The Coming Back of the Bison

Under Government and private protection bison have increased


Bison do not always show respect for a fence; consequently the enclosure must be given genuine stability. The nine-foot fence at Buffalo Park is composed of fourteen strands of galvanized steel wire, strengthened with upright wires at one foot intervals. On either side of the fence a strip twenty-five feet wide is kept plowed as a fire guard and similar guards against prairie fires are cut across the preserve. A one-horse team, journeying nearly five hundred miles throughout the year, keeps the guard strips permanently broken up.

C. Gordon Hewitt
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.

scattered bison
Salvaged remnant from the millions that once roamed the continent: Probably no large quadruped has ever developed in such prodigious numbers as did the American bison in the days of its glory. But of former myriads there were left in 1889 only about six hundred wild bison over the entire continent. From this small nucleus several herds were recruited of which the largest is now in Buffalo Park, Alberta, Canada. The photographs show the bison in small scattered groups as is their usual custom on the range.
scattered bison
C. Gordon Hewitt
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 world’s mammalian fauna.


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