Ornery Bison Fell Victim to Market Pressures

November 15, 2002
Visiting professor Dean Lueck said bison were too tough to farm but were eventually prized for their skins.

The intractable nastiness of bison was a factor in their near extinction at the end of the 19th century, according to Law School visiting professor Dean Lueck, an expert on natural resource law and economics who teaches at Montana State University. Bison defied settlers' attempts to domesticate them and were shot down wantonly once innovative tanning techniques opened a market for their hides and Indians lost control of their tribal hunting grounds, Lueck told the Environmental Law Forum Nov. 12.

"Bison are very fast, powerful and mean," Lueck said. "They are very hard to handle and they are very hard to own from an economic perspective. You can't break and ride a zebra either." Even modern efforts to develop a market for bison meat have met with frustration. A bison cow was worth $4,000 a few years ago but now can be had for $400, he said.

When European settlement began, bison roamed from the coastal plains of the Atlantic to the Rockies. "Only the mosquito, or maybe the coyote, was as widely distributed as the bison," Lueck said, noting the name Buffalo Gap in Augusta County.

While climate change was pressuring the bison population (the gradual warming after the end of the Little Ice Age was drying out the west and reducing forage), they numbered about 25 million on the Great Plains around 1800. By 1890, barely a thousand could be found, a result of accelerating depredation over the previous 20 years as their habitat was converted to farming and ranching.

By 1820, bison had vanished east of the Mississippi River, Lueck said. Early settlers had tried to manage them as livestock but they trampled crops and destroyed fences and buildings and were finally eliminated as feral pests. When settlers moving further west encountered Longhorn cattle — stock that had escaped generations before from the Spanish — grazing amidst bison herds, they separated the Longhorns out and started ranches. They avoided the bison.

On the Plains, Indian tribes tried to control bison hunting and they sometimes protected calving grounds. Before and even after they had horses, Indians regarded bison hunting as extremely dangerous. With the arrival of Europeans, a trade developed in robes — the skins of bison that had their winter hair — and a sustainable harvest was maintained on the northern prairie until about 1880. Tribal control didn't break down until about 1860, according to Lueck.

Robe hunting on the southern Plains was less successful because the bison didn't grow comparable coats and the southern regions lacked the easy water transport northern rivers afforded. The arrival of railroads in Kansas stimulated the eastern tanning industry figured out how to treat bison hides and thus introduced direct market pressure, Lueck said. The southern herds died in the millions in a few years, shot with new 50 caliber rifles from safe distances downwind. Hunters often killed the lead, or dominant, animal first and then picked off others as they stood confused. Once 100 or so were down, skinners would move in. Lacking natural predators, bison weren't instinctively scared of man until it was too late.

In 1874, Texas hide hunters defeated Comanches who were trying to prevent them from entering their hunting grounds and the tide of slaughter rolled up the Plains. Between 1880 and 1884 the northern herds were essentially wiped out. William Hornaday, seeking specimens for the National Museum, finally tracked down 25 and then shot them, preferring them as taxidermy. Hornaday's next effort a few years later inventoried the scattered remnants: 1,091. In 1907 and 1913, the U.S. government set up refuges in Oklahoma, South Dakota and Montana. The Canadians too tried to revive decimated herds. A small herd raised by Indians who had captured calves and kept them in a valley was bought by the Canadian government, but the bison proved so wary and fierce—bulls would charge men if they approached within a quarter mile — that it took six years and countless splintered crates to capture them and ship them north.

Lueck's research on carrying capacity showed that in 1800 the bison's range on the U.S. Great Plains contained about 416 million acres and could sustain between 14 and 20 million head. By 1900, when 47 percent of the Plains had been settled and was being farmed, the range could have only supported 4 to 6 million. But meanwhile 16 million head of cattle had moved onto it. Over the century there had been a nearly one-for-one conversion of bison for cattle.

Property rights played a role alongside market forces in the demise of bison, Lueck said. Homesteading laws made the creation of large open tracts difficult and during most of the period in which they were being eliminated bison were considered common property. "The robe hunt was sustainable for a long time with a market but tribal ownership or control of territories," he said. "The hide hunt proceeded with a market for hides but no ownership of habitat or the wild bison populations. Today bison are privately owned and cared for by their owners, whether ranchers or public agencies."

There are now about 350,000 bison in North America. Their numbers are unlikely to grow. "We should not be too sad to see the plains without 20 million or more bison. At these numbers they are incompatible. In smaller numbers they may be, though I have not great insight into what this population might be."

Controversy over the bison population in Yellowstone National Park is growing because herds leave the park in winter searching for forage and may be exposing adjoining cattle herds to brucellosis, a disease that causes calf abortions. Infected herds would have to be summarily destroyed, so the potential loss to ranchers is very large. Public opinion is preventing herd-thinning in the park.

Westerners still use the term buffalo for bison, Lueck said, but, strictly speaking, bison are not biologically related to buffalo in other parts of the world.

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