Over the last day or two, I’ve noticed a couple of emails and on-line comments suggesting that hunters are not to blame for the near extermination of the American bison, or buffalo. It’s one of those ideas that changes often but never goes away– kind of like most politicians. Its popularity has nothing to do with what it means; rather, it has to do with how it makes us feel. After all, it would be nice if we didn’t have such a crime and atrocity hanging over our heads.
But the fact is, we do. At the time of European contact, there were perhaps thirty million buffalo inside an area spanning from the Rocky Mountains on the west, to the Mississippi River on the east, to central Texas in the south, and to the prairies of Alberta and Saskatchewan in the north. Perhaps several million more were scattered as far west as the upper Columbia Valley, as far east as Maryland, as far south as Mexico, and as far north as Great Slave Lake.
By 1900 there were as few as seventy-five buffalo left in the U.S., and perhaps a few hundred in the boreal forests of Canada. The reduction of these animals, from perhaps over thirty million to fewer than a thousand, took place in what could be considered three primary phases. Each phase was relatively independent, and completely unorganized. The first phase occurred east of the Mississippi. It lasted from the time of Euroamerican settlement up until the early 1800s, or a span of about 150 years. During this phase, small-scale hunting for buffalo meat and hides, mostly by whites, led to the eventual extermination of the scattered herds in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland, and elsewhere in the East and Southeast.
Phase two took place east of the Mississippi, and was driven primarily by Native American hunters killing buffalo in order to swap the hides and other buffalo products in exchange for cloth, steel knives, cooking equipment, firearms, booze, and other goods offered by white traders. Of course, Native Americans had been hunting buffalo in these regions for thousands of years, but their harvests increased dramatically with the introduction of horses and firearms and the added incentive of monetary gain. Near Pierre, South Dakota, a large band of Sioux once killed 1500 buffalo in a single day and removed nothing but the tongues in order to swap them for alcohol. This phase likely led to many regional extirpations of buffalo herds and also some radical reductions to herds that were not extirpated.
At the onset of phase three, which began with the termination of the Civil War, there were still perhaps fifteen million buffalo left on the Great Plains. The shooting of these animals by Euroamerican hide hunters began in earnest around 1870, and lasted until about 1882. During that time, there were years when a million buffalo hides passed through single towns on railway cars. The slaughter was well organized and facilitated by ever-expanding railroad lines, though it still wasn’t conducted with the goal of wiping the animals out. Rather, it was conducted with the goal of making some money.
Of course, other factors were killing buffalo all along. The animals were competing with increasing herds of horses and cattle for grass. They were losing valuable riparian habitats to settlements and other development. People were potshotting them from the windows of trains. No doubt, some of them got sick and died. But all through the extermination of the species, from the 1600s to the 1800s, there was the constant fact of over hunting. Quite simply, we didn’t know what we were doing, and we screwed up, and we shot them faster than they could reproduce. And suggesting that buffalo would have gone the way of dinosaurs regardless of hunters is about like suggesting that Bin Laden’s still hiding somewhere in a cave. In other words, wake up. –Steven Rinella