Educational Series: Bison Were Nearly Exterminated and Now Need Our Help

By Nick Engelfried
At the start of the 19th century, an estimated 30-60 million American plains bison roamed over much of what is now the United States. Although concentrated in the Great Plains, they ranged from Pennsylvania all the way west to Washington State. The great bison herds were among the largest populations of big land mammals anywhere in the world–and the species was of immense ecological and cultural importance to the humans and other animals who shared their prairie habitat. Today, bison have been reduced to a tiny fraction of their former vast numbers–but thanks to the work of Indigenous tribes, conservation groups, and wildlife lovers, they are making a comeback in places where they had been absent for decades.

The recent history of bison is closely tied to that of the Native American tribes who have long depended on them for food, clothing, and as a vital part of their culture. Most people know that Plains tribes have hunted bison for centuries, subsisting sustainably off their meat and fur. What is much less widely appreciated is that many Indigenous groups actively managed bison herds long before European colonists arrived on the continent. Native communities used fire to sculpt the landscape in a way that supported bison, periodically burning back forest in places like what is now the Eastern United States to encourage the growth of prairie grasses.

In fact, without the intervention of Indigenous peoples, the geographic range and sheer numbers of wild bison would likely have been much smaller than was the case when the first colonists arrived in North America. Long before European settlers came up with the idea of sustainable game management, Indigenous groups were practicing an advanced form of management that allowed them to harvest bison while increasing the size of the great herds. Tragically, colonists would exploit this relationship between tribes and bison in a way that was disastrous for both.

The story of the slaughter of wild bison herds in the 1800s is one of history’s great cautionary tales about the consequences of unchecked exploitation. In a matter of decades, the tens of millions-strong herds were reduced to near extinction. By the 1880s, as few as 350 wild bison survived in the United States and the species appeared headed for oblivion. Greed and the pursuit of profit certainly played a role in this disaster, but so did the U.S. government’s calculated policy of extermination toward the continent’s original human inhabitants. Policymakers and the U.S. Army actively sought to eliminate bison in order to deprive Native Americans of a critical food source. This policy of mass genocide, more than perhaps anything else, is what truly brought these magnificent animals to the very brink of extinction.

In 1905, when the last bison seemed poised to disappear, a small group of conservationists including then-President Theodore Roosevelt and the head of the Bronx Zoo determined to rescue them from extinction. These last-minute saviors should not be regarded purely as heroes of the bison’s story. Roosevelt’s conservation legacy, for example, must be considered in the context of his complicity in the continued removal of and extermination of Indigenous societies. However, without the organization these individuals founded–the American Bison Society–it is entirely possible the last U.S. bison might have disappeared forever, victims of colonialism.

While wild bison were vanishing from the landscape, the Bronx Zoo had begun breeding the species in captivity. In 1913, the American Bison Society carried out the first reintroduction of bison to the wild, transporting 14 individuals some 2,000 miles to the Wind Cave National Game Preserve in South Dakota in a groundbreaking effort. Meanwhile, efforts were underway to conserve the small group of surviving bison in Yellowstone National Park, one of the few places where the species had not been completely wiped out. As the herds in places like Yellowstone and Wind Cave grew, they formed the core of new wild bison populations.

Today, there are about 11,000 “genetically pure” bison in the U.S. If you add bison whose ancestors have been bred with cattle, the number of individuals increases to a much larger number of about 500,000–but from a conservation standpoint, bison without cattle genes are the only true representatives of the great herds that once roamed the plains. Although they are no longer at imminent risk of extinction, the last pure bison populations still face an uncertain future, precisely because their numbers are so small as to put them in danger of inbreeding. Ensuring cross-breeding between different populations is therefore of huge importance.

Bison numbers are still low enough that the species is considered “ecologically extinct” by scientists, meaning they are no longer capable of filling the role they once did in the larger ecosystem. This is especially unfortunate because prior to being decimated, they were a keystone species in the prairie habitat that stretched across much of the central U.S. Weighing in at up to 2,000 pounds–larger than any other native land mammal in North America–bison reshape the prairies in ways no other animal species could.

Grazing bison aerate the soil with their feet and disperse plant seeds in their droppings, helping prairie vegetation thrive. Ponds and depressions known as “buffalo wallows,” dug out by the huge animals as they cool themselves in mud or dirt, are an important habitat for migratory birds. Finally, bison foraging for grass in the winter use their massive heads to clear snow away, allowing smaller mammals like pronghorns to eat. Yet, today’s herds are too tiny and fragmented to perform these functions in any meaningful way.

Fortunately, efforts are underway to restore the still-too-small numbers of wild bison to something more closely approaching their former grandeur. In many cases, this work has been led by the people who have tended to and cared for the herds since time immemorial: Indigenous communities. Many tribes now have bison breeding and conservation projects, in some cases managed in coordination with agencies like the National Park Service and with environmental groups. To take just one example, the Fort Peck Tribes of Montana returned bison to the plains on their reservation for the first time in over a century in 2012. The tribes now manage a healthy bison herd, including more than 100 individuals transferred from the growing population in Yellowstone National Park.

Much work remains to be done to restore wild bison populations to anything like their former vastness. Inbreeding and genetic contamination from domestic cattle remain major threats to the last pure bison, and in many parts of the country reintroduction efforts have run into opposition from ranchers who see bison competing with livestock. Only when policymakers hear loud and clearly from their constituents that the public wants bison returned to their native range will the species have a chance to recover. However, the tide seems to slowly be turning in their favor.

More than perhaps any other North American animal, the fate of the plains bison has been intimately tied to the decisions of humans for thousands of years. Indigenous tribes managed bison herds to increase their numbers and expand their range, while U.S. government policy nearly led to their extinction in the 1800s. Today, tribes, conservation groups, and the federal government are bringing wild bison back to places where they haven’t roamed in over a century. The species still faces many challenges–but with the help of enough people who care about their fate, bison may eventually roam the plains in massive herds once again.

Photo credit: National Park Service

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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