The inevitable demise of the buffalo

The inevitable demise of the buffalo

By Robert A. Hedeen, Naturalist

Prior to the colonization of North America by Europeans, the buffalo, or bison, ranged over most of this continent. Many are under the erroneous impression this great beast, a relative of the Asian musk ox, was confined to the west, but it originally inhabited areas east to the woodlands of Pennsylvania and New York and along the Atlantic states as far south as Georgia. A buffalo was killed in 1801 at Buffalo Crossroads, Pennsylvania, and a cow and her calf were killed at Valley Head, West Virginia in 1825. These were the last of them east of the Mississippi.

The buffalo continued to thrive in the west, and as late as the middle of the 19th century, an estimated 60 million still trampled the Great Plains. The Indians inhabiting this vast area were supplied with the necessities of life by the herds of buffalo: habitation, food, clothing, beds, strings for bows, glue, thread, cordage, ropes, vessels to hold water, boats to cross streams, and as a means of securing other amenities of life from traders.

Contrary to sentimental popular legend, the Indians were terribly wasteful of their most important natural resource. Using bows and arrows and spears, many wounded animals were not tracked and killed but left to die in some inaccessible place. Whenever they could, the Native Americans killed only the heifers and cows, as the meat of the females was more tender than that of the males and the skins lighter in weight and more pliable. If the winter supply of dried buffalo meat was sufficient, they killed for buffalo tongues alone, leaving whole plateaus of rotting carcasses.

In addition to hunting the buffalo with primitive weapons, Indians sometimes resorted to mass killings by driving countless animals off a cliff to their deaths or into a swiftly running stream where they drowned. But, in spite of this wonton assault on their number, the bovine herds managed to flourish. Far more bison than the Indians wasted were lost annually in blizzards and quicksand, through river ice, and to predators such as the wolf, coyote, and cougar. These killing forces of man and nature, however, kept the buffalo’s numbers in check and prevented overgrazing and the destruction of the vast expanse of rich grama grass that covered the Great Plains from Texas to Canada.

And so it was when the white man migrated west and encroached on the grassland’s edge, but the buffalo herds continued to maintain their numbers despite this added pressure on them. However, the driving of the golden spike, completing the transcontinental railroad, at Promontory Point, Utah, in 1869, spelled the beginning of the end for the buffalo as it set in motion a tremendous assault on its numbers by trappers, Indians, settlers, and professional meat and hide hunters like Buffalo Bill Cody. In Cody’s diary we find the following: “I killed buffalo for the railroad company for the past 12 months, and during that time the number I brought into camp was kept account of, and at the end of that period I had killed 4,280 buffalo.”

At the time of Cody’s account, only Idaho had attempted to protect the buffalo and other large mammals while other states only increased the slaughter. The railroads provided easy transportation of buffalo “robes” and meat (mainly tongues) to hungry eastern markets and the west was inundated with white hunters eager to supply the demand. Between 1872 and 1874, well more than a million buffalo were shot yearly, and in 1879 the last survivor of the southern herd was shot and killed at Buffalo Springs, Texas, located on the Santa Fe Trail.

Indian tribes in the north joined forces with white hunters to destroy the northern herd of buffalo. The last remnant of the northern herd was destroyed in 1883 at the Cannonball River in North Dakota by cutting off their access to water. By the end of that year, with the exception of stray individuals, the buffalo was gone from North America.

A wilderness area in Alberta, an area near Lost Park, Colo., and a region in the newly formed Yellowstone Park, gave refuge to the only survivors that were belatedly protected by hastily enacted laws in Canada and the United States. To Theodore Roosevelt, a young rancher and naturalist in the Dakota Territory in the 1880s, the annihilation of the buffalo was a stark lesson in the conservation of natural resources that he expounded during his presidency.

The demise of the buffalo was inevitable, as, once the flood of settlers to the West discovered the agricultural potential of the long grass prairies and ranchers bred livestock on the short grass prairies further west, the fate of the humped back, sullen animals was sealed. I see a similar parallel in the explosive destruction of natural areas by developers in this area and elsewhere. As the 1860s song goes, “….when will they ever learn?”

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960-1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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