When Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville arrived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 1699, he was happy to discover that an abundant and unusual game animal was everywhere: beoufs sauvages. The giant, woolly cows roamed all over the Gulf Coast, and Iberville and his fellow Frenchmen immediately added them to their diets. A hunting party killed 23 in two days at Lake Pontchartrain in the early 1700s. Iberville recorded seeing them along the Mississippi River, at Biloxi, and near Pascagoula. Indians hunted the animals too, and used their bones and horns for utensils, and fur for blankets. (Read more in Hidden History of the Mississippi Sound).
Iberville had encountered an iconic animal: the American bison. Many Mississippians do not realize that the bison is a native animal. They used to live here in abundance, but were hunted out within a short time of Europeans arriving. Now when you think bison, you think Montana, some 1,300 miles away. But really, bison should be living here too.
Restoring a local population of such an iconic large mammal would have massive benefits for Mississippi. Yellowstone National Park draws more than four million visitors annually, and the park’s 5,000 bison are a big attraction. Of course, Mississippi lacks the kind of vast space (more than two million acres) that Yellowstone possesses to support its thousands of bison.
A better model for Mississippi might be the National Bison Range in western Montana. The National Bison Range is much smaller than Yellowstone, at only 18,000 acres. It supports fewer bison, but is still home to a herd of a few hundred of the animals. The 300-500 that live there now all descend from a group of 40 that were moved there from Texas, New Hampshire, and Montana in 1909.
But where could a herd of a few hundred bison roam freely in Mississippi? It happens we have the perfect spot. It overlays the coastal land that Iberville once traveled 300 years ago: Stennis Space Center. Stennis is known as NASA’s largest rocket testing facility and is a tourist attraction in its own right. But what many people don’t realize is that a massive ring of land around the facility was set aside as a Buffer Zone for rocket testing — 125,442 acres to be exact. The federal government owns thousands of acres within the buffer zone outright, and owns easements over the entire area restricting habitation and construction.
The Stennis Buffer Zone is precisely where Iberville would have hunted Mississippi bison in the 1700s. Arranging for 35 or 40 bison to be transported to the zone and allowing them to roam and multiply is not a far-fetched idea — it’s actually perfectly natural. The bison would be an instant tourist attraction, and an opportunity for Mississippi to do something forward-thinking and bold. We would be the only bison state east of the Mississippi. The magnolia and mockingbird would no longer be our only animal mascots. And maybe down the road, we could even open a regulated bison hunting season.
It wouldn’t be that hard to restore a population of a majestic Mississippi animal, and the benefits would be immense. So ask yourself — how can we get some bison down here?