What Really Caused the Near Extinction of the American Bison
In Hay Camp at Shade Ranch in the Little Missouri Grasslands near Medora, North Dakota, in 2013 we spoke of “Texas Tick Fever”. It had been mentioned in a program, perhaps on the History Channel, which described the devastation brought by the disease to the domestic cattle herds in the northern plains in the 1800s. Kim Shade commented that some say that this disease is what accomplished the virtual extinction of the American Bison. There is evidence to support that theory. In 1983, a pathologist, Dr. Rudolph W. Koucky *(1), published a paper concluding that the last 4 million American Bison (the remainder of the northern herd), succumbed in 1882 to disease, not bullets.
The American Bison ranged from Northern Mexico to Southern Canada and is variously estimated to have numbered from 30 million to more than 100 million animals. Calculations based on the “carrying capacity” of the land area set the total herd size at around 30 to 60 million. Many who actually saw the great herds from Texas to the Great Plains believe 30 million to be too conservative. The “Timeline of the American Bison” as recorded by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (no more credible than other sources) is a source of the following benchmarks:
- In the 1500s an estimated 30 to 60 million Bison were living in North America
- From 1700 to 1820, European Americans settled the country, moving westward from the east coast. They brought changes to native habitat through plowing and farming, and the introduction of cattle diseases and grazing competition. Native Americans tribes, forced off of their lands to the east, brought horses and guns to the Great Plains which increased pressure on the bison.
- 1830: organized hunting of the great herds began.
- 1840: buffalo had disappeared east of the Mississippi and west of the Rocky Mountains
- In the 1860s, railroads built across the Great Plains divided the bison into two main herds - the southern and the northern. Many bison were killed to feed the railway crews and Army posts. During this time, Buffalo Bill Cody gained fame as a wholesale buffalo killer.
- By 1877 the southern herd had been exterminated.
- By 1880, slaughter of the northern herd had begun.
- By 1884 there were approximately 325 wild American Bison in the United States, including 25 in Yellowstone National Park.
- Today there are over 250,000 bison in the United States; of which, reportedly less than 10,000 individuals are genetically pure, including around 4,500 in Yellowstone National Park.
Pure Bison Herd, Wind Cave National Park, Custer, SD June 2010 - Photo by OldOnesDream
The larger environmental context for the decline of the buffalo was set by climate, drought, disease, fire, horses, cattle, barbed wire, ranchers, railroads, market hunters, and so on. It was driven for the most part by the commodification of the buffalo — tongues, hides, and other parts as highly desired commodities in a greatly expanding marketplace. - Shepard Krech III, Buffalo Tales: The Near-Extermination of the American Bison, Brown University National Humanities Center
Until the early 1500s when the Spanish horses arrived in the West, the American Bison was the only large herbivore competing for food, and had no serious predator accept hunter gatherer native americans on foot, and wolves that primarily served to remove the sick and injured from the herd. The horse changed that dynamic. Horses reproduce rapidly and consume huge quantities of grass and water. Horses became the Native American currency and so huge herds were accumulated by them as wealth, which required large areas of rangeland (for food and water) - all at the expense of the American Bison.
The Native Americans
The buffalo was revered by the Native Americans. That Tatanka was conserved by them is the conventional wisdom but in reality they slaughtered the buffalo in great numbers by driving them over cliffs, and by the use of prairie fire. This slaughter may have expanded once the Native Americans became horsed.
One of the Bison’s enemies was his own small sharp hoofs which could cause them to become immobilized in mud or snow, which made them easy game for hunters, and which occasionally resulted in starvation of large numbers.
It was the nature of the bison herds to graze into the wind.
One of the Sioux who fled to Canada with Sitting Bull told the author the story of a great herd lost because unseasonably soft northern winds had drawn them far into the frozen lands of upper Canada one fall, into the face of the arctic winter. The entire herd starved and froze there, leaving their bones to bleach … until the whole region was white as with the snows in which the buffaloes had died. How many were lost? “Ahh-h, it was long ago, and the dead ones were very many,” the old Indian replied. “Enough to feed all the women and children a long, long time, Perhaps this many —“ touching his two finger-spread hands at the thumbs, moving them from the right shoulder left and downward for the sign of a hundred. Then instead of counting the number of hundreds on the backs of the fingers he made the sign again, one hundred hundred, and then once more. One hundred times one hundred hundred — a million. “Very, very many,” he said softly, as to himself. - Mari Sandoz, The Buffalo Hunters, (Hastings House, NY, 1954), page 45-46.
