We planned to spend most of the day in Theodore Roosevelt’s National Park. It is divided into two main units seventy miles apart: North and South. Confusingly, even though they are at the same longitude, they are in different time zones. By longitude, most of North Dakota should logically be in Mountain Time. However, in the late nineteenth century, the railroads lobbied North Dakota to make their timetables less confusing to their customers. Accordingly, the part of the state that they operated in was decreed to be in Central Time Zone, and the other areas in which they did not have tracks would remain in Mountain Time. Twelve other US states are also in more than one time zone.
We arrived in the lesser-visited North Unit at 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning and, for the first couple of hours, were one of only three cars in the park. The other two vehicles were occupied by park rangers. The emptiness was surprising because the entire park usually has 0.7 million visitors every year. The visitor center was closed, and nobody was collecting park fees.
This park had one winding road which followed the land’s contours avoiding the many canyons. The vistas, largely unpunctuated by trees, were of impressive canyons, albeit much smaller than those further in the West. The (not so) Little Missouri River meandered through both the North and South Units.
One of the park’s great attractions is the bison or buffalo, as they are popularly known here. What is the difference between a buffalo and a bison? Almost everyone from the UK knows that the answer to this question is that you can’t wash your hands in a Buffalo. In the USA, however, this joke doesn’t work so well because one typically washes one’s hands in a sink. In the UK, the British call the porcelain receptacle in which you wash your hands, a basin. This sounds a bit like bison if you say it in a cockney accent.
Buffalo and bison are different species, albeit from the same animal family. Contrary to the song Home on The Range, buffalo do not roam in the American West. They roam in Africa and Asia. It’s bison that roam in parts of the American West, but it just doesn’t scan as well. William Cody, who was said to have shot five thousand bison for Kansas Pacific Railroad, should surely have been called Bison Bill. To emphasize or labor the point further, the Latin name for the American Plains Bison is bison bison bison. Nothing about Buffalo at all.
The park itself knows that these animals should be called bison but has to use the word buffalo in the warning signs so that Americans know to what they are referring. A recent newspaper article was titled “Bison gores teen in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.” It was accompanied by an image of a bison, whose picture title read “Buffalo.”
Fellow sometime-travel writer, Bill Bryson, is almost perfectly named. However, if he were more American and slightly less British, he would probably be called Bill Bruffalo.
As a genuinely wild aside, linguist Dimitri Borgmann constructed a famous American sentence in 1967. It has eight consecutive buffalos and is grammatically correct. To make sense of this sentence, you need to know that Buffalo is a city in New York State; that there is a rare verb “to buffalo,” which means “to bully”; and that – contrary to the second sentence of this paragraph – the plural of buffalo is indeed buffalo. You also should be aware that the restrictive clause of the third to fifth buffalo requires no commas. Therefore, the sentence reads, “Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.” …spellchecker breaks down, and the reader loses the will to live. This translates more simply as “Buffalo bison, that other Buffalo bison bully, also bully Buffalo bison.” It has to be admitted that I have rarely had the cause to use this sentence in everyday speech, possibly because I know that the animals should be called bison, and the only bison in Buffalo are found at the Buffalo Zoo.
Why all this stuff about buffalo and bison, I hear you ask? This park has several hundred bison. We did the usual thing of taking photos of bison herds three hundred feet away or more. Later as we drove down the park road, a one-ton male bison trudged excessively slowly, one step every four seconds right past our stopped car. We even have a video of it, complete with Lorna screaming at me to shut the window. Exactly how the six-foot-tall bison would enter our car by the window isn’t recorded. He trudged peacefully, but very closely, past our car, not looking at us once. About a month before our visit, a bison charged at a woman walking in the park. It knocked her down, breaking her vertebrae and facial bones. She called 911 while on the ground, and a Park Ranger had to shoot the bison to protect the injured hiker.
Pre-colonization, bison were plentiful. The Great Plains alone were thought to have around sixty million. In the nineteenth century, bison began to be prized for their meat, hides, and bones, which were used for refining sugar and making china. Peak bison slaughter was in the 1870s when the USA experienced heavy industrialization. One railway engineer said that it was possible to walk a hundred miles along the railroad between Kansas and New Mexico without touching the ground by stepping from one carcass to another. By the end of the nineteenth century, the bison was almost extinct.
Many Americans at the time thought extinction was a good thing. The empty prairies made it easier to build towns and railroads. Some US military leaders felt that near extinction was a “triumph of civilization over savagery” because the absence of bison deprived Native Americans of their food source, making it easier to relocate them to their reservations. Not that there were too many Native Americans remaining by the end of the nineteenth century. The Native American population likely fell to less than one-quarter of a million.
Fortunately, not everyone agreed. Our friend, Theodore Roosevelt, was one of a group of wealthy philanthropists who arranged for fifteen bison from the Bronx zoo to be sent by train to Oklahoma to repopulate the bison herds. Some Comanche met the train; the children from the tribe marveled at their first sight of a bison. I am pleased to report that America is today home to around half a million bison and that, in 2016, the bison was named the USA’s official national mammal.