Pick from the Past
Natural History, December 1919
The Coming Back of the Bison
There has always remained in my mind the impression which I received when, as a student of zoölogy, the tragedy of the American bison was brought home to me by a little colored chart in the Manchester University Museum showing the past and present distribution of this animal and its gradual decrease in numbers. Frank Evers Beddards excellent volume on "Mammalia" in The Cambridge Natural History had recently been published, and the sad history was summarized in these words: "The Bison of America, formerly present in such numbers that the prairies were black with countless herds, has now diminished to about a thousand head." Little did I think at that time that I should later become directly interested in the bringing back of the bison.
The extent of the destruction of the bison appalls us by its immensity when we consider the character of the animal. It would seem inconceivable that this, the largest of the wild fauna of our continent, should have been reduced within the limits of the last century from countless millions to the point of extermination. Formerly ranging over about one third of the entire continent it has been practically wiped out of existence except for a small band of so called "wood bison" now to be found in the Athabaska region of Canada. That its disappearance was an inevitable result of the development of the country does not diminish the character of the tragedy. The bison is the greatest of all our American animals and undoubtedly the most noble of its family in any part of the world. Now it has practically disappeared from the face of the continent and only by the foresight of the Canadian and United States governments has it been prevented from becoming completely exterminated. The history of its disappearance and the most complete account we have of this noble member of our native fauna have been given in a memoir by Dr. W. T. Hornaday, director of the New York Zoölogical Park (The Extermination of the American Bison, Washington, 1889).
Its former range in North America according to Hornaday, was as follows: "Starting almost at tide-water on the Atlantic coast, it extended westward through a vast tract of dense forest, across the Alleghany Mountain system to the prairies along the Mississippi, and southward to the Delta of that great stream. Although the great plains country of the West was the natural home of the species, where it flourished most abundantly, it also wandered south across Texas to the burning plains of northeastern Mexico, westward across the Rocky Mountains into New Mexico, Utah, and Idaho, and northward across a vast treeless waste to the bleak and inhospitable shores of the Great Slave Lake itself." The vast herds of bison seemed to clothe the prairies in a coat of brown. They were as thick as the leaves in the forest. These immense herds greeted the advance guards of civilization and that process spelled their doom.
The history of the bison is an illustration on the largest possible scale of the history of every species of wild animal when man invades its natural haunts with an unrestrained desire to kill. No part of our wild life can withstand the destructive influence of man armed with modern guns; the only salvation for any species is the restriction by law of the number that may be killed. These considerations, however, had no part in the early days with the bison. It was faced by men armed with powerful firearms who killed without any regard for the future, and there was a complete absence of any restrictions on the part of all the governments concerned. The Indians who had always regarded the bison as the source of their meat supply had their point of view entirely changed so far as the number of animals to be killed was concerned. Their passion for killing was inflamed by the example of the white hunters with serious economic results when their source of meat was wiped out.
Various methods of slaughter were followed. The extraordinary stupidity of the animals made them an easy prey for the still-hunters. Still-hunting was conducted on business lines and was highly profitable when more than a hundred animals could be killed from one stand and the robes were worth $2 and $4 each. The practice of hunting on horseback provided an exciting sport and when the hunters, white, half-breed, and Indian, went out in armies the results were disastrous to the herds, particularly as the cows were especially chosen owing to the superior value of their skins. A favorite method employed by the Indians was that of impounding or killing the animals in pens into which they were driven. This method was commonly practiced among the Plains-Cree in the South Saskatchewan country. The terrible scenes that attended these wholesale slaughters of the herds are beyond description. Other methods of slaughter on a large scale were surrounding, decoying, and driving the animals, and all tended toward the same endcomplete extermination of the herds. As the animals became scarce the half-breeds and Indians vied with the white hunters in destroying them. Far more bison were destroyed than could possibly be utilized.
Catlin has given some idea of the enormous numbers of bison that were killed during the first half of the nineteenth century (Illustrations of the Manners and Customs and Conditions of the North American Indians, London, 1841). In 1832 he stated that 150,000 to 200,000 robes were marketed annually, which meant a slaughter of 2,000,000 or perhaps 3,000,000 bison. So great was the destruction that he prophesied their extermination within eight or ten years. Frémont about the same time also bore witness to the appalling destruction.
