Bayou-Diversity (16 May 2019) The image of thundering herds of buffalo racing across endless prairies is not one that is often associated with Louisiana, the Bayou State. Historically, though, the scene is not far-fetched.
The animals we call buffalo are more correctly termed bison to separate them from true buffalo of Africa and Asia. Early French explorers in Louisiana called them boeuf sauvage – wild ox. Formidable in appearance, the bulls stand six feet high at the pronounced shoulder hump and weigh as much as a ton. Both sexes have a massive head, neck and shoulders, and are robed in a thick, wooly pelage. They were the largest land mammal to inhabit Louisiana in historic times.
That they did indeed live in Louisiana is well documented. Our maps denote three Bayou Boeufs, Boeuf River, and Boeuf Lake. As part of the continental “southern herd” they ranged across most of the state at least part of the year but not likely in tremendous numbers associated with those of western and northern prairies. Bienville reported killing a bison near what is now Winnsboro in 1700. Penicaut wrote of shooting 23 bison at Bayou Manchac in 1712. Other 18th century accounts mentioned bison near present-day Baton Rouge and New Orleans. By 1800 bison seem to have been almost eliminated from the state’s list of magnificent fauna. One historian wrote that “The last buffalo seen in the neighborhood of Fort Miro [now Monroe] was killed in 1803.” This pattern continued for the next hundred years until the entire continental population, estimated at 60 million, was market-hunted to near extinction. Bison are found today in Louisiana in a few small captive herds scattered around the state.
One of the biggest surprises of my life involving wildlife occurred a few years ago in a remote marsh in southwest Louisiana. While hiking along a low ridge at dusk I could hardly believe my eyes as a buffalo emerged from a wax myrtle thicket. She was soon followed by two more and they began grazing as darkness fell over the vast, fenceless marsh. Later I learned that they appeared in this area soon after Hurricane Rita and were thought to have come from Texas during the storm. For a moment though I was in the 18th century. (adapted from Bayou-Diversity: Nature & People in the Louisiana Bayou Country, LSU Press)