The disappearance of the American bison to the verge of extermination constitutes one of the greatest and most striking catastrophes to our wild life that have occurred in the experience of modern man. The manner in which the total loss of this magnificent animal as a member of our fauna has been prevented should fill all who are endeavoring to conserve our wild life on this and other continents with confidence and hope.
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 Beddard’s 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 end—complete 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.
But this could not long continue. No longer did the prairies thunder with the sound of thousands of galloping hoofs. The great herds were driven farther and farther afield. Indians who formerly merely cut out the tongues of their victims, if they took any part of the carcass at all, now almost starved for want of food. In 1857 the Plains-Cree inhabiting the country around the headwaters of the Qu’Appelle River decided that on account of the rapid destruction of the bison by the white men and half-breeds they would not permit them to hunt in their country or travel through it except for the purpose of trading for their dried meat, pemmican, or robes.