Sunday, March 26, 2006


In the media coverage of the ongoing turmoil in Belarus, you might have seen a mention of a student organization known as "Zubr", which is always helpfully translated as "Bison". Media accounts never explain why something in Belarus would be named after an animal we in the US always associate with the Great Plains and points west. This is probably because media people themselves have no idea. But the topic combines two of my favorite things to blabber on about here: politics, and animals. Whether they're "cute" is debatable, of course, but at least they're interesting.

It turns out that there's a European bison as well (a.k.a. zubr, or wisent). Seriously. It's critically endangered, with small remnant populations scattered around Eastern Europe, primarily in Poland and Belarus. The gene pool is so small that it's unclear whether they'll survive in the long term or not. But for now, at least, they've managed to hang on. They can be crossbred with American bison, but that's strongly frowned upon.

Closer to home, it seems there once was a local subspecies of American bison here in Oregon, Bos bison oregonus, but they were wiped out way back in 1840, before the Oregon Trail even got going in earnest. The bison that are raised here now, in a semi-domesticated way, are descended from Midwestern populations that survived the big bison kill-off in the 19th century. It doesn't surprise me that the government tried to wipe out bison in order to destroy Indian cultures. It does surprise me that they just sent people out to shoot them and leave them for the vultures, instead of finding a way to make money off of it. Just goes to show how "primitive" people were in the 1880's, I suppose. I guess it was one of those taboos people use to reinforce their tribal "old us vs. them" distinctions. Euro-Americans generally wouldn't eat bison, all because it was "Indian food". Which was completely their loss. Bison is what you wish beef was. It's delicious. Here's a recipe for a sort of boeuf borguinon, except made with bison instead of beef. I haven't tried it yet, but it sounds great.

Getting back to the tribal identity thing, I think the idea behind the name "Zubr" was to claim something that's (semi-)unique to Belarus, something that Russia doesn't have, plus a nice pro-environment twist. If you're going to pick a nationalist symbol, you could do a lot worse. Even if the average citizen won't ever see one in person. At least the'll look good on your money, if nothing else.

The most, uh, picturesque bison experience I've ever had was in Yellowstone National Park a number of years ago. We were driving from Oregon to South Carolina in a tiny little MG, and the scenic route led us through Yellowstone. The first snowfall of the season had occurred up in the mountains, driving a lot of the wildlife down into heavily-touristed areas. We were driving along the park's loop road, checking out the scenery, when we came around a corner and there we were, right in the middle of a big herd of wild bison. In a car that probably weighed less than many of the animals. And we were looking up at them. So we sat there, and sat there, until they moved off the road, making no sudden moves or loud noises. We don't even have any pictures of the bison, because the camera wanted to use its flash, and that didn't seem like a very wise idea to us. I do remember it quite vividly, though.


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