|Buffalo once roamed as far as the eye could see in the Great Plains. Image courtesy of Jeanne K. Ode.
As the Corps of Discovery entered the Indian country up the Missouri in August 1804, it also got its first view of the great symbol of the Northern Plains, the buffalo. This animal quickly became the fuel that fired the hungry men of the expedition.
On Aug. 23, 1804, Pvt. Joseph Field killed the expedition's first buffalo. One might look at the feast the men shared that night as the beginning of the end, or nearly the end, of this great creature. Over the rest of the 19th century, man hunted the buffalo population nearly to extinction. By 1893 an animal that once was estimated to number about 60 million had dwindled to 300, according to zoologist William T. Hornaday, who ventured to Montana in 1886 to collect specimens of the buffalo for the National Museum in Washington, D.C.
Before any story can be told of the buffalo, the first priority is to clarify its name. Scientists point out that the buffalo is, in fact, the American bison and belongs to the Bovidae family of mammals, as do domestic cattle. Its closest relative is the European bison, or wisent, and the Canadian woods bison. True buffaloes are actually species like the cape buffalo or water buffalo found in Africa and Asia. Regardless, Americans continue to call the bison buffaloes just like Lewis and Clark did, and the names are used so interchangeably that little is made of the difference.
The bison's demise coincided with one of the main reasons Lewis and Clark were exploring the westfur trade. When trappers first opened the fur trade in the 1600s, they focused on beaver. However, demand grew in Europe for bison robes. By the early 1800s approximately 200,000 bison were killed each year on the Plains for both food and fur. The big slaughter occurred from the 1830s to 1860s when Americans rapidly pushed westward. The bison's robes, tongues, and certain cuts of meat were in great demand. Even their bones were sought back east, where they were ground up for phosphorous fertilizer. When the railroads cut through the Plains, the bison were further doomed. By the early 1880s only a few free-ranging bison were left.
In 1905 the American Bison Society was formed, with William Hornaday as its president and Theodore Roosevelt as honorary president. Roosevelt and Congress created a number of wildlife preserves to stem the bison's demise. By 1929 the bison count was up to nearly 3,400. The future looked bright enough that the society disbanded the next year. Ranchers and breeders saw the economic advantages to preserving the breed. Today, the National Bison Association estimates that approximately 150,000 bison live in public and private herds in the United States. Mostabout 90 percentare owned privately, with the federal government managing around 6,000; tribal authorities, at least 5,000; and city and state governments, a small number.
Ben Janis manages the Lower Brule City Tribal Wildlife, Fish, and Recreation Department in South Dakota. He oversees around 350 bison. He notes that bison are fairly different from their cousins, domestic cattle, as they tend to roam and not overgraze an area.
Compared to cattle, bison are also surprisingly fast. They're not an animal to be toyed with.
|Group of Mandan men perform a bison dance with shields, spears, rifles, and bison headdresses. Image courtesy of Denver Public Library, Western History Collection X-32542.
The Plains Indians always had a spiritual link with the buffalo. A well-known Indian legend tells about the White Buffalo Calf Woman bringing the pipe to the people. "She came as a young woman wearing a white buckskin dress and moccasins. After the White Buffalo Calf Woman presented the pipe to the people and explained the significance of that pipe, she left the tipi as a white bison calf."
Shaun Grassel, a wildlife biologist in South Dakota, monitors the growth of the bison and elk population today. There's still hunting of the bison population, but it's a managed affair now. It's a far cry from what Lewis and Clark saw, Grassel says.
In Lakota tradition White Buffalo Calf Woman brought the sacred peace pipe in a small bundle.
The white buffalo is a sign from the Great Spirit, and the birth of a white buffalo, a sign from the Great Spirit.
There are many buffalo stories told from the viewpoint of American Indians.
Extermination of the buffalo began as a means to control American Indians. This site also tells of the return of the buffalo.
This site chronicles what it calls a current campaign to get rid of the last wild buffalo herd.
Bison have a long history in South Dakota, and there are efforts now to bring them back.
The National Wildlife Federation offers a seven-point plan for buffalo management.
The Inter-Tribal Bison Cooperative (ITBC) hopes to restore the bison to millions of acres of tribal lands.
Controversy surrounds buffalo management around Yellowstone Park. What can we learn from this crisis that can be applied elsewhere?
European Americans see raising buffalo as a profitable venture.
Are bison a threat to cattle?
< back | next >