“Why the Buffalo Roam” by Poppy; August 2023

The word “migration” conjures images of geese trekking Southward in winter, or monarchs flying up North to breed, driven by an internal compass and a genetic map.

Bison migrations do not work like that.

It’s true, bison migrate, but we don’t follow a map or a compass. We have migration routes, passed down by memory, through generations, but these routes are cultural, not biological, and they are adaptable.

We used to migrate in herds of millions, split into bands of a few thousands, which yet again split into ‘clans’ of just a few dozen. Each clan was led by an old and wise leader who had survived the migration before, and remembered the route, or at least the general direction. The books say our clan leaders were matriarchs, but my instincts say they were of either sex, as long as they were experienced, deliberate, and sympathetic. (Perhaps the difference is in calf-bearing bands vs bachelor bands; the former being matriarchal and the latter patriarchal?)

A band of clans, or even a single clan, may roam alone for much of the year, but the bison’s neverending wandering would always, eventually, unite it with the others, in a gathering of millions. Not a pilgrimage toward a destination, but a gathering at a meeting-point that was gradually defined over millions of migrations until all the bands and clans had overlapping travel routes.

What, then, drives us to roam, if not an internal compass, map, calendar, or clock?

The one thing that drives all animals to move: Hunger.

We go where our stomachs take us. When a group has grazed an area clear, we move on to the next, only settling until we have yet again grazed it down to the soil. And by the time we have circled our migration route, the wheel of the year has turned, and the grazed-down lands have once again grown green and plentiful.

The herds of millions would only roam the land for a few weeks prior to the mating season, before once again splitting into bands and clans. During this herd formation, dozens of thousands would die, but there is strength in numbers, and where a lone clan of 50 may have suffered during this trek, by joining together with other clans, they could emerge from the migration stronger than before. Three clans of 50 may lose a few members, but they can join each other, forming a band of 100, and flourish until the next great herd forms.

The time of the great herd was also a time for bachelors to seek a harem. Bachelor bands would follow calf-bearing bands around, and when they settled down, the bulls would fight each other for mating rights and do their best to woo the cows. And in the next summer, their calves would witness their first great herd.

But that was long ago. I can still feel it in my bones, the urge to follow my nose, and keep roaming from grazing ground to grazing ground. It’s in my lungs and marrow and soul.

But it was long ago.

Scientists recently discovered that the Yellowstone ‘herd,’ the largest bison band in the world, a mere 6000 individuals… scientists ‘discovered’ that these bison migrate from valley to hill with the seasons, and that this miniature model of a migration affects the vegetation of the park. The bison within me could have told them that.

What an injustice my race’s history is, to be reduced from several herds of millions, migrating across the entire continent in ancestral routes, to a few scattered bands of thousands, migrating from valley to hill.

Bison migrations will never again work the way they did, not as long as we are contained to parks and zoos. We are living museum pieces, performing facsimile migrations for excited scientists, who are eager to explain why we do what we do.

But I don’t need them to explain it to me. We do what we do because we have no compass or genetic map that forces us to migrate a certain route.

We do what we do because our migration routes are adaptable.

Still… I wonder if our clan leaders can recall the old routes.


*Frank Gilbert Roe (1972) “The North American Buffalo” 2nd edition

*Ernest Thompson Seton (1909) “Life-histories of northern animals”

*It was revealed to me in a vision