It is estimated that when Columbus landed in the New World, buffalo herds in the west may have numbered as high as 30,000,000. Native American tribes relied on the buffalo to sustain them, making use of the entire animal. When settlers arrived on the Plains, the herds dwindled, but the railroads carrying sports hunters dealt the most devastating blow to the species. By 1888, only 541 animals remained. Hunting restrictions were enacted the following year.
In 1901, President William McKinley designated an area of the Wichita Mountains in Comanche County as a forest reserve. His successor, Roosevelt, expanded both the area and the mission of the reserve, establishing America’s first national sanctuary devoted to preserving the buffalo. Writing in 1885, Roosevelt described the extermination of the buffalo as “a veritable tragedy of the animal world.” Once the land was set aside, the search for buffalo began. Six bulls and nine cows were shipped by rail from the Bronx Zoo in New York City. A delegation of Comanches led by Quanah Parker met the train when it arrived in Cache, Oklahoma. These fifteen animals were released and grew into the herd that now roams the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge. Today, the Wichita herd is maintained at 650, with excess animals sold in an auction each fall. Buffalo in the United States now number about 350,000. The state legislature named it as Oklahoma’s state animal in 1972.
Not Forgotten is a bronze sculpture of a buffalo, created by contemporary Cherokee artist Troy Anderson and donated by Justice John Reif, who was appointed to the Supreme Court of Oklahoma in 2007 by Governor Brad Henry. A buffalo was Anderson’s mascot when he was a student at West Texas State University. See Anderson’s other Oklahoma Judicial Center piece on page 162.
A note on usage: American Bison is the proper name for the largest land mammal native to the United States. However, this animal has long been referred to as a buffalo by many, including President Theodore Roosevelt and Chief Quanah Parker.
Source: Phone interview April 23, 2013.