Bison Female Harvest
Both the Native Americans and the European Americans selectively killed Bison cows because of the superiority of the female hides both for domestic use and for the market. In the rare cases when the meat was actually used, the meat of the cow, particularly that of the fetus, was considered to be superior. It is obvious that the selective killing of females would exert extra pressure on population by artificially decreasing the number of reproducing animals. Do the math.
The organized hunting for hides and tongues that began before 1850 resulted in the killing of many millions of bison each year. Mari Sandoz grew up on the Niobrara River in the Sand Hills of Nebraska and listened to the stories of the Old Ones who came to her fathers store from the Rose Bud and Pine Ridge reservations. Her books are good records of interviews with the Sioux. She states that by the 1850s, the Native Americans probably killed around 3.5 million bison each year for the needs of their own population of around 250,000 and the robes they traded. That number seems high. Native Americans have been known to exaggerate when describing their own activities.
U. S. War Department Policy
There is the matter of the U. S. Government policy of trying to force the Native Americans onto the reservations by destroying their food supply, similiar to the tactic used so successfully by General William Tecumseh Sherman just a few years earlier against the Confederate States of America. Although there was never a documented U. S. War Department policy of extermination of the bison, that goal was broadly spoken of among government officials and endorsed by General Phillip H. Sheridan*(2).
The Native Americans used fire as a management tool which benefitted the land and the wildlife and they used it to enhance the harvest of bison. The U. S. Department of War used fire as well. According to Mari Sandoz, in January 1865, fires were set, on the orders of Brigadier General Robert B. Mitchell, “… at close intervals all along the line of the Platte and the South Fork, from Kearney in middle Nebraska to the foothills of the Rockies near Denver — better than four hundred and thirty miles.” Sandoz further relates that the fire burned southward for three days, destroying millions of creatures, “… all the game dead or driven from an area half again as large as all of New England.” No Native Americans were killed. They backfired around their camps and horse herds. Many European American settlers along the east were wiped out, their lives saved by their dugout homes, but their livestock killed by the fire. A few greenhorn buffalo hunters perished. I have not seen an estimate of how many bison were killed. Do the math for the geographic area consumed— there must have been millions of bison exterminated?
The bison was the enemy of the railroads because the great herds could derail the relatively lightweight engines and cars of the day, and because the seemingly endless masses of bison moving across the tracks would delay the scheduled arrivals and departures of the trains. The railroad owners organized hunting trips for “sportsmen” who would shoot bison from the comfort of the catered railroad cars. The railroad also hired buffalo hunters to kill bison to feed the huge crews of railroad construction workers during the time of the great railroad building push that occurred in the 1860s over multiple routes from the Mississippi River to the West Coast.
Sandoz states “… there was apparently no disease on all the continent that threatened the buffalo in any number.” That is debatable but certainly was no longer true once the European Americans arrived with their domestic cattle.
In 1825, a “murrain” wiped out all of the hoofed animals in eastern Nebraska resulting in the starvation of some Native Americans in the area, and again in 1858 all of the hoofed animals along the trails between Fort Laramie and Bridger died. Sierra Stoneberg-Holt, Phd., a rancher and scientist in Montana says “…the die-offs in Nebraska seem to match anthrax, and there is a strain of anthrax that was native to that area since about the Pleistocene.”
Yellowstone Kelly, a trapper, wrote this account circa 1867:
Our course led over rolling prairie when we crossed a high and level plain which extended for many miles. The plain was covered with a thin coating of ice, and on all sides as far as the eye could reach was dotted with bodies of dead buffaloes. These animals were in good condition and bore no mark of bullet or arrow wounds. The cause of their death was a mystery to us. As we marched over the plain toward the valley of the Cheyenne, the appearance of so many carcasses scattered around made a strong impression on my mind, perhaps because they were the first buffaloes I had ever seen.
