America’s newest national symbol is on majestic display at Lazy G Ranch in Putnam County
Tennessee’s Upper Cumberland region probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind when people think of the great American buffalo.
But prior to the demolition of wild bison herds across this country in the latter 19th Century, the massive, magnificent beasts wandered vast sweeps of the continent — not just the Great Plains and Mountain West.
The buffalo’s formal scientific nomenclature is Bison bison bison. Their historical range encompassed an immense expanse of the North American interior, from Alaska to Alabama and even into the Florida panhandle.
Buffalo Valley, just off the I-40 Center Hill Dam exit, is said for example to have gotten its name because the area served as a congregating point for migrating bands of bison meandering down to water in the Caney Fork.
The multitude of bison that once ranged this country at the end of the 18th Century, and the magnitude of their demise in the century that followed, is almost impossible for the modern American mind to grasp.
More than 40 million buffalo are estimated to have roamed what’s now the Lower 48 and upper Mexico two centuries ago, and tens of million more lived north of the U.S. border. In less than 50 years buffalo numbers plummeted to near extinction.
“To go from tens of millions of wild buffalo down to thousands — that’s something that is hard to comprehend,” says Eddie Gaw, who runs a herd of about 30 bison on his Lazy G Ranch a few miles north of Cookeville on Hwy 135.
Today roughly half a million bison exist in America, on both public and private lands. Wild herds are managed by fish and game agencies in 11 states, including the Land Between the Lakes. That’s far, far fewer than the wild wandering herds of centuries past, which “darkened the whole plains,” Lewis and Clark reported in their journals.
But all the same, it’s an undeniable turnabout in the bison’s fortunes. And that was brought about by a growing popular appreciation for buffalo, coupled with efforts to preserve the colossal even-toed ungulate’s iconic place in the country’s imagination by ensuring it continues to exist on its landscapes.
Gaw’s buffalo serve as a living local monument to an ongoing conservation triumph. But to him, raising bison in the 21st Century is about planning for the future as much or more than just remembering the past.
Safeguarding a Living Symbol
The bison’s rebound has been commemorated this year with its formal recognition as an official symbol of the United States.
In April, Congress passed the National Bison Legacy Act, which designates the buffalo as the “national mammal.” President Obama signed the Act into law May 9.
The Act declares that “bison are considered a historical symbol of the United States.” Buffalo were “integrally linked with the economic and spiritual lives of many Indian tribes through trade and sacred ceremonies,” the measure goes on.
Furthermore, buffalo historically shaped the terrain they roamed, which aided in the health and survival of other native plant and animal species. “Bison can play an important role in improving the types of grasses found in landscapes to the benefit of grasslands,” the Act reads.
Passage of the Bison Legacy Act marked the climax to a half-decade-long effort by the Vote Bison Coalition, a collection of more than 60 buffalo-advocating businesses, ranchers and nonprofit groups. A statement on the coalition’s website described Congress’s approval of the Act as “a great milestone for an animal that has played a central role in America’s history and culture.”
Marketing Sustainable Meat
The Bison Legacy Act specifically recognizes early efforts by private ranchers in rescuing the buffalo from oblivion.
“A small group of ranchers helped save bison from extinction in the late 1800s by gathering the remnants of the decimated herds,” declares the Act, which also expresses that “bison hold significant economic value for private producers and rural communities.”
Today, bison that are “under the stewardship of private producers” are responsible for “creating jobs and providing a sustainable and healthy meat source contributing to the food security of the United States,” the Act declares.
Dedicated to promoting bison’s potential as a source of beauty, pride and healthy red-meat protein, the National Bison Association is among the groups delighted to see the bison given official national significance along with the bald eagle and the oak, which was declared America’s National Tree in 2004.
“There has never been a national mammal,” said the association’s assistant director, Jim Matheson. “Bison being the largest mammal on the continent, and also probably the greatest conservation success story of America. So we see it as a great fit.”
Some of the bison at the Lazy G Ranch, particularly non-dominant bulls, are slaughtered for meat and hides. But Gaw’s foremost mission is raising awareness. He’s hopeful a charge of bison-promoting publicity related to the National Mammal classification will send more folks his direction for a firsthand look at the country’s newest symbol.
Gaw has set aside about half of his 150 acre spread of rolling grassy pasture for his bison. Over time, he’d like to more than double the size of the herd to around 75, and expand their range to most or all the ranch’s pastureland.
Awesome to Behold
Already, it is not uncommon to see more than a dozen cars pull into his ranch driveway on a Saturday to gaze while the buffalo graze.
What is it about bison that people find so captivating?
“Just look at them,” says Gaw. The two words that typically spring to people’s minds when viewing bison — especially up close — are “powerful” and “majestic.”
That, and “big,” of course.
Bulls can weigh in at more than a ton and stand six-and-a-half feet tall at their hulking shoulders. The horns on their mammoth, wooly heads — worn by males and females alike — can grow two feet long. These burly beasts seem not far removed from the Ice Age.
Bison are startlingly agile and fast. “Buffalo can jump six feet vertical. Anything they can lay their chin on, they can jump,” Gaw said. And they can outrun a horse over sustained distances.
Just looking at them is precisely what Gaw wants more people to do at his ranch. He encourages visitors to stop and simply behold the grand critters.
Their stately grace is undeniable, whether ambling slowly along munching at turf, laying about ruminating their cuds, loping over a hill in a rumbling formation, or blithely bathing in a dirt wallow, which Gaw said they do to ward away bugs.
“A lot of people just don’t really know much about buffalo,” he said. “Anytime I see people down by the road watching them, especially if they’ve got kids, I like to go down and talk to them, and maybe educate them a little.”
Gaw is happy to entertain field trip buses of youngsters and adults. Residents of the Fairfield Glade Retirement Community in Cumberland County were excited to visit after reading a story in the Crossville Chronicle a couple years back about a rare white buffalo calf that Gaw had acquired from South Dakota.
“Blizzard,” as the blond young bull was christened, is a baby no more. But he still attracts an audience, including American Indians for whom a white bison holds particularly solemn spiritual significance.
Gaw said Indians have come to his ranch and sat on the grass for hours at a time meditating on the sight of Blizzard and the rest of the herd. “I’ve even had them write me letters asking for locks of hair,” he said. “If they have buffalo hair in their house, it’s Good Medicine.”
One of the best viewing times to watch the bison on Gaw’s ranch is as the afternoon wanes. That’s when they tend to get particularly lively and animated, calves and adults alike.
“In the evening, sometimes they’ll get to running and run the whole area of their field,” said Gaw. “They’re liable to do it for 30 minutes, chasing each other just like they are playing.”
If you’d like to call ahead to book a guided visit, call Eddie Gaw at 931-528-1681. Look them up on Facebook at Lazy G Ranch TN. The ranch address is 6070 Dodson Branch Rd (Hwy 135), which is about five miles north of TTU’s Hooper Eblen Center.