Saving Buffalo

The wholesale slaughter of millions of bison on the 19th-century Plains rates as a Wild West horror story. The saving of the woolly beasts from extinction by a few good men and women toward the end of the 1800s constitutes a feel-good story. In this issue David McCormick relates the latter tale, which is bound to please fans of the mighty bison as well as conservationists everywhere. But it is worth taking another quick look at their near extinction, mainly because so many people still believe Buffalo Bill Cody and his ilk were solely responsible for the dirty deed.

Two decades ago Western environmental history professor Dan Flores published articles in Wild West (his award-winning feature “When the Buffalo Roamed” appeared in April 1997) and other publications suggesting that while white hunters delivered the coup de grâce, other factors played key roles in the bison’s dramatic decline, including competition for graze and water from cattle and horses, weather (a drought that began in 1846 Flores dubbed “the start of the endgame for the Little Ice Age”), diseases contracted from domestic cows, and hunting stress from both Plains Indians and relocated Eastern Indians. Even if white hunters had never wielded their big-bore guns to make a living, Flores argues, bison would still have faded from the scene within three decades. For the Plains Indians it wasn’t all about feeding their families and covering their tepees. The lucrative trade in buffalo robes that began in the 1840s prompted them to slaughter more than 600,000 bison a year—far more than they needed for sustenance. “With the market but no white hide hunters,” Flores says, “bison wouldn’t have lasted long—as happened in Canada, where bison were wiped out without hide hunters playing a role.”

Flores and others have challenged not only the politically correct belief that Indians played no role in the demise of the buffalo but also the largely unsupported notion that General Phil Sheridan and other Army officers commanded civilian employees and soldiers to destroy the herds to better control the Indians. Naturally, there are holdouts who stick to stereotypical views about the fall of the big beasts. And most of us continue to sympathize with the Indians, whose way of life depended so heavily on bison, and to shake our heads at the old boys who relentlessly fired those heavy, accurate Sharps rifles into lumbering herds. Regardless, we can all agree on one thing—it’s stupendous that the buffalo is back. By the late 1880s the bison population, which might have exceeded 20 million at one time, had plummeted into the dozens. Today the population in North America stands at about 500,000. As McCormick relates in the December 2019 feature “Buffalo Saviors,” a small cast of 19th-century characters helped rescue the buffalo, including Charles and Molly Goodnight, Charles Jesse “Buffalo” Jones, Fred and Mary Dupuis, and Sam and Sabine Walking Coyote.

In February 1981 I first visited the National Bison Range in Moiese, Mont. Up till then the only buffalo I’d ever seen roaming did so across theater and TV screens. That day I only saw a couple of four-legged residents and none particularly close up, but that was OK. Just knowing there were 350 to 500 other bison somewhere on that 18,500-acre range made me smile. I’ve gone back three or four times since, and though today I can find buffalo right here in Virginia (on limited range, of course), I plan to take my 28-year-old New Yorker son to Moiese real soon. I’m not sure he’ll appreciate the view as much as I did. But I reckon it’s never too late for millennials to learn why Americans are still able to enjoy a lean, healthy bison burger. WW

Wild West editor Gregory Lalire wrote the 2014 historical novel Captured: From the Frontier Diary of Infant Danny Duly, and his Our Frontier Pastime: 1804–1815 is due out in July 2019. His short story “Halfway to Hell” appears in the 2018 anthology The Trading Post and Other Frontier Stories. His article about frontier baseball in Roundup, the membership magazine of Western Writers of America, earned him a 2015 Stirrup Award.