Division of the Herd
The railroads and wagon trains, and the disease epidemics that wiped out the herds along the Platte River, divided the Bison and segregated the Northern and Southern Herds. By 1880, all that remained was the Northern Herd which ranged Montana and Canada and small parts of the Dakotas and Wyoming. Estimates were that the Northern Herd numbered four million animals. By 1884, the buffalo were finished, they were gone.
Cattle Drives and Tick Fever
After the Civil War, ranches were created in Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, and Wyoming, largely with Texas cattle - cattle no doubt carrying “tick fever”. There were reported instances of wagon trains of settlers headed west having their oxen become ill and die while traveling through this country.
E. C. “Teddy Blue” Abbott in his 1939 memoir, We Pointed Them North: Recollections of a Cowpuncher, tells of driving the first Texas cattle to Montana in 1880. He later describes the evidence he saw of slaughter of the Buffalo and deplored how the range was covered with carcasses on which the hide remained. He may not have fully realized what he was seeing.
Forty years later, while hunting on the former northern buffalo range, the pathologist Rudolph W. Koucky, M.D., saw buffalo skeletons “… arranged much like a herd of cattle lying on a meadow.” As a pathologist, he took the same scene that “Teddy Blue” had seen and interpreted it in the light of math and science. He could find no suggestion that the animals had been killed and wrote “They had simply laid down and died. … That scene has had considerable influence on my interpretation of the disappearance of the buffalo. It is, in fact, my firm belief that the several million buffalo died from disease.”*(1) page 28
"In 1881 and 1882 disaster struck the northern herd. The four million animals, together with their anticipated 500,000 annual offspring, disappeared in those two years”. *(1) page 25
Because all of the hunters involved, Native and European, preferred the hides and the meat of younger female bison; there was the counter productive pressure of gender imbalance in the great herds. Sandoz says that: “… by 1867 there were approximately 9 or 10 bulls to every cow.” That is a strong statement. If we are to believe that, and if that trend continued, and there is no reason to think otherwise, then the last four million American Bison may have been almost all bulls. Imagine the level of stress in that herd. Do the reproductive math. That would have been just about the end of line for the last four million in the northern herd.
1882: The End of the Line
There is data and there is data and there is math and there is math and much of it is in conflict in the many tellings of the story of the American Bison. There is exaggeration, contradiction, and rearrangement of mostly incomplete data. There is much to read about and many people to trust or not. There is, however, a strong case to be made that the last 4 million bison and their “anticipated 500,000 annual offspring” were not killed by hunters with horses, wagons, knives, single shot hunting rifles, and black powder ammunition in a land with no roads, all in a period of two years. Do the math, but by all means read the Koucky article.
The primary cause of the buffalo's extermination, and the one which embraced all others was the descent of civilization, with all its elements of destructiveness, upon the whole of the country inhabited by that animal."
— William Temple Hornaday, "The Extermination of the American Bison" (1889)
(2) Sheridan to Adjunct General, October 13, 1881, Box 29, Sheridan Papers
The inspiration for this article is entirely the result of remarks made by Sierra Dawn Stoneberg-Holt, Phd., a rancher and scientist living near Saco, Montana; and Kim Shade, a rancher at Medora, North Dakota.
Many books and periodicals were read. The following were very helpful.
(1) Rudolph W. Koucky, M.D. “The Buffalo Disaster of 1882,” published in 1983 by North Dakota History: Journal of the Northern Plains Koucky’s article is a serious scholarly work. His research is exhaustive, his conclusions logical, and his math is impeccable.
Dr. Sam Fadala, Was the Buffalo Hunted to Near Extinction, Petersen’s Hunting; September 4, 2012: Fadala, writing in a hunting magazine, relies largely on Koucky’s information.
Mari Sandoz, “The Buffalo Hunters”, Hastings House, NY, 1954. Mari Sandoz grew up on the Niobrara River in the Sand Hills of Nebraska and listened to the stories of the Old Ones who came to her fathers store from the Rose Bud and Pine Ridge reservations. Her books are beautifully written records of interviews with the Sioux. Her Crazy Horse biography was the first that I know of and is a favorite of mine.