republic, when all that remained were these cagey mountain bison that watched every step they took and hid themselves in the deepest redoubts of the Alleghenies.

Two weeks before, a trio of hide hunters stumbled onto the herd in the deep mountains south of where Elkins, West Virginia, now stands.

They wandered the rugged valley that is carved by the Tygart Valley River during the gentle months of spring, when the green grass grew beautiful and sweet.

But that day, the hide hunters came up from the Shenandoah Valley. The older two had trapped beaver the great land of Kentucky before running back to the settled country in the east. They traded in fur and hides, but upon hearing rumors of the last herds of bison in these mountains, they packed up and headed into the Alleghenies, bringing along one of their sons who had been yearning for a bit of adventure.

The hunters spent ten days tracking the herd, and one morning, the son just happened to bump a bull and two cows off a mineral lick. The bison ran deep into a mountain hollow, and when the son tried followed them, he could hear the hoofbeats of many bison deep down in the hollow.

He raced back to tell his father and his father’s partner about the find, and the men loaded up with balls and gun powder and began their approach into the back side of the hollow, where the hillside was steep and the bison would be helpless down below.

There were seven bison down in the hollow. Three cows, two young calves, a subadult bull, and mature bull were nibbling on some forest browse.

The partner was a better shot than the others, so he positioned himself where his shots would fire across the mouth of the hollow. That way, he could shoot sling lead at any bison that tried to leave. The father and son positioned themselves where they could open fire on the whole herd below.

The balls sailed through the air, and in those days before breech-loading rifles, it took many shots to drop five bison.

They fell bloody and dead. The men set to work cutting the hides and then loading their mules for the long trudge back to Staunton and the Great Valley.

A cow and calf ran long out of the hollow and ran and ran until they could no longer hear the gun shots and shouts of men.

For two weeks they roamed is renegades in the mountains, but hunger and the sweet scent of spring grass brought the pair down into the little head of the Tygart’s Valley.

And it was there that an unnamed hunter, perhaps in need of a little meat or yearning for a bit of brass from the buffle hide, slipped down along the laurel that grew thick along the headwaters.  It took six shots to drop the cow, and the cow was down in two.

This hunter had no idea what he had just done. He’d killed a bison or two before in his life, and he knew their numbers were getting scarcer and scarcer in the mountains. But he knew if he waited a few years, another herd or two would mosey back in, and the hide hunting could continue.

But he was wrong.

What no one knew at the time was that this hunter had killed the last two bison in the Original 13 Colonies. And when those two fell, no more herds filtered in from the west. No more hidden bison herds were revealed in some remote hollow or valley.

This animal had carved much of the early infrastructure of what became West Virginia. The bison originally grazed the High Alleghenies in summer then marched west out of the high country when the snows came.  They would travel so far west as to hit the Ohio River, where the winters were milder. They would mosey east every spring to eat the good mountain grasses, and over the years, bovine inertia would carve vast trails coming out of the mountains towards the Ohio.

The indigenous people of these mountains would use these trails as their roads, and European settlers used them too. They would later use big gangs of slaves to clear the trails and turn them into roads that could take a horse or oxcart, and thus, the land was opened for settlement.

Fur trappers took the bison hides and ate the meat.  The homesteaders shot them because they gored horses and torn down split-rail fences.

And soon the bison numbers began to dwindle.

It was the bison the licked the salt from licks in the Kanawha Valley. Hide and market hunters followed them to these big licks, and soon discovered massive deposits of brine. In the years before the Civil War, large numbers of slaves worked the salt works, and these salt works became the basis for the massive chemical industry.

Near the confluence of the Kanawha River and Campbell’s Creek was a massive mineral lick, called the Great Buffalo Lick. It was there that hunters knew to wait for the great beasts and blast them away, and others knew that they could come down collect some salt for the homesteads.

The death of these two bison meant the end for a beast that helped forge so much of what became West Virginia.

No one really talks of bringing back bison, though there are few people who keep them for the novelty meat market.  Large bovines are hard to live with. They are aggressive and dangerous. They spread diseases to cattle, and they gore horses, tear down fences, and run off with brood cows.

They will never roam as wild animals here, and even if they were returned, they would be put on some state management land and then be micromanaged as if they were nothing more than free range cattle.

The bison will never roam this land as wild animals again. They are gone.  And we killed them.

It was a sin made in ignorance, but it was a sin nonetheless.

I sometimes stand in the secondary growth forests that have taken over much of West Virginia when the scores of farm families gave up the land for life in the industrial cities of the Midwest. The forests are thick and thorny. The trails that cut through the hills are carved by white-tailed deer moving through the countryside.  They are narrow trails, where even a short person like myself gets caught on the overhanging limbs and branches.

But I know when the bison were here, the forests were more open. They browsed up high. Their trails were like roads going through the woodland. They also kept big swaths of the land open through their constant grazing.

Land now is kept open only by the mowing machine and the odd stockman who keeps a few head of cows or sheep on some played out pasture.

The forest has all gone to thicket and thorn. It is not the same as it was those centuries before.

It is a land without its big beast, and if you listen carefully, you can hear it mourning.

Yes, it is mourning the passage of the great buffle and the inertia of its hoofbeats and browsing maw.

And so goes the story of the last wild bovine in the Alleghenies, barely a footnote in the annals of history.

But it was so much more.

 

 

 

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Bison calves

European bison (wisent) are born the same color as the adults:

American bison are born golden pelts:

Of course, American bison calves are much prettier.

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