Remembering Tennessee’s Bison

When you think of bison, you likely picture giant herds in open prairies in the West. But did you know they bison were once an important part of the landscape of Tennessee, as well?

Bison roamed throughout the state, in herds numbering in the thousands, following the same migratory patterns for centuries. The paths they took were so well-traveled that they shaped the landscape. Many of these became roads, which eventually became state highways. The areas where the herds wallowed formed diverse homes for amphibians and waterfowl and provided drinking water for other migrating animals. Bison also helped sustain Tennessee’s then-thriving populations of red wolves, black bears, and pumas.

Unfortunately, hunters in the late 1700s had no interest in keeping this keystone species alive. They would gather at Bledsoe’s Lick, a natural salt lick in Middle Tennessee, and mercilessly kill bison by the hundreds. Bledsoe’s Lick was home to mountains of bleached bison skulls by the 1790s, and Tennessee’s bison were completely gone soon after.

Although bison have been reintroduced to a few enclosed habitats in Tennessee, our state’s free-roaming bison can never return. The habitats and ecosystems they depended— and created— upon simply don’t exist anymore, and the paths of their migrations and feeding and breeding grounds are now blocked or developed.

Let’s learn our lesson from our past mistakes. While we can’t use Bison Day as a way to bring them back to a state that can no longer sustain them, we can use the bison’s tragic end as a reminder to preserve and protect the native wildlife we haven’t lost yet.

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