As the United States turned 100 on July 4, 1876, Theodore Roosevelt was nearing a milestone birthday of his own. Only a few months shy of 18, he’d seen his nation fulfill its original promise, maturing into a more functional form of democratic governance, perhaps most plainly—and painfully—reflected in the civil war that redefined the principles of freedom.

As the nation tried to recover from the scars of its bloody conflict, across the continent the forces of territorial expansion had also taken their own toll on all things indigenous to the nation, from native peoples to the land and wildlife they depended upon.

At the time of Theodore Roosevelt’s birth on October 27, 1858, the population density of people and bison of the United States averaged roughly 10 and 17 per square mile, respectively. Only 42 years later,, upon Roosevelt’s election as vice president in 1900, there were about 25 people per square mile and bison were nearly extinct.

The decimation of this great mammal—the continent’s largest—from some 40 million to barely a thousand animals is tragedy on a staggering scale motivated by unrestrained resource exploitation for commercial purposes and misguided U.S. Indian policy

William Hornaday, left, was the first president of the American Bison Society.
Credit: Wildlife Conservation Society

Theodore was a 7th generation Roosevelt of wealth and privilege, and enjoyed a resource rich environment that enabled him to explore nature from a more romantic viewpoint than most people living at that time. Perhaps as a consequence, he developed a significant fascination with American Bison. This fascination increased as he grew older, gained power, and enthusiastically pursued his interests as a hunter-conservationist and naturalist.

The American Bison, or buffalo as it was commonly known, symbolized the wild nature and western culture Roosevelt had come to love in his travels as a young man. He hunted and killed his first bison in 1883 at the age of 24 in Montana at Little Cannonball Creek. After the kill he danced enthusiastically around that buffalo to celebrate his success.

By the time of his second bison hunt in 1889, Roosevelt had become more restrained in his enthusiasm. In his journal, he recorded that in watching these massive animals, he experienced a “half-melancholy feeling,” noting that “Few indeed are the men who now have or evermore shall have, the chance of seeing the mightiest of American beasts, in all his wild vigor, surrounded by the tremendous desolation of his far-off mountain home.”

American Bison Society Honorary President Teddy Roosevelt (center) with Bronx Zoo staff ca. 1912. Credit: Wildlife Conservation Society

When the American Bison Society (ABS) formed in New York in 1905 at New York’s Bronx Zoo, Roosevelt was named honorary president. He had come to know the society’s first president, William Hornaday, through their membership in the Boone and Crockett hunting club, several of whose members were the key players behind the creation of the New York Zoological Society (now the Wildlife Conservation Society, or WCS), which operated the Bronx Zoo.

Theodore Roosevelt routinely used his position as U.S. President to help prioritize conservation generally and to protect bison in particular. He even mentioned the concern for bison in his annual message to Congress on December 5, 1905 during his second term as U.S. president.

Beginning in 1907, the Bronx Zoo and ABS began shipping bison out west in an effort to repopulate the American plains from which the bison had been decimated. President Roosevelt supported the first three reintroductions: at the Wichita Mountains Reserve, Wind Cave National Park, and the National Bison Range.

These efforts reflected Roosevelt’s passionate determination to protect wild lands in the American west, an accomplishment he would later trumpet in his autobiography. There he writes that the many acts to preserve bison were key highlights in his tenure as President. Today, in large part due to Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy, there are approximately 30,000 wild bison living on Federal, Tribal, State and Private lands—as their millions of wild ancestors did in our nation’s early history.

It is in recognition of the bison’s central place in the nation’s natural history, native culture, and ecology that the 114th U.S. Congress passed and President Obama signed the National Bison Legacy Act, adopting the American bison as the United States national mammal. The first Saturday of November—only days from Roosevelt’s birthday—is likewise recognized as National Bison Day.

As we celebrate Teddy Roosevelt’s birthday, we pay homage to his legacy as a protector of wild places and a founder of the modern conservation movement. One thing we know for sure. Given his youthful love of nature, commitment to ethical hunting, and legacy of conservation action, it is fair to credit Theodore Roosevelt as the President who saved the American bison.