The only reason I stopped at that particular gas station was because they had a giant, brightly painted wood sculpture of a squirrel (or maybe it was a groundhog) all dressed up in backpacking gear, out front. You could see it from the highway. My usual instinct when I need gas is to keep driving and fill up later, playing chicken with an empty gas tank.
But this time, the squirrel drew me in and I headed for his gas station. This is only important because I saw a sign on the exit ramp advertising the Wild Winds Buffalo Preserve. I was interested immediately.
I was on my way to Chicago for a few days and thought Wild Winds would be a good place to stop on my return back through Indiana. About a week later, on the last leg of my trip, I pulled onto the long dirt driveway that leads back to the buffalo preserve. Just the fact that they had a dirt road made for a good first impression.
Over the next several hours I learned a lot about the animal that used to be king of the American prairie, the things that make them unique and amazing animals, and how a mix of ignorance and hate drove them to near extinction.
Wild Winds is a beautiful ranch near Fremont, Indiana with a very spiritual vibe. From the huge crystals in the front yard to the roundhouse out back, the feeling of connection to nature is strong. When it was our turn to head into the buffalo areas, the bench-bedded pick-up truck rolled in behind the back porch, and out stepped our guide, Three Paw.
A rugged man of 70-plus years, Three Paw gave a coarse first impression that wasn’t quite true. As we got to know him through the buffalo fields, he showed himself to be wise, compassionate, funny, and deeply connected to the animals he lives with. He helped make the experience as good as it was.
And besides sharing with us many facts about the animals themselves (which are amazing), he also wanted us to know the history of how these majestic and important creatures went nearly extinct. That story is my focus from here.
These are some of the things Three Paw shared with us that day in a field full of buffalo, supplemented by notes I took throughout the day.
1600-1700’s: Bison Abound
The population of European settlers in America grew steadily and westward. All along the way the bison were a welcome source of free meat. They were plentiful, and in no danger of extinction.
1830: Systematic Destruction Begins
Starting around 1830, white hunters began to kill bison; not just for food or hides, but simply for the satisfaction of seeing them die. Eventually, hunting became a political and military policy of the United States government, with the purpose being to eliminate the natives by eliminating a resource they depended on- bison. During the ensuing 55 years, the bison were all but exterminated.
1840: Rocky Mountains
The bison never heavily populated the Rocky Mountain region, and with the increased hunting, soon disappeared from the area.
Sales records from The American Fur Company show that 110,000 bison tongues were shipped in 1848. There were many similar companies, selling bison parts for both practical use and for novelty.
The railroads that were built across the great plains during this period divided the bison into two big herds, the southern and the northern. Alongside the ongoing animal slaughter, many bison were killed to feed railroad crews. As the population declined, the Idaho state legislature passed the first law to protect the bison (1964), but only after they were practically gone from the state.
1870: Big Business
Bison robes, bones and tongues had become big business by now, and an estimated 2 million bison were killed on the southern plain alone. The bones were used in refining sugar, in fertilizer and making fine bone china. Sales records, combined with production information, lead to an estimated 31 million bison being killed nationwide during the 1870’s.
1871: Southern Herd
This year marked the beginning of the end of the southern herd, with much of the killing taking place along the railroad. Demand for bison robes continued to grow. Typically, bison would be killed for this purpose only in winter when their hair and fur were longer. But, as demand increased, hunting expanded to any time of year. Rifle technology was improving as well, making the animals easier to kill from longer distances.
In March, US Representative Richard C. McCormick of Arizona introduced a bill suggesting a fine for the killing of a bison except for its hide or for food. The bill never came up for a vote and was forgotten.
Bison hunting became a popular sport for the rich and anyone who could get out to the plains. Unregulated hunting and killing expanded against the southern herd, and treaties with Native Americans were often openly violated or ignored by hunters.
In Washington DC, a few laws were passed to protect bison, but they were either too weak to matter or too difficult to enforce. Other protective measures were either proposed and ignored, or voted down.
1873: Southern Peak Slaughter
One railroad alone shipped nearly 3 million pounds of bones that year. Hides sold for $1.25, and tongues for 25 cents. Most of the meat was left to rot on the prairie. One Santa Fe railway engineer said it was possible to walk 100 miles by stepping from one bison carcass to the next.
While passing a few half-hearted measures to protect the bison, the US government continued to favor the animals elimination as a way to reduce native populations.
Columbus Delano, secretary of the interior under President Grant, wrote this: “I would not seriously regret the total disappearance of the buffalo from our western prairies, in its effect upon the Indians. I would regard it was rather a means of hastening their sense of dependence upon the products of the soil and their own labors.”
1875: Too Little Too Late
Kansas, Colorado and Texas were among states to pass bison laws, but by this time the damage was done and the animals were severely threatened. The government’s true intent was made clear again in this statement by General Paul Sheridan, when he suggested that every hunter be given a medal “with a dead buffalo on one side and a discouraged Indian on the other.” The thinking was that once the bison were exterminated, the Indians could be controlled and “civilization could advance”.
1876: Northern Herd Ends
Treaties had kept hunters away from the Northern herd, but with the southern herd now gone, the hunters moved in, violating Native American treaties as they had in the south. By 1880, the full scale slaughter of the northern herd was underway.
1894: Near Extinction
The Yellowstone herd was nearly exterminated due to poaching. Bison were now a rare animal and fetched high prices from taxidermists and millionaires looking to display their wealth. Bison heads were thought to be worth about $1500 each.
1897: Last 4
The last 4 wild bison are believed to have been killed in Colorado, near Bison Park.
1900: Rock Bottom
With no wild bison known to exist, the total number of domesticated bison in the country is estimated to have been about 550. This is down from the millions that roamed free just a century ago.
The New York Zoological Society gifted 15 animals that formed the nucleus of a herd at the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma. The next year, 340 bison were donated by the National Bison Society to develop a herd at the National Bison Range in Montana. In 1913, JW Gilbert donated a small number of bison that began the herd at Fort Niobrara Refuge in Nebraska.
2022: What About Now?
Today, bison are raised domestically for meat and are thought to number about 500,000 nationally. They are still considered to be ecologically extinct because only a few very small herds exist. Bison numbers were once estimated to be around 30 million.
The American bison story is full of cruelty, racism, ecological stupidity, greed, and genocide. I often wonder what the country and would look like today, had the United States government behaved respectfully towards Native America and the ecosystem.
Would the United States be a nation coexisting among native nations, sharing strong bonds? Would bison be as important to us as beef cattle? What would an ecology class look like in a world where the bison held strong?
We can only wonder. I’m grateful to Three Paw and the team at Wild Winds for sharing the story of the buffalo, helping us appreciate them, and forcing us to reflect on our history.
For more bison facts, visit https://www.flatcreekinn.com/bison-americas-mammal
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