The Buffalo

The Buffalo in Transition

(Data from Rorabacher)

•The American Buffalo (Bison bison) was once the most widely distributed animal in the world.  Estimates range from 60 million to 150 million.

•How could the species be hunted to near extinction in just a few years?

The Near Extermination

•The most important factor was “the development of our American civilization.”

•The second factor was the abundance of buffalo – they seemed to be everywhere and in unending numbers.

•The third factor was a combination of the animal’s physical characteristics and its nature.

East of the Mississippi

•Disappearance was a slow, gradual process, caused by too many settler/hunters in search of food, and relatively few buffalo.

•The last free roaming buffalo east of the Mississippi was killed in the early 1830’s.

•Hunting pressure was low in the 17th and through most of the 18th century due to massive depopulation in virgin field epidemics.  Then the White population grew

West of the Mississippi

•1820 – the Red River Settlement’s hunt filled over 500 Metis carts with buffalo robes.  (near US Canada Border)

•1840 – the American Fur Company sent 67,000 robes to St. Louis (Missouri River)

•1848 – a total of 110,000 robes received in St. Louis.

•In the years following the 1818 Selkirk land grant, the Red River Metis make themselves the lords of the plains – harvesting bison at will, and, with “lager’s” made from their “metis carts” defeating all “Sioux” attempts to defeat them militarily between 1827 and 1851.

•Another competitor is the growing Lakota and Lakota horse population – around 1824 the Lower Brule and Brule split, with one of the reasons that the buffalo were no longer coming close to the Missouri River in large enough numbers to supply all the peoples needs.  With 20/20 hindsight, we realize that large horse herds competed with the buffalo.

•1840’s – the Red River Settlement was bringing in 500,000 robes annually

•By 1847, nearly all the buffalo had been killed in the northern Dakota Territory, northern Minnesota, Manitoba and parts of Saskatchewan.  Traders abandon the Red River Settlements around 1850.

1847 – Journal of a Trapper

•Osborne Russell wrote, “The continual increasing demand for robes in the civilised world has already and is still contributing in no small degree to their destruction, whilst on the other hand the continual increase of wolves and other 4 footed enemies far exceeds that of the Buffaloe when these combined efforts for its destruction is taken into consideration , it will not be doubted for a moment that this noble race of animals, so useful in supplying the wants of man, will at no far distant period become extinct in North America.”

•Continued . . . “The Buffaloe is already a stranger, altho so numerous 10 years ago, in that part of the country which is drained by the sources of the Colerado, Bear and Snake Rivers and occuppied by the Snake and Bonnack Indians.” (pp.138-139)

When Russell refers to the Snake Indians, he refers to the Shoshone. 

West of the Mississippi

•Overhunting moves to the southern part of Dakota Territory, SW Minnesota, and Northern Nebraska – items offered by white traders induced many tribes to join in killing buffalo for the robe trade – by 1870, buffalo were almost gone from this region.

Technology Changes in Pennsylvania

•1871 – Industrial tanning method developed for tanning buffalo hides into commercially valuable leather.  Finest hides made into coats, poorest hides are made into machinery belting and can be obtained any time of year.  Hides from cows continue to be more easily worked and are preferred.

West of the Mississippi

•The most intense killing of buffalo occurred between 1871 and 1874, with professional hunters.  Colonel Dodge’s estimates suggest 6,750,000 buffalo killed by white hunters in 1872 and 73 (each year).  Indians are estimated to have killed 350,00, and white settlers, farmers and ranchers another 200,000.

Doing the Math

•The buffalo herd is unlike the cattle on a ranch.  On the ranch, a three-hundred cow operation will have 300 cows, ten bulls, and usually sell most of the calves in the fall.  Most of the animals in a ranch herd are reproducing cows.  The wild bison herd wasn’t the same.

•Out of 60 million Buffalo, it is reasonable to assume that a quarter of the herd would be juveniles – nobody was hauling them to market.

•That presumes a total cow population of 22.5 million – and we can assume that no more than 20 million would be reproducing each year.

•Since buffalo cows were the preferred targets, whether for eating or for hides, virtually all of the initial hunting pressure focuses on those 20 million cows – most of the bulls continue to graze with little disturbance until 1871.

•Hunting prior to 1871 reduced the size of the reproducing cows more than the size of the herd.

West of the Mississippi

•By 1876, commercial hunting of the southern herd was no longer possible.  By 1880, the last buffalo of the southern herd had been killed.

•Between 1880 and 1883, 12 million animals killed from the northern herd.

•1884, one carload of buffalo hides shipped from Dickinson, ND – the last carload shipped.

Almost the End

•1887 – 541 Buffalo left in the United States

–85 living in the wild

–256 in captivity

–200 in Yellowstone Park

•Approximately 180 poached in Yellowstone between 1887 and 1894

•60 more poached in Colorado

•1894 – 300 buffalo remained

West of the Mississippi

•Flathead Michel Pablo preserved over 300 buffalo in NW Montana, on land that is now the National Bison Range.  By the time the US Government bought the Range, Pablo had sold the Buffalo to Canada.

•Charles Conrad, a banker from Kalispell, kept a small Buffalo herd – parent stock for Moiese, and Big Medicine.

Big Medicine – (mount)

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