History of Bison
The North American Bison…Home, Again, On the Range
The story of the buffalo far exceeds its own legend. It is a story of the land and that land’s amazing ability to feed and nurture one of its children, until that child becomes the most abundant beast on Earth…and the most sought after.
Hardly 200 years have passed since the great and shaggy humpbacked cattle of the Americas outnumbered their human antagonists by as much as 75 million to just four million. Nevertheless, the outnumbered species quickly prevailed in what is now regarded as the greatest and most thoughtless slaughter of wild animals this world has ever known.
By sheer force of numbers alone, the North American bison should have been invincible. Lewis and Clark encountered a herd of buffalo stretching “as far as the eye could see.” Settlers on the western frontier in 1860 saw “uncountable numbers of buffalo” with great herds of hundreds upon thousands of animals.
A train on the Kansas Pacific Railroad in 1868 traveled 120 miles through one continuous herd. Another train in Kansas was stopped in its tracks, helpless for eight hours while one unending herd of buffalo passed by.
The North American Bison, called buffalo in this story because those who saw them in all their wild glory said they were buffalo, once ranged over most of the continent east of the Rockies and from Mexico as far north as Canada’s Great Slave Lake. Early colonists on the east coast heard stories from not far inland of a strange new ox-like animal with a hump, horns, and a beard.
Estimates of how many bison actually ranged throughout the U.S. and Canada before being slaughtered to the edge of extinction go as high as 125 million. But the most scientific effort to determine how many buffalo actually may have roamed the land at one time was made by well known naturalist, artist, and writer, Ernest Thompson Seton (Wild Animals I Have Known).
75 Million Bison
Seton reasoned that the original range of the buffalo quite probably supported at least as many bison as it later did cattle and horses. Using U.S. Census figures of 1900 for cattle and horse numbers in the known buffalo range, then modifying those numbers downward to account for unknown factors, Seton still came up with the believable estimate that 75 million bison once roamed across the U.S. and Canada.
Wherever bison were found they were almost always shot, the value of their meat and hides all too obvious to anyone trying to survive off the land.
Had not a mere handful of these mighty animals escaped the killing, this continent would have lost forever one of the most amazingly useful and most magnificent wild creatures to ever grace the world’s plains and prairies.
The first known killing of large numbers of buffalo took place in Pennsylvania. An early settler admitted killing 2,000 buffalo for their robes, worth 25 shillings each at the time. And when buffalo in Union County, Pennsylvania, got into a settler’s cabin and destroyed everything and everyone inside, a distraught father, joined by every other man in the region, pursued the herd until nearly every one of the buffalo had been killed.
Bison from the vast herds was negligible, far fewer than the buffalo’s ability to produce offspring. When a white hunter asked an Indian why he killed only two buffalo a day when so many could easily be had for the taking, the Indian replied that two was all his wife could skin and cut up in a day. But when hunting in large groups, the Indians knew how to “funnel” the bison into a place where many of them could be either trapped and killed with lance and bow or stampeded over a cliff to die in the fall.
But nothing the Indians did compared to what happened when thousands of hide hunters and skinners went after the buffalo in the mid-1800s. Downwind and in hiding, they often shot the animals so fast that one rifle had to be put aside to cool while the hunter used a second one.
The .50 Caliber Trophy
Powerful breech-loading Springfield and Sharpe’s rifles with scopes could drop a bison at 600 yards. Sportsmen added to the carnage, killing large numbers of buffalo for little more than the thrill of an easy hunt. Many buffalo were shot from moving trains and not even the hides were recovered.
The heavy, plush bison robes found ready markets in the East and in Europe. There was nothing to compare with them for use as carriage blankets and greatcoats. Long before central heating, many a child slept soundly through a cold winter’s night, warm under the weight of a buffalo blanket.
David Dary in his most thorough buffalo research published as The Buffalo Book, tells of a hide yard in Dodge City, Kansas, that could handle up to 80,000 bison hides at a time in the mid-1870s. He also cites a Kansas newspaper, in 1872, that reported up to 2,000 hide hunters working just in western Kansas and each one killing about 15 buffalo a day.
Both Wild Bill Hickok and “Buffalo Bill” Cody were authentic and skilled buffalo hunters, though neither one likely ever shot nearly as many buffalo as did the far less flamboyant “buffalo runners” who sold hides for a buck or two but never got into show business
Bill Cody’s amazing ability to shoot buffalo from a running horse, however, was genuine. In his autobiography, Cody tells about a group of Army officers on the Kansas frontier out for their first buffalo hunt. Not recognizing Cody when he rode up to them, they thought to give this stranger a lesson in the use of a rifle. While the Army officers rode up behind a herd of buffalo, Cody circled to the front of the herd. He then rode back toward the officers, firing rapidly from his horse and killing 11 animals with 12 shots before any of the officers had gotten off a first shot.
In a showdown hunt with Buffalo Bill Comstock, another hunter of some note, half the town of Hays, Kansas, was on hand to watch. Three times that day, with rifles blazing, Cody and Comstock rode into a herd of buffalo. At the end of the day, Cody had tallied 69 kills to Comstock’s 46.
Dary, in his book, quotes buffalo runner Frank Mayer saying that, “in Dodge City (Kansas) and surrounding country a total of 3,158,730 buffalo were killed during 1872-74.” (page 96)
About 1870 something unexpected happened that made buffalo hides more valuable than ever and probably sealed the fate of the animal for good. Argentina, the main source for fine leather used in Europe, could no longer deliver the goods. Great numbers of wild Spanish cattle on the Argentine pampas had been hunted to near extinction for their leather. Buffalo skins quickly became the new source for fine European leather. Now, a molting summer hide was worth as much as a prime winter robe because, in Paris, leather was leather.
