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COMMENTARY

On a Great Plains bison range, the majestic symbol of our own Buffalo

MOIESE, Mont. – The Buffalo Bills play with a symbol of the city on their helmets. No other NFL team can say the same.

Other teams play with images representing their nicknames, or the initials of their cities. Only the Bills play with a logo that means, well — us. It’s part of why we hold them dear.

All this comes to mind this summer on a family visit to the National Bison Range in western Montana, about an hour north of Missoula. Here is where the buffalo roam — herds of them, some 350 to 500 bison on roughly 18,500 acres of grassland, amid purple mountain majesties.

The scenery is beautiful, though no more so than the mammals. Because if you’re from Buffalo, the sight of dozens of these shaggy-haired, hump-backed creatures makes the heart sing. And for the princely sum of 5 bucks, a carload of tourists can drive the dirt roads of the range and see buffalo on their own turf — which, unlike New Era Field, means real grass.

Bison aren’t the only creatures who are home, home on this range. It also provides a homestead for deer (whitetail and mule), sheep (bighorn and pronghorn), elk and more than 200 types of birds.

But the bison are the headliners, as well they should be. They are an enduring symbol of the American West. (By the way, according to a display in the visitors center, “bison is more scientifically correct, but buffalo is used so widely to refer to the North American animal that it is also considered correct.”)

The more you know ... (Photo by Erik Brady)

Native Americans knew how to use all parts of the buffalo — for food, for clothing, for tools — and often included bison in their spiritual lives. An estimated 30 million to 60 million bison roamed North America centuries ago, before the arrival of Europeans.

By the late 19th century, only a few hundred bison remained in the wild. They had been driven nearly into extinction by armed hunters on horseback who killed with a terrible ease, often as part of U.S. government policy to destabilize and demoralize Native American tribes.

Conservationists at the dawn of the 20th century sought to save the species. The story of how the bison came back from the brink is also the story of the National Bison Range: Teddy Roosevelt, a leader in the conservation movement, established the range in 1908.

This means a president inaugurated in Buffalo helped to save buffalo.

Roosevelt hunted bison himself decades earlier, though he had misgivings.

“Mixed with the eager excitement of the hunter,” he wrote in 1889, “was a certain half-melancholy feeling as I gazed at these bison” at a time when their ultimate demise seemed all but certain.

Roosevelt would make up for it when, as president of the United States, he served as honorary president of the American Bison Society, formed in 1905 at the Bronx Zoo with the express purpose of saving the species.

“The fact that we can still see bison on the landscape is one of the finest accomplishments in the history of the National Wildlife Refuge System,” according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service statement on the website for the bison range.

Teddy is not the only president to admire buffalo. Barack Obama signed a law in 2016 naming the bison our national mammal. And we in Buffalo are happy to share the symbol of our city with a grateful nation.

A display in the National Bison Center is a reminder that Buffalo is not the only place the animal is also a mascot. (Photo by Erik Brady)

Which brings us to the age-old, never-fully-answered question of how our fair city got its name. There’s the story about how it is a misapprehension of beau fleuve — beautiful river — what French explorers are said to have called the mighty Niagara. There’s the notion it is named for bison who once roamed the region, if they ever did.

(Samuel Clemens was editor of the Buffalo Express 150 years ago. He’d later write "The Diaries of Adam and Eve," in which Eve names our city Buffalo. “I don’t know why,” Adam says, “unless it is because there are not any buffaloes there.”)

Then again, maybe Buffalo is the right name for us because bison use the powerful muscles of their humps to push snow out of their way, meaning a bison’s distinctive horned head is actually a sort of snowplow. And what could be more Buffalo than that?

So, in the end, Buffalo is our name, whatever the reason, and we should count ourselves lucky to share an association with these great beasts of the Great Plains. Many of us get a small thrill anytime we see one — whether at the Buffalo Zoo, in the National Bison Range or on a football helmet near you.

The charging buffalo of today’s Bills’ helmets are cool and all, but come on: The red standing buffalo of the Kemp-era Bills (and today’s throwback uniforms) are the coolest.

As it turns out, we don’t see any charging buffalo on our drive through the bison range. At one point, though, a voice rises from the back seat of our rented Subaru. Look, she says, that one by the road, standing there in profile: Looks just like the old Bills logo, the marvelous standing buffalo, doesn’t it?

Why, yes. Yes, it does.

Shooting a bison from a car is permitted at the National Bison Range ... when done with a camera. (Erik Brady/Buffalo News)

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