The death knell was struck when the construction of the Union Pacific Railway was begun at Omaha in 1866. Previous to the advent of the first transcontinental railway the difficulties of marketing the results of the slaughter served as a slight check on the rate of extermination for, although the bison were being killed out at a rate greatly in excess of their natural increase, they would have existed for some years longer than the coming of the railroads and additional swarms of white hunters rendered possible. This railroad divided the original great body of bison into southern and northern herds. That was the beginning of the end. Although the range of the northern herd was about twice as extensive as that of the southern, the latter contained probably twice as many bison. Hornaday estimates that in 1871 the southern herd contained 3,000,000 animals, although most estimates give a higher total than this.
The slaughter of the southern herd began in 1871 and reached its height two years later. From 1871 to 1872 the wastefulness was prodigious. The skins that were marketed bore no indication of the enormous slaughter. In four short years the great southern herd was wiped out of existence, and by 1875 it ceased to exist.
By the time the destruction of the northern herd began in earnest, the bison in Canada had already become very scarce. The remnants of our former herds were assiduously hunted by the Indians as they constituted their main supply of food. As Hornaday states: "...the herds of British America had been almost totally exterminated by the time the final slaughter of our northern herd was inaugurated by the opening of the Northern Pacific Railway in 1880. The Canadian Pacific Railway played no part whatever in the extermination of the Bison in the British Possessions, for that extermination had already taken place. The half-breeds of Manitoba, the Plains-Cree of QuAppelle, and the Blackfeet of the South Saskatchewan country swept bare a great belt of country stretching east and west between the Rocky Mountains and Manitoba. The Canadian Pacific Railway found only bleaching bones in the country through which it passed. The buffalo had disappeared from that entire region before 1879 and left the Blackfeet Indians on the verge of starvation. A few thousand buffaloes still remained in the country around the headwaters of the Battle River, between the North and South Saskatchewan, but they were surrounded and attacked from all sides, and their numbers diminished very rapidly until all were killed."
The main part of the northern herd was to be found in the United States. Here the Indians of the northwestern territories were waging a relentless war on the animals. Hornaday computes that the number of bison slaughtered annually by those tribes must have been about 375,000. The destruction of the northern herd began in earnest in 1876 and became universal over the entire range four years later. By this time the annual export of robes from the buffalo country had diminished three fourths. The construction of the Northern Pacific Railway hastened the extermination of the herd. White and Indian hunters killed so long as there were buffaloes to kill. The hunting season which began in 1882 and ended in February, 1883, completed the annihilation of the great northern herd and only a few thousand head were left, broken into straggling bands. The last shipment of robes was sent out from the Dakota Territory in 1884. In 1889, Hornaday, on the basis of all available data, estimated that the number of buffalo running wild and unprotected was 635 animals! Was the destruction of an animal ever so completely brought about? It furnishes what is undoubtedly the most striking and appalling example of the fate of an animal existing in apparently inexhaustible numbers, when left exposed to unrestricted slaughter, and should be a serious lesson to the people of this continent and of the world for all time. That in the face of advancing civilization the buffalo had to go was inevitable. It occupied lands that were to furnish homes and occupation for millions of immigrants and that now produce so large a part of the worlds staple crop.
Time, however, will not efface the traces of the bisons occupation of the continent. They blazed the trails that later became important highways. As A.B. Hulbert in his Historic Highways of America has pointed out, the bison selected the route through the Alleghanies by which the white man entered and took possession of the Mississippi Valley. They found the best routes across the continent and "human intercourse will move constantly on paths first marked by the buffalo." It is interesting that the bison found the strategic passageways through the mountains; it is also interesting that they marked out the most practical paths between the heads of our rivers, paths that are closely followed today by the Pennsylvania, Baltimore and Ohio, Chesapeake and Ohio, Wabash, and other great railroads.
But there came finally a brighter period in the history of the bison in America. In 1889, when they had reached their lowest level, there were only 256 buffalo in captivity, 200 protected by the United States Government in the Yellowstone Park, and 635 running wild, of which number 550 were estimated to be in the Athabaska region of the Canadian Northwest Territories; the whole bison population at that time was estimated to be 1091 head. An attempt was now made in the United States to protect the remnant and by 1903, according to the census of the American Bison Society, they had increased to 1753 head. These were chiefly confined in the national reservations and parks of the United States Government; some were owned by private individuals. The largest private owner appears to have been Michael Pablo, of Montana, who had a herd of about 700 animals in 1906, the value of which he fully appreciated.
