Bison once roamed the plains in herds so thick they obscured the land. They were hunted nearly to extinction and now only live in controlled and managed herds.
On this hour of Talk of Iowa, Charity Nebbe talks about the history of the American bison and their relationship with humans with author, conservationist, and bison rancher Dan O'Brien, author of Great Plains Bison.
"Their impact on the flora and fauna of the Great Plains is what makes the Great Plains what they are," O'Brien says.
Bison have a physical impact on the land. They graze vigorously and vacate areas, allowing grass to rest. Their hooves also give prairie grasses the opportunity to reseed.
"Every time they're moving, they're massaging the prairie as if they're lovers," O'Brien says.
Despite their importance, bison were hunted nearly to extinction. O'Brien estimates that less than a thousand bison roamed the prairie at their lowest number, due to a concentrated hunting effort on the part of the United States government, which clashed with Native Americans in the Great Plains.
"If we destroy the buffalo, we destroy the Indians, and we win the war," O'Brien says about the logic behind the hunting effort.
Now, O'Brien ranches bison as part of his conservation vision. He hopes that creating a market for bison meat will result in more room for bison to roam.
"Our product is conservation," O'Brien says. "The buffalo meat is a side product."