Rolling Thunder: 10,000 Years of Bison in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem
By Kenneth P. Cannon
June 1, 2017
Join us for the June Draper Natural History Museum Lunchtime Expedition lecture, when Kenneth P. Cannon, PhD, presents Rolling Thunder: 10,000 Years of Bison in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
In 2016, President Barack Obama signed into law the National Bison Legacy Act, which designates the bison as the official mammal of the United States. This is the latest episode for a species that faced near extinction a century ago with its recovery celebrated as a great victory for conservation. However, controversy surrounding the bison has not abated and is most acute in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), where bison are attacked for spreading brucellosis and the potential impact this has to the local cattle industry to the question of whether it is a native species of the Yellowstone Plateau. The story of bison in the GYE encapsulates the larger history of the North American bison, as well as our history of public land management.
The precontact record of bison in the GYE extends back at least 10,000 years and is variously represented by single skeletal elements associated with short term camp sites to massive and logistically complex bison jumps. The role of bison in American Indian economies and as a major component of the native faunal community has undergone a range of interpretations over the past few decades. These have ranged from not being native and only present due to intentional introduction, to being relatively uncommon and therefore not a consistent prey species for precontact human groups, to being a substantial member of the native faunal community. Interestingly, in comparing faunal assemblage composition, bison are typically the most common species identified. Many of these opinions have been based upon the fallacy that an absence of evidence is evidence of absence without fully understanding the nature of the record and how it came to be observed.
In his talk, Cannon explores the taphonomic, historical, and cultural processes that influence how the paleorecord is observed and the influence this has had on interpretation. For example, the soils of the Yellowstone Plateau tend to be shallow, coarse-grained, well-drained, and subject to disturbance from burrowing rodents and tree throws. Further, bison hunting appears to have been conducted on an encounter-type hunting pattern of individual bison or small groups. These processes tend not to promote preservation or archaeological visibility. “It is imperative,” says Cannon, “that we bring the geologically historic record to bear on the issue of bison management—a policy recommended in recent National Research Council publications.”
About our speaker
Cannon is the president and owner of Cannon Heritage Consultants and a Research Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Utah State University. He previously spent 21 years with the National Park Service. He received his PhD in geography from the University of Nebraska where he used GIS and stable isotope analyses to understand the biogeography of prehistoric bison in the GYE. He served as the founding President of the Rocky Mountain Anthropological Association (2007–2013) and is currently the Vice President for the Rocky Mountain Anthropological Association. Cannon has published in interdisciplinary journals such as Applied Computational Intelligence and Soft Computing, Arctic, Antarctic and Alpine Research, Great Plains Research, and Plains Anthropologist. He has received numerous competitive grants from various federal and private entities, including the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society, and the Earthwatch Institute, for his research. University of Utah Press has reissued a collection of papers he edited with Lee Lyman, Zooarchaeology and Conservation Biology, in paperback.
Draper Natural History Museum Lunchtime Expeditions are supported in part by Sage Creek Ranch.
Join us the first Thursday of each month April through December for a Lunchtime Expedition! These free lectures, supported in part by Sage Creek Ranch, explore a variety of natural history subjects and issues. Lectures take place in our Coe Auditorium at 12:15 p.m. and are free and open to the public.
Upcoming Lunchtime Expeditions:
- July 6: Jesse Boulerice with Past, Present, and Future for Black-footed Ferrets in Wyoming
- August 3: Todd Wilkinson and Tom Mengleson with An Afternoon with Grizzly 399
- September 7: Larry Todd with High Elevations, Old Sites, and New Perspectives on Human Paleoecology in Wyoming’s Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem
- October 5: Corinna Riginos with Oh Deer! The Problem of Roads as Barriers to Deer Migrations and Movements in Wyoming
- November 2: Craig Lee with The Archaeology of Alpine Snow and Ice in the Mid-latitude Mountains of the Greater Yellowstone and Beyond
- December 7