Skip to main content

If you liked the October 19th article about the Disappearance of the Great American Buffalo, You Might Be Interested in What Happened at Standing Rock Last Week

By Priscilla Waggoner

November 2, 2016

A herd of Buffalo appear out of nowhere during Lakota Sioux peaceful protest of the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline project.  The project crosses sacred land and could potentially threaten their clean water source. 

Click Here to read more about the thousands of American Bison appear from nowhere at Standing Rock

Article reprinted from the October 19, 2016 Edition
by Priscilla Waggoner

     Ron Rehfeld, a truly independent thinker and former county commissioner from Cheyenne Wells, sent an email to the newspaper a few weeks ago.  As I’m learning, Mr. Rehfeld is an endless source of interesting topics to pursue, and this one was no different.  His question related to the near extinction of the American buffalo.  Is it reasonable to believe that, when their numbers were estimated to be somewhere between 30 and 60 million, the demise of the buffalo could be solely attributed to “market hunters”? Or is it possible that “the buffalo suffered from a contagious disease that decimated the herds far more quickly and thoroughly than market hunters could”?  In his words, “do the math”.

     That question sent me on quite a hunt of my own.  Being somewhat limited by time and lack of expertise—the second factor being much more limiting than the first—I can’t claim to have developed any depth of true understanding about the actual events, especially in comparison with those who are experts in the field.  But I certainly learned a lot and hope what I learned might be of interest to others.

     It must be noted that, just as we have made an error in our nomenclature by referring to pronghorns as antelope when antelope are actually animals found in Africa, our reference to buffalo is also a little off the mark.  Buffalo are indigenous to Africa; the animals we’re referring to are bison.  But, for the sake of simplicity if not cultural tradition, in this article, I’ll continue to refer to them as buffalo.

     More importantly than what we call the animal is acknowledging what was done to them.  The study of the reckless destruction of this magnificently powerful and, often, courageous animal is a study in tragedy and horror.  Whether buffalo hunters were singly responsible for the near extinction or not, the reality is that the animals were wantonly slaughtered by the hundreds upon hundreds of thousands…sometimes for the meat they could provide, sometimes for their hide, sometimes for just their tongue and other select body parts and, most tragically of all, sometimes just for sport. Many times, in fact, they were killed for sport, their massive bodies left on the open prairie to rot in the sun.  And by the time various state governments realized what was happening and the buffalo were disappearing altogether, it was too late.  The damage had been done.  

     Hopefully, as a culture, we’ve learned from our mistake.  Sometimes, I’m not so sure.

     There is no definitive answer about what happened to the buffalo during those unbelievably small number of years when the buffalo’s numbers were diminished almost to the point of extinction.  It was a time of great movement and few records.  Few were documenting what was happening—at least, not at the scale needed to record an accurate history of events—and what was recorded was often incomplete or inaccurate or based on false assumptions.  Or a combination of all three.  Some historians and, interestingly enough, pathologists, would say there’s something to what Mr. Rehfeld proposes.  Others say that environmental and societal factors had a large impact. Others say the military played a hand.  But it seems one thing is true:  the American buffalo had roamed the Great Plains for tens upon tens of thousands of years with no real threat of diminished numbers, let alone near extinction.  And the moment the Euro-Americans first set foot on the vast and unexplored “New World” that we now know as the United States, the fate of the buffalo was sealed.  It was just a matter of time. 

     What follows is the tragic history of “Tatanka”, the great American buffalo.

The story of
The great American buffalo and
the perfect storm.

     Few animals are as iconic to the American west as the buffalo. It holds a place in our ecology, our history, our culture and our imaginations. Not only is it the largest terrestrial animal known to reside in North America, it’s the oldest, having roamed this continent for thousands of years.  Many of the plains Indian tribes viewed the buffalo as sacred and a symbol of abundance. It’s no wonder; they’re impressive. 

     A typical full grown male stands 6 feet tall from hoof to shoulder, typically weighs between 1700 and 2200 pounds and has a life span of around 20 years.   It’s believed that the buffalo may have played a large role in shaping the ecology of the plains because of their grazing habits and widespread roaming to avoid overgrazing as well as their trampling pressure which breaks the surface of the ground, allowing moisture to more easily penetrate soil.  In other words, they were highly suited to this environment and, barring destructive weather patterns, thrived on the plains. 

     They have the ability to jump 6 feet—vertically—and have the ability to run at top speeds of around 35 miles per hour for several hours at a time.  Their speed and size meant they were vulnerable to just a few prey, like wolves and bear, who would often only cull the herd.  Their ability to move also limited the way they could be hunted by indigenous tribes who, until just the last five centuries or so, were forced to either do so on foot or corral parts of a herd and, either through fire or by chasing for several miles on foot, run them off a cliff.  The Olsen-Chubbuck archaeological site roughly 15 miles southeast of Kit Carson made history with its discovery and confirmation of these hunting techniques.

     All these factors worked to the advantage of the buffalo and, barring destructive weather patterns, went a long way toward guaranteeing their ongoing survival if not outright proclivity.    At one time, buffalo were found from northwest Canada, throughout the plains of the United States and down into northern Mexico with numbers that were estimated to be between 30 and 60 million.

