It is believed that bison, or buffalo, originated in Eurasia then crossed over the Bering Strait land bridge that at one time connected the Asian and North American continents. In prehistoric times the massive herds literally darkened the face of the earth as they roamed and foraged. Over many centuries the buffalo slowly migrated southward until they inhabited much of the grasslands of the United States. Seas of buffalo herds stretched across the horizon from Canada to Mexico and from the northwestern Pacific coast in Oregon southeast as far as Florida.
Bison were the most numerous single species of large wild mammals on Earth and is the largest land mammal in North America since the end of the Ice Age. A male buffalo may stand as high as six feet and weigh up to 2,000 pounds.
Prior to the white man’s desecration of the American wilderness, Native Americans depended on the buffalo for food, clothing and shelter. Indian culture had a reverence and respect for the buffalo and used the meat, hide and bones of the beast.
In the 19th century buffalo were hunted to near extinction. In the 1880’s only a few hundred of the magnificent creatures still survived.
The major reason for the extermination of the giant herds was the profitable harvesting of buffalo hides. There was a lucrative export trade to Europe of buffalo hides to make the luxurious rugs and robes so coveted by the wealthy elite. Old West buffalo hunting was very often a massive commercial enterprise, involving organized teams of professional hunters, backed by a team of skinners, gun cleaners, re-loaders, camp cooks, wranglers, blacksmiths, teamsters and numerous horses, mules and wagons. Men were even employed to reclaim and recast lead bullets taken from the gut piles.
From 1873-83 there were over a thousand of these professional hunting companies operating in the United States. History records that as many as 50,000 – 100,000 buffalo were executed per day, dependent on the season. The buffalo hunters left behind carcasses that slowly decayed into giant piles of buffalo bones, making the prairie so white some said it looked as if it were covered in snow even during the summer months. After the carcasses decayed, the buffalo bones were collected and shipped back east.
Many of these professional hunters, such as Buffalo Bill Cody, slaughtered hundreds of animals at a single stand and many thousands in their career. One proud professional hunter massacred over 20,000 by his own count. An average quality hide could bring $3 and a prime one (the heavy winter coat) could sell for $50 in an era when a laborer would be fortunate to earn a dollar a day. Greed is a great motivator. Many people denounced the slaughter but few did anything actively to stop the carnage.
The extermination of the American Buffalo was part of a diabolical plot by the United States Government to control the American Indian population. There were government initiatives, at both the local and federal level, to starve the population of the Plains Indians by eliminating their main food source, the buffalo. The herds were the basis of the survival of the Plains tribes. Without buffalo to feed and clothe them, the Indians would be forced to leave or starve to death.
Because the Indians depended so much on the buffalo for their survival, their very religions were centered around the buffalo. The interdependence between Indian and buffalo is exemplified in the poetic words of John Fire Lame Deer:
“The buffalo gave us everything we needed. Without it we were nothing. Our tipis were made of his skin. His hide was our bed, our blanket, our winter coat. It was our drum, throbbing through the night, alive, holy. Out of his skin we made our water bags. His flesh strengthened us, became flesh of our flesh. Not the smallest part of it was wasted. His stomach, a red-hot stone dropped into it, became our soup kettle. His horns were our spoons, the bones our knives, our women’s awls and needles. Out of his sinews we made our bowstrings and thread. His ribs were fashioned into sleds for our children, his hoofs became rattles. His mighty skull, with the pipe leaning against it, was our sacred altar. The name of the greatest of all Sioux was Tatanka Iyotake–Sitting Bull. When you killed off the buffalo you also killed the Indian–the real, natural, “wild” Indian.”
The government also actively encouraged buffalo hunting for other reasons. A reduction in the buffalo population allowed ranchers to range their cattle without competition from other bovines. The railroad industry also wanted buffalo herds culled or eliminated. Herds of buffalo on the railroad tracks could damage or derail locomotives when the trains failed to stop in time. During winter storms, the massive herds often sought shelter in the artificial cuts formed by the grade of the tracks winding though the prairies and hills. As a result, buffalo herds could delay a train’s passage for several days and delays cost money.
By 1884, the American Buffalo was close to extinction and proposals were put forth to protect the buffalo. Recognizing the pressure on the species was too great, Cody was one of the most vocal proponents of measures to save the waning buffalo population.
In South Dakota, the herd of James “Scotty” Phillips was one of the earliest reintro-ductions of buffalo to North America. In 1899, Phillips had a goal to preserve the species from extinction and purchased a small herd from Doug Carlin. Carlin’s son Fred had roped 5 calves in the Last Big Buffalo Hunt on the Grand River in 1881 and transported them to the family’s ranch on the Cheyenne River. At the time of purchase there were approximately 7 pure buffalo left in the United States.
At the time of his death in 1911 at 53, Phillips had developed the herd to an estimated 1,000 to 1,200 head. Several other herds were also established from the 5 calves rescued at Grand River.
During that same time, two Montana ranchers, Charles Allard and Michel Pablo, invested over 20 years in assembling one of the largest collections of purebred bison on the continent. At the time of Allard’s death in 1896, the herd numbered 300. In 1907, after the U.S. government declined to purchase the bison herd, Pablo entered into a contract with the Canadian government to ship the majority of his herd north to the newly built Elk Island National Park.
The present American Buffalo population has rebounded rapidly and is estimated at 350,000, compared to an estimated 75 to 100 million in the mid-19th century. However, most of the current herds are genetically polluted or partly crossbred with cattle. Presently there are only four genetically unmixed herds and only one that is also free of brucellious; it resides in the Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota. A founder population of 16 animals from the Wind Cave herd was recently established in Montana by the American Prairie Association.
The only continuously wild buffalo herd in America is located within Yellowstone National Park. Numbering about 3,500, this herd is directly descended from a remnant population of 23 individual buffalo that survived the mass annihilation of the 1800s by hiding out in the Pelican Valley of Yellowstone Park.
The buffalo of Yellowstone Park have occasionally descended to lower elevations outside the park in search of winter forage. The presence of wild buffalo outside the park is perceived as a threat by many cattle ranchers, who fear that the small percentage of bison that carry brucellosis will infect their livestock and cause cows to abort their calves. However, there has never been a documented case of brucellosis being transmitted to cattle from wild bison. The controversy that began in the early 1980s continues to this day. Advocacy groups argue that the Yellowstone herd should be protected as a distinct population segment under the Endangered Species Act.
In Montana, where public herds require culling to control the target bison population, hunting was re-established in 2005.
Buffalo live 15 to 20 years in the wild, although the average lifespan depends on local predators, hunting pressures and natural disasters. Bison have been known to live up to 40 years in captivity.
The bison remains an icon of American culture, however our past treatment of this majestic animal is shameful. Hopefully we will carefully consider how to ensure an ecological future for the buffalo and all the wild creatures that still inhabit our precious planet.
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