In 1907 the Canadian Government learned that the Pablo herd was for sale and with commendable foresight purchased it, realizing the importance of acquiring so valuable a herd of what had formerly been the most abundant of our large native mammals. For its reception and maintenance a special national park was established at Wainwright in Alberta. This reservation covers an area of about 160 square miles, the whole of which is enclosed in a special wire fence about 76 miles in length. Judging by the abundance of old bison wallows it evidently formed a favorite place for bison in years gone by. Several lakes the largest of which is Jamieson Lake, about seven miles long, provide an ample water supply. The difficulties involved in the capture of the Pablo herd of bison and the transportation of the animals to the Buffalo Park at Wainwright, Alberta, can better be imagined than described. From the date of the receipt of the last animals in 1909 they have increased steadily each year until in 1918 they numbered 3711 head, or more than three times the total number of bison known to be living in North America in 1889.
The United States Government also took steps to protect and increase the herds of bison remaining. A national bison range was established in Montana; and in the Yellowstone National Park and other national reservations the bison were carefully protected, with successful results.
There are now eight herds protected by the United States Government comprising altogether 891 animals, The largest number is contained in the Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, where there were on January 1, 1919, 457 animals. In the Montana National Bison Range there were 242 animals on the same date, and the third largest herd is to be found in the Wichita National Forest and Game Reserve in Oklahoma where there are about 100 bison.
The total number of captive bison in the United States in January, 1919, according to a statement kindly furnished to me by Mr. M. S. Garretson, secretary of the American Bison Society, was 2048 head. It is estimated that there are also about 70 wild bison, making a total of about 3118 bison in the United States.
In Canada the Canadian Government has bison in three of the national parks. In 1918 the numbers of bison in these reservations were as follows: in Buffalo National Park, Wainright, Alberta, 3520 animals; in Elk Island Park, Alberta, 183; and in the Rocky Mountains Park, Banff, Alberta, 8; making a total of 3711 head. In addition it is estimated that there are about 500 wild bison, or wood bison, in the Athabaska region where they are now protected. Scattered throughout the Dominion in public and private parks there are approximately 40 additional bison. The total number of bison in Canada at the beginning of 1919, therefore, was about 4250 animals.
From the above estimates it will be seen that we have now approximately 7360 bison in the United States and Canada, as compared with 1091 in 1889. These figures show that the bison are coming back, and that they are doing so rapidly.
The rapid increase of the bison in our national reservations raises the question: "What shall we do with our surplus?" In the Buffalo Park at Wainwright, Alberta, this question is becoming a serious one as they will soon occupy as much range as is capable of sustaining them. The natural answer to this question is to create additional reservations, which policy undoubtedly will be followed, particularly in the United States where much additional range suitable for bison but less suitable for agricultural purposes is available. In addition provision is being made for the donation of surplus animals to municipalities, public organizations, and institutions. But cannot we go a step farther and consider the desirability of encouraging farmers to purchase surplus animals from the government and to maintain them? Anyone who has visited the bison in our national reservations will agree that if they were maintained in a semi-domesticated state they could be treated in the same manner as range cattle, provided they were enclosed. The cost of building suitable fencing might prove an obstacle in many cases, but it should not prove insuperable in view of the high price of beef. As a beef animal the value of the bison is well worth the careful consideration of our agricultural authorities. In addition it provides a robe of proven value in more northerly states and provinces. Not the least of the advantages of the bison over domestic cattle is their ability to "rustle" for themselves in winter and under climatic conditions which prove a hardship to our introduced cattle.
The proposal to utilize the bison in the manner suggested may appear impracticable, but how many of our ideas as to what was possible and what was impossible have, in the course of time, proved unfounded? The future alone will show. In the meantime all who are interested in the conservation of our wild life will be encouraged to further efforts by the story of the manner in which the bison was rescued from the fate which has befallen less magnificent members of the worlds mammalian fauna.