     A perfect storm is a term used to describe a disastrous event that’s caused by a number of factors working together at the same time.  It would be a fair description to say the buffalo were almost made extinct by such a perfect storm.
There are some factors that are known to have contributed to their demise.  The first impact on the buffalo is attributed to the period of 1700s to 1800s.  As more and more people immigrated to the United States, there was an expansion from the east coast toward the west.  The vast majority of these people were farmers and did what farmers do:  they broke ground, plowed under natural vegetation and planted crops.  In doing so, they moved the buffalo out of their natural habitat.  They also brought with them cattle, which introduced diseases to which the buffalo had no immunity.  Also, feral horses, left behind by the Spaniards, were grazing competition.  Although the impact of these first settlers was not direct, per se, the impact was nonetheless very real, and by 1802, the buffalo were virtually gone from Ohio. 

     By 1820, buffalo were virtually extinct east of the Mississippi.
However, it wasn’t just the buffalo who were pushed out of land in the east; by 1820, Native American tribes had been forced to move.  As they migrated west and out on to the plains, their presence put additional pressure on the buffalo.  Not only did they have horses, they had something clearly more deadly with a more direct impact:  guns.  Being on horseback gave them the ability to hunt more frequently, and guns gave them greater accuracy and efficacy.  However, hunting for subsistence was not as destructive as another force:  fashion.

     Buffalo robes were in style, in Europe as well as the east coast. Newspapers from the era show numerous ads offering to buy and, subsequently, to sell buffalo robes, by the thousands.   
In most historical accounts, 1830 is the year identified as when the mass destruction of the great herds of buffalo on the plains began. Buffalo trade had been established on the Northern Plains. In 1832, the great Western artist, George Catlin, made the prophetic statement, “The buffalo’s doom is sealed.”  In the next decade of the 1840s, Native American “market hunters” began to focus on buffalo cows, due to the higher price their robes brought on the market.  With the increased hunting of cows, herd numbers began to decrease due to decreased numbers of births. 

     In the 1850s, the beaver market was played out and fashion had changed from beaver hats to silk hats from China.  This prompted an even stronger focus on buffalo and buffalo robes as a market for former trappers and traders.
In the late 1850s and 1860s, there began to appear comments from people traveling through the west that buffalo are not nearly as plentiful as they once were.  In 1864, the state legislature of Idaho passed a law protecting the buffalo; unfortunately, by that time, they were all gone.  However, some of that reported decrease has been attributed to the ending of the “mini-ice age” when the temperatures were much warmer in the northern part of the United States than they had been, resulting in more abundant moisture.  This leads many historians to think that the herds had begun to migrate toward the north and more favorable climate and grasses. 

     But then, in 1866, an article appeared in a St. Paul paper that gives credence to those who believe disease was partly responsible for the animals’ decline.  The paper reports that a cattle disease is “raging among the buffalo” on the northwestern plains, where many of them had migrated not long before.  There are reports of “huge numbers, incomprehensible in size” of animals who are “dead in their tracks with no account of the cause of death”.  Cattle are also dying of what appears to be the same disease as that sweeping through herds of cattle in Europe.  Given that this also coincides with the ending of the Civil War and the beginning of the expansion westward, it’s conceivable that, with that migration, came the onset of a disease that had the potential to be highly fatal to buffalo.

     The perfect storm is intensifying.

     The attention of the military has shifted from the Civil War to the war with the Indians on the Plains.  People are looking to the west more than ever; Indian tribes are in the way of this expansion.  Although there is no documentation of this in any record, a Colonel Dodge makes a statement that seems to echo the sentiments of many in the military. “Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.”  In other words, remove the source of food—buffalo—and the likelihood is increased that the various tribes will be forced to turn to the government to survive.  It must be noted that a number of men in the military were violently opposed to this notion and attempted to take steps to stop its spread.  Even General Sheridan, who had achieved some notoriety during the Civil War for being part of the “scorched earth” practiced by Sherman in subduing the South, echoed the tragedy of what was being done, going so far as to defend the natural response of the tribes to fight.

     At the same time that the military was focusing on clearing the plains for the coming wave of settlers, the railroads were laying tracks.  Some historians believe that this was responsible for splitting the great herds into those to the north and those to the south.  Others disagree.  But the arrival of the railroad brought the arrival of the “gentleman hunter”, that individual who was enthralled at the idea of killing such a large animal but only wanted to do so from the comfort of the car of a passing train.  In fact, the railroads advertised “hunting trips” where, upon coming on a herd of buffalo, the train would slow down, and guns that had been stored on board the train for protection were issued to passengers who were allowed to shoot at the herds as they passed.

     A behavior of the buffalo worked against them, in this case.  When a buffalo is killed, the other buffalo standing in proximity don’t run; instead, they gather around the dead animal, kicking at the ground and snorting.  This made the slaughter of the magnificent animals that much easier.

     The buffalo are now in the eye of the perfect storm.  In Germany, a technique has been developed where buffalo hides can be tanned and either turned into fine leather or used for belts to drive motors.  It’s found that buffalo is infinitely more durable than leather.  Now, hunting is increased even more.  The buffalo were even targeted by the Industrial Revolution.

     There are also additional accounts of cattle disease, perhaps brought from Europe, wiping out herds of cattle and, according to evidence, herds of buffalo.

    What follows is just more evidence of how a single animal was targeted by and for so many different factors.  The end result is what matters:  a species that had, at one time, been more plentiful than any other large animal on the entire continent had been, by the year 1883, virtually removed from the land.

     Disease, fashion, sport, commerce, competition for grazing…they all combined to make a force no animal could survive, even one as majestic and symbolic of strength as the great American buffalo.

Whether or not we, as a species, have the restraint, foresight and wisdom to preserve their numbers remains to be seen. 

Other News