16 What Kinds Of Animals Once Lived On The Prairies The Extermination of the American Buffalo

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The Extermination of the American Buffalo

The bison, or buffalo, is believed to have originated in Eurasia, then crossed over the Bering Strait land bridge that once connected the Asian and North American continents. In prehistoric times, massive herds literally darkened the face of the earth as they roamed and foraged. Over many centuries, 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 Pacific Northwest coast to Oregon southeast to Florida.

Bison were the most abundant single species of wild mammal on Earth and have been the largest land mammal in North America since the end of the Ice Age. A male buffalo can stand up to six feet tall and weigh up to 2,000 pounds.

Before the desecration of the American wilderness by the white man, 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, skin and bones of the animal.

In the 19th century, buffalo were hunted to extinction. In the 1880s, only a few hundred of the majestic creatures still survived.

The main 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 carpets and cloths so coveted by the wealthy elite. The buffalo hunt of the Old West was very often a massive commercial enterprise, involving organized teams of professional hunters, supported by a team of skinners, gun cleaners, reloaders, camp cooks, wranglers, blacksmiths, teams and numerous horses, mules and wagons. Men were even employed to recover and rework the 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 up to 50,000 – 100,000 buffalo were executed per day, depending on the season. Buffalo hunters left behind slowly rotting carcasses in giant piles of buffalo bones, making the prairie so white, some said it looked like it was covered in snow even in the summer months. After the carcasses were decomposed, the buffalo bones were collected and sent back to the east.

Many of these professional hunters, such as Buffalo Bill Cody, killed hundreds of animals in a single stand and many thousands in their careers. A proud professional hunter slaughtered over 20,000 by his own count. An average quality hide could fetch $3 and a good one (the heavy winter coat) could sell for $50 in an era when a laborer would be lucky to earn a dollar a day. Greed is a great motivator. Many people denounced the massacre, but few acted actively to stop the massacre.

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, both local and federal, to starve the Plains Indian population by eliminating their main food source, the buffalo. Herds were the basis of survival of the Plains tribes. Without the buffalo to feed and clothe them, the Indians would be forced to leave or starve.

Because the Indians depended so much on the buffalo for their survival, their very religions were centered around the buffalo. The interdependence between the Indians and the buffalo is illustrated in the poetic words of John Fire Lame Deer:

“Bumali gave us everything we needed. Without him we were nothing. Our skins were made of his skin. His hide was our bed, our blanket, our winter coat. It was our drum, that trembled in the night, alive, holy. Of his skin we made our water-bags. His flesh strengthened us, became flesh of our flesh. Not the smallest part of him went to waste. His belly, a hot stone fell into it, became our soup pot. His horns were our spoons, his bones our knives, our women’s goads and needles. From his needles we made our bows and strings, his ribs became sledges for our children, his hooves were they made a noise, his mighty skull, with the pipe resting on it, was our sacred altar. The name of the greatest of all the Sioux was Tatanka Iyotake – Sitting Bull. When you killed the buffalo, you killed the Indian – the real Indian , natural, “wild”.

The government also actively encouraged buffalo hunting for other reasons. A reduction in the buffalo population allowed ranchers to feed on their cattle without competition from other cattle. The railroad industry also wanted the buffalo herds to disappear or be eliminated. Herds of buffalo on railroad tracks could damage or derail locomotives when trains did not stop in time. During winter storms, massive herds often sought shelter in the artificial clearings formed by the grade of tracks winding through the prairies and hills. As a result, buffalo herds can delay the passage of a train for days, and delays cost money.

In 1884, the American buffalo was close to extinction and proposals were made to protect the buffalo. Knowing that the pressure on the species was too great, Cody was one of the most vocal proponents of measures to save the declining buffalo population.

In South Dakota, James “Scotty” Phillips’ herd was one of the earliest buffalo reintroductions to North America. In 1899, Phillips had a goal of saving the species from extinction and bought a small herd from Doug Carlin. Carlin’s son, Fred, roped 5 calves on the last big buffalo hunt on the Grand River in 1881 and transported them to the family farm on the Cheyenne River. At the time of purchase there were approximately 7 purebred buffalo left in the United States.

By the time of his death in 1911 at the age of 53, Phillips had developed the herd to about 1,000 to 1,200 head. Several other herds were also created from the 5 rescued calves at Grand River.

During that time, two Montana ranchers, Charles Allard and Michel Pablo, invested over 20 years in amassing 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 US government refused to buy the bison herd, Pablo entered into a contract with the Canadian government to ship most of his herd to north on the newly built Elk. Island National Park.

The current American buffalo population has recovered rapidly and is estimated at 350,000, compared to an estimated 75 to 100 million in the mid-19th century. However, most current herds are genetically contaminated or partially crossbred with cattle. There are currently only four genetically unmixed herds and only one that is also brucellosis-free; he resides in 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 extermination of the 1800s by hiding in Yellowstone Park’s Pelican Valley.

Yellowstone Park buffalo 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 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 separate segment of the population under the Endangered Species Act.

In Montana, where public herds require logging to control target bison populations, hunting was reinstated 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, yet our past treatment of this majestic animal is shameful. We hope that we will carefully consider how to secure an ecological future for the buffalo and all the wild creatures that still inhabit our precious planet.

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