“When our great-great-grandparents were toddlers, stamping one wobbly foot in front of the other, three continental time zones reverberated with millions upon millions of pounding hooves from Nevada to New York, Montana to Mexico. No life was untouched by the American bison (Bison bison): our hoofed ancestors were the original American engineers…
Until we exterminated 99.999997% of them.”
So begins my latest essay in the Spring 2018 issue of Flyway – Journal of Writing and Environment the story of how we killed, and continue to kill off, our iconic, irreplaceable relative: the American Bison.
I feel passionate about the loss, not only because of the deep spiritual connections between bison and First Nations, but also because of the essential ecological roles that can only by filled by bison.
Only one non-profit has devoted twenty years to saving the bison: the Buffalo Field Campaign. If you don’t yet know about BFC, I encourage you to get to become familiar with their work, donate to their wish list, or host one of their Road Show events.
And I encourage you to spend the time reading the essay, that I spent several years researching and writing: I guarantee you will learn things you never knew before – including what a bison-bellow sounds like. If you are moved by my words, please share them, and educate others.
There is still a chance to turn things around: we can respect the Bison People – and all they give to this world – by protecting their right to roam. Freely. Throughout their ancestral homelands.
2 thoughts on “Where the Buffalo Roam?”
I’m confused, didn’t the decimation of the bison begin with Native Peoples appropriating European horse technology, replacing the dog with mustangs descended from Iberian breeds? The ‘hunt’ changed significantly, becoming more efficient, which helped expand population, and drove inter-tribal conflict and environmental damage, along with introducing new stresses to bison populations.
Hello Lee! I applaud you for dipping your toe into history. Now let’s go for both feet!
Yes, horses (and guns!) were adopted by **certain tribes, but not all,** because as you read in my essay, bison territory stretched from EW from New York to California and NW from Mexico to Canada, and there were hundreds of non-Plains tribes occupying that enormous region.
For Plains tribes, yes, horses (and guns) had a positive impact on hunting efficiency and Native populations, who continued to hunt sustainably and use every single bit of every bison killed.
**However** until Euro-American settlers moved West in the early 1800s, bison herds remained in the millions. (The “timelines” I found online, with their vague and often misleading wording, mask that fact.)
Instead, I posited that it was the deliberate, destructive, wasteful slaughtering of tens of millions of bison for fertilizer or export (for example, “Buffalo Bill,” on contract for the railroad, killed 4280 bison in eight months) or simply leaving them to die where they fell that ultimately decimated our bison herds.
See this August 2018 Rangelands journal article by SDS Holt, “Reinterpreting the 1882 Bison Population Collapse” (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0190052818300087), especially the timeline graphic demonstrating that tribal use was a very small portion of bison killed during that critical era.
Yet Holt (2018) proposes a fascinating premise: that the wanton slaughtering of bison by settlers wasn’t the sole reason our bison populations crashed: it was the settlers’ slaughter, AND anthrax and tick fever ravaging herds, AND the loss of ecologically sound herd management practices by the Plains tribes that *synergistically combined* to drive the population collapse.
Thank you for asking the question: I learned new things!