Epic of the Plains
The end of the bison was in sight by 1880. The earth-shaking herds that a few years earlier could not be counted, had disappeared on the plains from Texas to Nebraska. An estimated one million buffalo remained in Wyoming by 1881. But the unusually plush robes of these winter-hardened wild cattle made them an even more valuable target at $4 to $5 a hide.
The last great herds in ’81 and ’82 were almost literally surrounded by hunters blocking their migration routes and mowing them down like ducks in a shooting gallery. Records show that 200,000 buffalo hides were shipped east in 1882. That figure dropped to 40,000 in ’83, and to just 300 the next year.
By 1884 the buffalo were gone. The most extensive hunt of a single species of mammal in the history of the world had been too successful. Ernest Thompson Seton, in 1895, said he could verify only 800 buffalo existing in all of North America.
Where once the great herds extended from horizon to horizon, the plains were now white in places, like a frost out of season, the bleached bones of dead buffalo. It was said a person could walk on buffalo bones from Texas to North Dakota without ever touching the ground.
Buffalo bones became a new crop, gathered, sold, and ground fine to whiten sugar. Ironically, many tons were ground into fertilizer to grow corn and wheat in the very soil over which the buffalo itself had once roamed.
Gone, too, were the colorful Indians of the plains who could not live without the buffalo.
Buffalo at the Bunker
Buffalo were not a commercial success at the turn of the century, but credit must be given to private ranchers for keeping significant numbers of them from certain slaughter in the wild. Texan Charles Goodnight captured buffalo calves and raised them on his ranch as early as 1876. In 1910 he had 125 buffalo and had already sold some to zoos and to Yellowstone Park.
Offspring of wild buffalo captured in western Oklahoma in 1883 ended up in the New York Zoological Park in 1904. Three years later some of them were shipped back to their original Oklahoma range, the nucleus of the present day herd of 600 buffalo in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge near Lawton.
While the buffalo has made an amazing comeback, a great mystery remains. Records and historical accounts do not begin to show how hunters could have possibly killed up to 75 million buffalo. And what about the addition of millions of calves that would have been born to these animals every year?
“Bison are survivors first and reproducers second,” said David Sverduk, a bison breeder and consultant in Pennsylvania. Sverduk has observed that bison cows will not breed when they are either stressed or have nutritional deficiencies. “They are naturally healthy, but a buffalo cow will not cycle unless her body is in condition. It’s a natural protection that domestic cattle don’t have,” he said.
Could this explain, at least in part, why huge herds of buffalo, on the run and under survival pressure, may not have produced sufficient offspring to make up for the numbers lost to the hide hunters?
The only serious problem he has encountered with buffalo as feedlot cattle has been parasites. Without exception, every buffalo coming into his pens is wormed three times at 30-day intervals. Giving medications doesn’t have to be an exhausting ordeal, even with the temperamental buffalo, he said. Not long ago he proved it: with skeptics watching, he gave injections and oral medications to 140 buffalo in a six-hour period…less than 2 1/2 minutes per animal.
Buffalo in pens eat only two-thirds the amount of feed that pastured animals require, but they gain faster. For every pound put on a pastured buffalo, his feedlot animals put on two to three pounds. Bull calves intended for slaughter at 1,200 pounds, he said, gain at the rate of about two pounds a day.
Return to the Native People
The wild buffalo of North America is a native ruminant of unpredictable behavior. It may appear sluggish, dim-witted, even docile, but people who value their lives should never venture too close to one. Any buffalo can suddenly charge without warning. A formidable fighter, it is equipped by nature to do maximum damage to an opponent.
Even a grizzly bear had to be careful which buffalo it picked on. In a fight witnessed by several frontiersmen between a buffalo bull and a grizzly, the grizzly seemed to be having the best of the fight when the injured buffalo suddenly lunged, catching the bear’s mid-section with his horns and twisting his mighty head into the soft flesh. With a horrible roar of pain, the bear was finished. Both animal warriors retreated into the brush and died.
The buffalo has small legs and feet for its size, and in spite of all the shoulder bulk, it is surprisingly nimble like a goat. It has the ability to jump fences that would contain most cattle, and, when startled, it can jump over another buffalo to make its getaway. Except when chased or starved, buffalo will stay within normal cattle fencing. Cows weigh 900 to 1,200 pounds; bulls 1,500 to 1,800 pounds, with some big ones going to well over 2,000 pounds.
Calves are generally born in late spring and weigh 40 to 50 pounds. Cows in good health produce a calf almost every year and can be bred up to age 30. It is not all that unusual to find a cow still producing calves at age 40.
Bison Are Back
To assist commercial producers, two organizations merged in 1995 to form the National Bison Association (NBA) in the U.S. Sam Albrecht, Executive Director of the Denver, Colorado based organization, reports the NBA has over 2,400 members in 50 states and 20 countries. He says the industry is growing at a strong 15 to 20 percent a year. The Canadian Bison Association, in Regina, Saskatchewan, has 1,400 members.
About 40,000 buffalo are slaughtered each year for the meat industry. This compares with about 125,000 beef cattle that go to market every day in the U.S. alone. Bison meat, according to the USDA Nutritional Database, tops beef, pork, and chicken for low fat and cholesterol. When comparing 100 grams of cooked lean meat, bison had 2.42 grams of fat to over seven for skinless chicken and more than nine for both beef and pork.
Every indication in the bison business points to a thriving industry. Live auction prices for top breeding animals have been high in recent years. In 1999, a two-year old bull at the annual Gold Trophy Bison Show and Sale in Denver brought a record price of $101,000.
While buffalo herds may never again rival the grand and massive herds of history, at least 250,000 buffalo now live throughout North America.
Article by Gary Martin