Buffalo Facts
Information provided from the website for and newsletter from:
Buffalo Field Campaign
P.O. Box 957
West Yellowstone, Montana 59758

Phone: (406) 646-0070

E-mail: bfc-media@wildrockies.org

URL: http://www.buffalofieldcampaign.org

This page and the pages connected to it are taken from newsletters and archives of the Buffalo Field Campaign. All rights and privileges to the contents belong to their organization unless they specify another source. The contents on these pages areput here with their permission and therefore cannot be copied without consent without contacting them directly.   Spitiwalker

Bison or Buffalo & Native Americans

The slaughter, precipitated by Nineteenth Century world views and conditions, is seen as a closed chapter in the history of the West. It is viewed from the standpoint of the Twentieth Century as a necessary but somewhat regrettable evil. Most of all, it is considered a completed event, something that had to be done once and for all. The Indians were put on reservations, the bison on ranches; end of story. Or is it?

This struggle, between white and Indian, between cattle and bison, between two strikingly dissimilar ways of life, is alive and strong today. The extirpation of the herds in the last century and the current slaughter taking place outside Yellowstone National Park are closely related and fueled by many of the same economic motivations, personal fears, and misunderstandings. The bison were exterminated as a means of creating and maintaining the dominance of the cattle culture across the Great Plains and the West. On the eve of the Twenty-first Century, many of the same forces are still in place.
Buffalo once ranged from the eastern seaboard to Oregon and California; from Great Slave Lake in northern Alberta to northern Mexico. Although no one will ever know exactly how many bison once inhabited North America, estimates range from twenty-five to seventy million. William Hornaday, a naturalist who spent considerable time in the West, both before and during the most severe years of the slaughter, comments on the seemingly infinite bison population and the impossibility of estimating their quantity:
It would have been as easy to count or to estimate the number of leaves in a forest as to calculate the number of buffaloes living at any given time during the history of the species previous to 1870 (quoted in Rifkin, 74).
The great herds were not decimated overnight. The slaughter was a gradual process, reaching full momentum in the 1870s. It started with the Indians, who had relied upon and hunted buffalo for thousands of years. Without the arrival of the whites--and with them the gun, the horse, and the market for bison--the Indians probably could have lived in perpetuity with the bison. But with horse and gun--which plains tribes received from their southern neighbors who, in turn, received them from the Spanish--the Indians were able to kill buffalo with greater ease. As the market for buffalo, particularly their hides, emerged in the 1820s, the bison population began to decline.

In the years following the Civil War demand for beef, hides, and tallow skyrocketed as the North began to rebuild its economy and expand its industrial base. (This increased emphasis on industrialization simultaneously increased demand for buffalo hides, which provided a strong yet elastic material from which to make belts to drive machinery.) The growing middle and upper classes had a nearly insatiable appetite for beef, and the postwar economic boom gave them the buying power to satisfy it. Texas alone could not feed the demand. In response ranchers turned to the western plains, a vast area that had already demonstrated its ability to sustain large and healthy populations of ungulates.

But first, the plains' inhabitants--the Indian and the buffalo--had to be removed . This fit in well with the U.S. government's agenda of "civilizing" or assimilating the Indians. Their nomadic way of life, dictated by the migrations of buffalo, deer, and elk, did not lend itself to the European notion of private property ownership and flew in the face of white attempts to fence and segregate tracts of land for individual use. Cattlemen formed alliances with the U.S. Army, the railroads, and eastern bankers to rid the western range of both the buffalo and the Indian (Rifkin, 73).

The establishment of reservations was an attempt to tame the Indians of their nomadism and to establish clear boundaries between Indian and non-Indian lands. Some treaties "protected" the Indian's right to hunt buffalo in perpetuity, so long as the buffalo remained.

