In early May, from the door of my partner’s yurt in the southern end of Grand Teton National Park, real life looks like this: there is a meadow turned vibrant with sudden spring grass, and beyond that a stand of cottonwood trees, and beyond that green-purple sage until the Earth rears back on itself and makes the snow-blanketed Rocky Mountains.
Four old bison bulls—my partner claims to know them by sight—have returned to the meadow, as they do every year, to make the most of the long grass against the edge of his yurt. Their faces press in at his window; their unmovable bulks occupy the path to his greenhouse; their breath comes like something steam-powered.
Up close, especially up this close, the bulls are enormous: shoulders like tanks, heads like the dishes on a snowplough, feet like hoes. And although they seem supernaturally placid, there are warning signposts throughout the parks (Yellowstone and Grand Teton, although two separate parks, are geographically and ecologically linked): BEWARE, BISON ARE VERY UNPREDICTABLE AND CAN BE DANGEROUS. Other signposts show their athletic credentials: 2,000 POUNDS, SPRINTING SPEED 30MPH.
My partner is an artist, known locally for his landscapes, but he has yet to put a bison in one of his paintings. “They’re not a part of me yet.” In spite of living for seven years as close to wild bison as probably any human on the planet, he says they remain a mystery to him. “One day they’ll be here,” he says. “Fifty or a hundred of them, milling all over the place, and the next day they’ve disappeared.”
Disappearing is something bison have been doing with unintentional alacrity for the last half-millennium. In the 1500s there were 30m-60m bison roaming the American plains. In 1830 the mass extermination of bison herds began, and it continued apace until the end of the century. Their bones were crushed and used to refine sugar, and in the manufacture of fine bone china and fertiliser; their hides were tanned; their tongues sold. By 1872, the year Yellowstone became the first national park in the world, 5,000 bison were being killed every day. By 1884 there were only about 325 bison left in North America, including just 25 in Yellowstone National Park.
Native-American tribes that had relied on bison for their livelihoods suffered a corresponding, not altogether coincidental, decline. On May 10th 1868, General William T. Sherman wrote to his friend and comrade-in-arms, General Sheridan, “I think it would be wise to invite all the sportsmen of England and America…for a Grand Buffalo hunt, and make one grand sweep of them all. Until the Buffalo and consequently Indians are out…we will have collisions and trouble.”
Today, approximately 500,000 bison live across North America. But most of these have been cross-bred with cattle, and are semi-domesticated. There are fewer than 4,900 genetically pure, free-ranging bison left. All of them live in and around Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks.
In early November, winter has come with its usual decisive blow, sheeting the meadow in front of the yurt in snow. The bison that were here last week have trundled north to the hot pots and geysers in Yellowstone. There, state and federal wildlife managers have announced their plan to slaughter 900 bison in an ongoing effort to reduce numbers to a target population of 3,000. That is the number, they say, not without vociferous opposition, that the range left to them can support.