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Rare White Bison Born in Connecticut Brings New Attention to the Iconic Animals

Like the American bison, the European bison was saved from extinction by captive breeding.

Bison, the iconic creatures that are the largest North American land mammal, have been newsworthy in Connecticut because of a rare white calf born at a Goshen farm last month. For some Native Americans who consider a white bison sacred, the birth is an event to be celebrated and many of them are visiting the farm of Peter Fay, where the extraordinary bull was born.

Coincidentally, as the white bull is celebrated, Congress is considering naming the bison, or buffalo, the national mammal, partnering with our national bird, the bald eagle.

It is a fair assumption that most Americans are familiar with the bison and the fact that millions of them — some estimates say 60 million in all — roamed the western half of North America. About a half million of them inhabited woodlands farther east, as far as Alabama, Pennsylvania and — as the city of Buffalo testifies — western New York. The last bison in the Northeast were slaughtered during the winter of 1799-1800 by Pennsylvania farmers after a panicked herd stampeded over a settler’s cabin, crushing his wife and three children.

Today, about a half million bison exist, most in private ownership but about 30,000 living wild in places like Yellowstone National  Park and Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park. Bison were saved from extinction by last-minute action of a few early conservationists, notably Theodore Roosevelt. With Bronx Zoo Director William Hornaday, he spearheaded formation of the American Bison Society, which met for the first time in 1905 at the Bronx Zoo’s lion house.

Had it not been for the zoo in the Bronx, where I was based for several years while a curator of the New York Zoological Society (NYZS), there might be no bison on the western prairies today. A few bison were rounded up at the turn of the last century from stragglers on the plains and private collections, then brought to the newly opened Bronx Zoo. There, they were bred in captivity. In 1907, a train carrying 15 Bronx-bred bison carried them to a preserve in Oklahoma, and restocking of the West began.

In 2005, the American Bison Society, which had disbanded, was revived by the
organization that evolved from the NYZS and operates the Bronx Zoo, the Wildlife Conservation Society. Its aim is to promote more restoration of wild bison in their former habitat.

Experienced zookeepers are especially careful when working with bison. A bison can be as aggressive and dangerous as a fighting bull. When an individual bison is out to get someone, it can maneuver for advantage like a skilled street fighter. I once was in a paddock with a big bison bull that took a dislike to me. When my eyes were on him, he remained still but each time I looked elsewhere, he deliberately tried to edge between me and the only exit from the paddock. Figuring out his intentions, I quickly exited as he pawed the ground and snorted.

Before he met his end at the Little Bighorn, General George Custer was so panicked by the ferocious charge of a bison he was hunting that he shot his own horse and landed on the ground. He was able to meet his date with destiny a decade later because the bison, as if brushing off Custer's undignified conduct, turned around and left the scene.

The American bison has a cousin in Europe. The European bison, which was painted on the walls of European caves by Late Pleistocene artists, is a rangier, humpless version of the American species. Unlike the American bison, a grazer, the European bison is more adapted for forest living and primarily browses.

Like the American bison, its European counterpart was saved from extinction by captive breeding. About 3,000 European bison remain, about half of them in the wild. During the 1970s, I was able to see the most notable wild herd, which lives in the Bialowieza Forest, which straddles the border of Poland and what was then the Soviet Union. Like the bison which inhabits it, the forest is a last
survivor, a fragment of the great primeval woodlands that once covered most of
central Europe.

In the dawn drizzle of a cold October morning, I stood among great trees, centuries old, and peered through the mists at a huge, dark mass in the middle of a meadow. The mist thinned and a great, shaggy beast appeared, raised its shaggy head, and looked at me. For a moment, it stood there, then turned away and, with rolling gait, disappeared into fog and trees. In the great silence of that forest, I felt a kinship to the prehistoric people who hunted that great beast’s ancestors and recorded them on the canvas of rock in the belly of caves.

(This is my last Outdoors With Ed Ricciuti column for Patch. For those of you who have read my columns during the past year or so, thanks.
— Ed Ricciuti)

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