The American Bison (B. bison) has made it’s home in North America for thousands of years. It is believed that the first bison in North America migrated from Asia across the Bering Land Bridge sometime between 95,000 and 135,000 years ago.
Authorities believe that there are two subspecies of American bison, the plains bison(B. bison bison) and the wood bison (B. bison athabascae). They have minor differences, the plains bison inhabited most of the United States east of the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains provinces of Canada. The wood bison inhabited northern western Canada and Alaska. It is estimated that over 50 million plains bison, probably the most aggregation of large animals known to recorded history, roamed over North America when Europeans arrived. (Encyclopedia Britannica, bison mammal).
Much of what we know about the story of the American bison is what we have found in readings of early American trappers and hunters, along with explorers Lewis and Clark and the American Native Peoples. At one time the herds of the buffalo were so vast that they were as “far as the eye could see”. On January 14, 1801 Alexander Henry noted, “I had seen almost increditable (his spelling) numbers of buffalo in the fall, but nothing in comparison to the numbers I now beheld. The ground was covered at every point of the compass, as far as the eye could reach, and every animal was in motion”. (22)
Winters on the prairie could be a hazard to the buffalo, as with any animal, but spring seemed to have been even more destructive. Alexander Henry notes that drown bloated buffalo were floating down rivers, The Red and the Missouri, in enormous numbers it took days not hours for this to end. The stench of the dead bloated buffalo was unbearable. (25) He was told that it happened every year.
The other hazard for the buffalo was fire in the grass lands, from Henry’s journal he notes, “Nov. 25, 1804 – Plains burned in every direction and blind buffalo seen every moment wandering about. The poor beasts have all their hair singed off, even the skin in some places is shriveled up and terribly burned, and their eyes are swollen and closed fast…. In one spot we found a whole herd lying dead. The fire having passed only yesterday, these animals were still good and fresh, and many of them exceedingly fat…. At sunset we arrived at the Indian camp, having made an extraordinary day’s ride and seen an incredible number of dead and dying, blind, lame, singed and roasted buffalo”. (26)
In spite of these disasters, millions of buffalo survived on the plains for generations but by the year 1883 the American buffalo was nearly extinct. The entire herd of 4,000,000 buffalo and their estimated 500,000 offspring had disappeared almost completely. A few of the theories are, they were hunted to extinction by “buffalo hunters” but Dr. Koucky proposed that cattle-born disease is a more realistic explanation. It wasn’t until the large cattle herds began arriving to the grasslands from Texas that the buffalo showed any signs of disease. The cattle were known to harbor “tick fever” and they mingled with the large herds of buffalo, so spreading disease. Most people however, believe that hunter is the reason for the demise of the American Buffalo. (Koucky, 1983, p.28)
In January 1889, William Hornaday took a census of buffalo in the US. Of free ranging buffalo, he could estimate no more than 85 buffalo were left in the wild. Other places in the US where the buffalo were under protection, estimated 200 under federal law protection in Yellowstone National Park, 550 in the area of Slave Lake and 256 scattered in various zoo’s through out the nation were all that was left of the Great American Buffalo. (42)
In 1905, Hornaday formed an organization called the “American Bison Society”. Their entire purpose was to rescue the buffalo from complete extinction. Within the first 10 years they were able to happily report a 270 percent population increase.(43) Through out the last 100 years through programs as such along with private entities such as buffalo ranches, the demise of the American Bison has been reversed. Although the vast herds that once wondered throughout the continent are no longer present, there is an estimated amount of 200,000 buffalo, enough to ensure that the Majestic American Bison lives on!
The husband wife team, Mike Kopp and Mary Tastad, of Beautiful Badlands have these photos and many others on display in the Longhorn Exhibit Room of the Pioneer Museum of McKenzie County.
The Bison latifron is a cast of the original found on the banks of Lake Sakakawea on display at the Pioneer Museum.
reference materials (22,25,26,28,42,43) A Short History Big Game in North Dakota & Encyclopedia Britannica, bison mammal