As It Were: Once in the millions and reduced to hundreds, bison are back

·4 min read

Traveling west on U.S. Route 36 from Delaware, Marysville and points east, one is immediately struck by how much rich open farmland remains in rural Ohio.

This land was met with astonishment by early settlers from the East. Many people from New England had become convinced that the only real crop in their world was rock, which is from whence all of those picturesque stone fences were made. Arriving in Ohio, one found topsoil that was 4 to 6 feet deep. That soil repeatedly produced fine fields of wheat, corn and other crops.

Ed Lentz
Ed Lentz

That land still does just that.

The rich soil of Ohio also provides grass and provender to a wide variety of wild and domesticated livestock. Driving along Route 36, one will see groups of domestic cattle, horses, sheep, swine and even an occasional llama herd. And as one approaches Urbana, a field of grazing bison can be seen.

It is a remarkable sight.

At one time, when the Ohio Country was first explored by French, Spanish and English colonists in the 1700s, large herds of bison were still present in Ohio. They were complemented by equally large herds of elk and deer, as well as by immense flocks of pigeons that often blackened the sky for hours as they few past.

Ohio was a wonderland of deep forests, plains of shoulder-high grasses and dozens of clear streams and rivers. With relatively few people and fewer natural predators, a lot of animals and plants prospered here. And of all of them, the Ohio wood bison was perhaps one of the most impressive.

Although, not as large as its relative, the plains bison, the wood bison was still one of the largest animals in America. Weighing as much 2,000 pounds and able to run at speeds of 35 mph or faster for lengthy periods, a mature wood bison was a formidable sight to see. Herds of these magnificent animals cut trails of their own through woods and prairies.

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Other herds of animals and groups of Native Americans followed these trails, too, because following an open trail was easier than slogging through the woods. The buffalo trails often passed near and paused near natural deposits of salt. Places like French Lick, Indiana, Blue Licks, Kentucky and the vanished Native American Salt Lick Town near Columbus are examples of the salt cravings of animal herds and the people who followed them.

Because those trails followed high ground, many found easy fording places across streams and avoided swamps, sinkholes and quicksand. The trails eventually became main trails of the people who arrived later. In time, the trials became roads, and in many cases, the roads became major highways.

But by that time, the bison were gone.

At the time of colonial settlement in the 1600s and 1700s, it has been estimated that 50 million and 70 million plains and wood bison were living in North America. Native American hunters followed the herds and judiciously used every bit of a beast. In addition to the meat, they used the buffalo’s skin for garments and housing and the bone for weapons and tools.

American wood bison
American wood bison

In the early days, prehistoric and historic Native Americans were cautious in their killing. The great beasts were difficult to catch and ferocious when cornered. This would change when horses and firearms became available, but even then Native Americans were careful in their hunt.

The same cannot be said of the Europeans who followed them. French coureurs des bois, or “woods runners,” in many cases called the bison “le boeuf,” which was transliterated in English to “buffalo.”

To this day, we still call bison buffalo. The colonials came into Ohio and in time began to systematically decimate the great herds of game.

An early history of Franklin County reported “The first of the wild quadrupeds to disappear from the central Ohio woods seem to have been the elk and the buffalo. Both were rarely seen in the Scioto Valley by early explorers…A history of Licking County in 1881 says that in about the year 1803, a small herd of buffalo, six to eight in number, strayed from their usual haunts further west, and reached a point a short distance east of where Wills Creek empties into the Muskingum…The final extermination of the elk and buffalo in Ohio dates from about the year 1800. The animals did not emigrate; they were destroyed.”

By 1890, fewer than 600 bison remained in all of America. Due to the efforts of conservation organizations, the herds of bison in America have been rebuilt slowly. Today, America has about 200,000 bison. In central Ohio, they can be seen at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, The Wilds, Darby Dan Farm and at the Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park. They also are at home at several private farms.

Since 2016, the bison has been recognized as America’s national mammal. It is an honor a bit late but welcome in its presentation.

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News and The Columbus Dispatch.

This article originally appeared on ThisWeek: As It Were: Bison are back and can be found in Ohio