Friday, July 20, 2012

The Systematic Annihilation and Reincarnation of the American Bison

"Oh, give me a home where the Buffalo roam
Where the Deer and the Antelope play;
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word,
And the sky is not cloudy all day."

(First stanza of the poem My Western Home (1871) and the song Home on the Range (1876)
by Dr. Brewster Higley of Kansas)

This July, while driving the scenic backroads of south central Colorado, I was taken aback by the presence of a solitary buffalo feeding in a pasture, a most unfamiliar sight to this back easterner.

I was surprised to discover that the word buffalo is reserved for those bovine found exclusively in Africa and south Asia. Our more common term for the American Bison is so closely associated with the Wild West that I had thought it might be a Native American term as are moose and skunk. But like so many other words, it has a Latin and Greek origin. I also discovered that the name of the city of Buffalo (New York) is likely derived from the buffalo (as they were referred to by French fur traders) that were supposedly present along the shores of Lake Erie. In fact, an article in the January 1869 issue of Harper's New Monthly Magazine  states that "herds of buffalo" were to be seen in 1712 within "thirty miles of Charleston, South Carolina." But if "one desires to do buffalo hunting he must journey something like two thousand miles from the Atlantic Coast."

So what happened to all the buffalo out west? They seemed to have vanished en masse along with the Buffalo or Indian Head Nickel.   

Only in the last 10 or 15 years have the North American Bison returned from the near extinction that threatened them in the late 1800’s. Back then, an estimated herd of 50 million freely-roamed and ruled-supreme over the Great Plains of North America from Canada down to Mexico, and from the Appalachians in the east to the Rocky Mountains in the west. That was before the European settlers arrived. Reports in the literature of awestruck witnesses describe a “sea of black” trampling the plains with a deafening thunder during their annual migrations.


Within a few decades their numbers were reduced to a mere 2,000. It’s hard to fathom. Incredibly, today the herd size is about 500,000, half of which is based in Canada. Limited to national parks and private ranches, quadruple growth is anticipated in the next few years, all driven by North Americans love of red meat for consumption.

“The Herd Leader”
(From Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, January 1869)

The decimation of the herd did more than end an era of American history. It radically changed the lives of the Native Americans who relied on the buffalo for more than just meat, their primary food source. They wasted precious little by using the horns (for arrow points, medications, utensils and headdresses), the fat (for tallow, soap and lubricant), the hair (for decoration, ropes and pad filler), the stomach-lining (for water vessels), the manure (for fuel), the hide (for clothing, drums, ropes and saddles), the bones (knives, arrowheads and shovels), the muscles (glue and thread) and even the teeth (for ornamentation).

A late 1800’s buffalo hunt from the comfort of their seats while “on the line of the Kansas-Pacific Railroad”
(Modified from a Library of Congress photo)

The lives of the Plains Indians (more appropriately Native Americans) centered on the availability of bison that existed in a seemingly limitless supply. But with the coming of horseback, the railroads and rifles, non-native buffalo hunters nearly annihilated the herd for their tongues, hide, bones, fertilizer-use and especially fun. Best viewed as systematic slaughter, hunting buffalo was considered to be a healthy sport, while their remaining carcasses were left to rot on the plains. According to the book General Pope and U.S. Indian Policy, it is estimated that over 7.5 million buffalo were killed from 1872 to 1874 alone. Buffalo Bill Cody became famous for slaying thousands during his lifetime.

Men in the mid-1870s pose with a mountain of bison skulls.

Some historical scholars attribute the bison’s dramatic decline to drought, grassland fires, disease and even a covert governmental strategy to remove the Native American’s primary food source in order to subjugate them and obtain their land. Regardless, overhunting by humans was the ultimate reason for the species’ near extinction with reckless greed, whether for wealth or land, as the primary motivation for their wholesale slaughter.

Ironically, the iconic North American bison still represents the free and open spirit of the western prairie. Perhaps the story of the buffalo’s near extermination is the greatest symbol of America’s wasted abundance. Man’s presence on earth is replete with examples of disregard for the planet and its resources. Lessons of the past must be learned and relearned.