Western settlers were threatened by the nomadic ways of the plains Indians, who for thousands of years had lived migratory lives following the great herds of buffalo. To these people, the buffalo was the ultimate resource. It provided not only food, clothing, and shelter but nearly every material need. Because the Indians of the plains depended so much on the bison for their existence, their very religions were centered around the buffalo. This interdependence between Indian and buffalo is exemplified in the beautiful words of John Fire Lame Deer:
The buffalo gave us everything we needed. Without it we were nothing. Our tipis were made of his skin. His hide was our bed, our blanket, our winter coat. It was our drum, throbbing through the night, alive, holy. Out of his skin we made our water bags. His flesh strengthened us, became flesh of our flesh. Not the smallest part of it was wasted. His stomach, a red-hot stone dropped into it, became our soup kettle. His horns were our spoons, the bones our knives, our women's awls and needles. Out of his sinews we made our bowstrings and thread. His ribs were fashioned into sleds for our children, his hoofs became rattles. His mighty skull, with the pipe leaning against it, was our sacred altar. The name of the greatest of all Sioux was Tatanka Iyotake--Sitting Bull. When you killed off the buffalo you also killed the Indian--the real, natural, "wild" Indian (Fire, 130). (See also Traditional Use of the Bison from the National Bison Association)
In the 1870s, more buffalo were killed than in any other decade in history. The three years of 1872, '73, and '74 were the worst. According to one buffalo hunter, who based his calculations on first-hand accounts and shipping records, 4.5 million buffalo were slaughtered in that three year period alone (Mayer, 87).

Influenced by forces discussed above, the U.S. government pursued a policy to eradicate the buffalo and thereby extinguish the Indians' very sustenance, forcing them onto reservations. The following speech, recounted by John Cook--a buffalo hunter, was delivered by General Phil Sheridan to the Texas legislature in 1875. The legislature, as the story goes, was discussing a bill to protect the buffalo when the General took the floor in opposition:
These men have done more in the last two years, and will do more in the next year, to settle the vexed Indian question, than the entire regular army has done in the last forty years. They are destroying the Indians' commissary. And it is a well known fact that an army losing its base of supplies is placed at a great disadvantage. Send them powder and lead, if you will; but for a lasting peace, let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated. Then your prairies can be covered with speckled cattle (Cook, 164).
This testimony, spoken by an Army leader in the Indian wars, spells it out: The buffalo and the Indian were obstructing the march of civilization. Kill the buffalo and not only would the Indian wars be won, but the vast tracks of public land would be opened for cattle.

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Bison Research Papers

Record of Decision for the Final Environmental Impact Statement and Bison Management Plan for the State of Montana and Yellowstone National Park-
December 20, 2000 (PDF- 75 pages 808KB)

Informational Summary of Volume I, Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) Bison Management Plan for the State of Montana and Yellowstone National Park
(Word Document, 17 pages)

Congressional Investigation of the Interagency Bison Management Plan by the General Accounting Office November 1999 (PDF, 51 pages, 376KB)
Conservation of North American Bison: Status and Recommendations by Delaney P. Boyd, University of Calgary, A Master's Degree Project submitted to the faculty of Environmental Design in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Environmental Design, Calgary, Alberta, April, 2003 (PDF- 3.1MB)

Genetically, Bison Don't Measure Up to Frontier Ancestors- April 2002 By MARK DERR (NYT) ABSTRACT - Genetic study led by Texas A&M geneticist Dr James Derr finds that more than 90 percent of private bison and many animals in publicly owned herds are actually bison-cow hybrids; finding reduces pool of pure bison available for preserving species to fewer than 15,000 animals (Word Document, 4 pages)

Spatial Aspects of Bison Density Dependence in Yellowstone National Park- October 2000 This paper capitalizes on a unique opportunity provided by the record of the bison population of Yellowstone National Park (YNP). This population has been intensely monitored for almost four decades. There does not appear to be another comparable data set in existence for a very large highly gregarious herbivore (G. Caughley pers. comm. to MM). This population has a long historical record with some information dating back to 1860 (Meagher 1970, 1973). Further, the YNP bison herds have been the subject of long-term detailed and continuous ecological study since 1963. (PDF- 133 pages, 2.6MB)

Position Statement of the Montana Chapter of The Wildlife Society on Wild Bison in Montana (Word Document, 2 pages)

Brucellosis Solution for Elk and Cattle in Wyoming (PDF, 7 pages)

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Buffalo or Bison? This information is from the National Bison Association

Scientifically, the term “buffalo” is incorrect for the North American species; its proper Latin name is Bison bison. However, common usage has made the term “buffalo” an acceptable synonym for the American bison. (from The American Buffalo in Transition, by J. Albert Rorabacher.)

