Bison are truly remarkable creatures. Their rugged nature and adaptability allow them to thrive in extreme climates; from the dry heat of the southwest to the snow and frigid temperatures of northern Canada and Alaska. This adaptability is why their population was able to grow in such large numbers during America’s early days.
At their peak in the mid-1800’s there were an estimated 30-50 million bison roaming the continent. These herds were an integral part of the culture of Native Americans tribes located throughout the country. They found uses for all parts of the bison, taking great care to ensure no part of the animal was wasted. Native Americans had great reverence and appreciation for bison, honoring the animal’s sacrifice and the value it had to the survival of their tribes.
The massive slaughter of the bison herds began in the 1840’s. What started as a population of tens of millions was decimated to less than 1,000 over a forty-year period. There were a few key motivations behind the destruction of the bison herds.
- The expansion of the railroad West brought new populations into areas where bison once roamed. They became a source of food for the railway crews and Army posts now scattered all across the country.
- Bison hides and bones had great commercial value. Animals were slaughtered by the thousands with only their hides harvested and sold. Rotting carcasses could be seen for miles as the rest of the animal was left to waste away on the prairie. The land was then picked clean of the bones which were used for tasks such as refining sugar and making china and fertilizer.
- Bison were also killed to harm the Native Americans. The animals were an important part of the physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being of the tribes. Eliminating something of value to the tribes became one of many tactics used against the Native Americans as their population was also decimated.
Late in the 1880’s conservation efforts began to prevent bison from going extinct. Both public institutions and private ranchers began capturing bison and raising them. Their efforts were useful to foster population growth and protect the remaining animals from poachers. Over a few decades, those first few herds grew in number and parts of them were eventually relocated to preservations and ranches all across the country.
Over the next 100 years, the bison population grew steadily as conservation efforts strengthened and more people became involved with them. Now, roughly 175 years after the beginning of the slaughter, there are an estimated 450,000 bison living in North America. The bison is an American icon whose story is part of American history. It seems fitting, that in 2016 the bison was elected to be the National Mammal of the United States.
This is a compilation of information attained from the internet, videos, books, and articles. If there are discrepancies, please let us know.