conducted by archaeologist Ken Cannon could reverse
the prevailing notion that bison are a minor component
of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Archaeological
evidence suggests that bison may have prehistorically
played a larger role in the area than previously envisioned,
according to Cannon.
is the principal investigator of an archaeological dig
currently under excavation on the National Elk Refuge.
Cannon and his research assistants are exploring an
800-year-old bison bone bed that can potentially reveal
information pertinent to contemporary bison management
bison ecology has become a heated topic in the development
of bison management plans in the Yellowstone ecosystem,
it is important to better understand the role of bison
in pre-European Jackson Hole, Cannon said. "It
may be time to dust off the model of the local prehistoric
economy of Jackson Hole and reassess the role of bison
in it," Cannon wrote in a research article.
43, plans to extensively research the prehistoric record
of bison in the greater Yellowstone area and reveal
his findings in a dissertation by 2003 for the University
of Nebraska-Lincoln geography program. With permission
from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Cannon has
set up camp for a few weeks this summer at an area called
the Goetz site, in the northeastern region of the National
Elk Refuge. Amidst sagebrush and rock outcroppings along
the foothills, the site was discovered in 1971 while
Refuge staff were trying to increase the flow of a nearby
spring. Butchered bison bones and stone tools were found
in the area. After minimal excavation, the site was
abandoned and "became an archaeological myth of
the area," Cannon said, until he rediscovered it
found a minimum of four bison that date back 800 years.
What makes the site valuable, Cannon said, is that it
represents a multiple bison kill, which, in contrast
to the bone fragments he has found in other areas, can
give him a larger picture of a herd. Because the bison
were killed and butchered in the same spot, the site
could also shed light on the role bison played in the
sustenance of hunter-gatherer groups at the time, he
said. Cannon does the mapping, excavation, sample collection
and sediment processing at the site with help from two
other archaeologists and nine volunteers.
volunteers come from the Earthwatch Institute, a nonprofit
environmental organization sponsoring Cannonās project.
Because federal funding for archaeological projects
is limited, the field of study must depend on grassroots
support, Cannon said. "More money is spent on dietetic
dog food than on archaeology," he confided. The
Earthwatch volunteers are instrumental in allowing Cannon
to break ground with his research ÷ literally.
volunteers spend most of the day systematically digging
up soil, searching for artifacts and bones. They have
found bison carpals and teeth; an antler from a spike
buck that appears to have been used as a digging tool
for root crops; quartzite rock that has been reduced
to bifaces, which are used to fashion tools or weapons;
a projectile point that probably was once used to hunt
game; and more.
derived data can reveal information that other methods
of research cannot," Cannon said. Much of what
we know about bison is based on historic records, which
provide information that is more anecdotal and less
systematic, and modern studies, which are limited to
small, isolated populations that do not characterize
the speciesā original range, Cannon said.
hopes that the bones his team has found are preserved
well enough to produce DNA samples, which would indicate
the bisonās genetic makeup. Analyzing the genetic diversity
of bison when they roamed an undisturbed habitat could
be critical in developing a future bison management
plan, Cannon said. There haven't been any studies conducted
on culling ÷ removing bison from a herd when the herd
is deemed too big ÷ and how it affects the bison gene
pool, Cannon said.
determining how bison have evolved and adapted over
time, Cannon hopes to determine what the distant future
may hold for them, especially in the event of a major
climate change. If bones from other animals are discovered
at the site, they could answer some questions about
how bison fit into the animal community, and what kind
of role they played in the area's ecological makeup.
Emrick, an Earthwatch volunteer from Denver, confided
that Cannon's research intrigued her in part for political
reasons. Recent expansion of the bison population and
its subsequent migration out of federal lands has raised
concerns among federal managers, local ranchers and
conservation groups. "I'm interested in the stories
that bones tell," Emrick said." We just need
the evidence of (bison) so that they have a stronger
hold in the area. Maybe we can get these Montana ranchers
to stop slaughtering them. I don't want to see them
eliminated in favor of cattle."
of the past Cannon is no stranger to using an archaeological
record to support modern management plans in the greater
Yellowstone area. When wolf reintroduction into Yellowstone
National Park was a topic of hot debate, Cannon sent
Congress archaeological evidence that disputed the argument
that wolves had never been part of the local ecosystem.
With regards to the presence of bison in the greater
Yellowstone area, there are two opposing views, Cannon
school of thought finds bison to be a minor component
of the Jackson Hole fauna and too rare to ever have
provided a stable food source, based on a paucity of
bison found in the archaeological record and the low
and fluctuating numbers of modern herds. On the other
hand, some believe that there were once substantial
numbers of bison during all seasons, Cannon said.
the National Park Service implemented a noninterventionist
approach to natural resource management in the mid-1960s,
bison numbers have increased greatly, which may indicate
that the region naturally supports a rather large population
of bison, Cannon said. Additional information procured
from 30 archaeological and three paleontological sites
in the greater Yellowstone area indicates that bison
may have been more prevalent than originally imagined,
he said. The Goetz site provides an opportunity to support
that theory with hard evidence, he said. "One site
wonāt give you all the answers, but it will provide
you with pieces of the puzzle," he said.