In the seventeenth century, French explorers in North America referred to the new species they encountered as “les boeufs,” meaning oxen or beeves.

The English, arriving later, changed the pronunciation to “la buff.” The name grew distorted as “buffle,” “buffler,” “buffillo,” and, eventually, “buffalo.” (from The American Buffalo in Transition, by J. Albert Rorabacher.)

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Wild Buffalo vs. Domestic Buffalo

Buffalo are native wildlife to the North American Continent. They once roamed from Appalachia to Alaska, from Florida to Canada. Sadly, today, they are only found in small managed herds.

Most of the buffalo that people see today live on ranches, and are raised as livestock. These "domestic" buffalo carry cattle genes, due to efforts to make a more hearty cow - what ended up happening was a contamination of the pure buffalo bloodlines, meaning most buffalo today - except for a very few public herds - are not genetically pure. These buffalo are not allowed to be wild, they are are kept on private ranches, and are mainly raised and sold for meat.
(See News Article 4/24/02- Substantial portion of remaining 'pure' bison in Yellowstone
By SCOTT McMILLION Chronicle Staff Writer)
Genetically, Bison Don't Measure Up to Frontier Ancestors- April 2002 By MARK DERR (NYT) ABSTRACT - Genetic study led by Texas A&M geneticist Dr James Derr finds that more than 90 percent of private bison and many animals in publicly owned herds are actually bison-cow hybrids; finding reduces pool of pure bison available for preserving species to fewer than 15,000 animals (Word Document, 4 pages)

WARNING: The National Bison Association claims that the buffalo ranching industry will help repopulate North America with buffalo. The fact is, these buffalo are not true buffalo because they carry domestic cattle genes. The truth is, only Yellowstone National Park harbors America's last truly-wild buffalo.

Even though ranched buffalo carry cattle genes, there is really no such thing as a "domestic" buffalo. The buffalo found on ranches today are still distant relatives to the great herds that once roamed the width and breadth of North America. Unfortunately, interbreeding with cattle (in order to make a more hearty cow), has left most of America‚s buffalo "contaminated" with domestic livestock (cattle) genes. Though buffalo are indeed ranched like cattle, they once were native wildlife. We can safely say that domestication is being attempted (and to a degree succeeding), but there is no "domestic" breed of buffalo. These animals are wild, and so long as one single buffalo gene remains, they will never truly be domestic.

For information on ranching buffalo from the National Bison Association: http://www.bisoncentral.com/raising/default.asp

There are approximately 350,000 buffalo in North America
* Roughly 90% of our buffalo are found on private ranches
* 200,000 (give or take) are located on private ranches - the remining 150,000 or so are managed on public lands. Yellowstone boasts the *only* genetically-pure, truly wild buffalo, ancestors to the great herds that once roamed North America.

(From the National Bison Association website) Today's private land bison, and bison producers, are found in all 50 United States and all Canadian provinces. There are herds on Long Island, NY; Kodiak Island, AK; and the islands of Hawaii. The average herd size is less than 100 animals. The largest herds number over 3,000.
Bison Ranching Industry Status: http://www.bisoncentral.com/raising/status.asp

# of total wild buffalo / public herds
Where the buffalo "roam" - from NBA: http://www.bisoncentral.com/history/whereroam.asp

From National Bison Association: http://www.bisoncentral.com/history/naherds.asp
From ITBC: http://www.intertribalbison.org/

North American Public Herds:
Yellowstone National Park:

Golden-Gate NRA: It is said that Golden Gate National Recreation Area has
11 female buffalo, all kept in captivity. No information could be found on their website.

Wind Cave National Park:

Custer State Park:

Badlands National Monument:

Henry Mountains Wilderness:

Antelope Island State Park:

National Bison Range:

Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge Complex:

Grand Teton National Park:

Wood Buffalo National Park (Canada):

Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge
Friends of the Prairie Learning Center: http://www.tallgrass.org/buffalo.html

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