HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN BISON

Bison are such beautiful and majestic animals it is hard to believe that they were once on the verge of distinction. There was a time that their stampedes across the prairie sounded like the roll of thunder in the distance.


Bison once roamed North America from Mexico all the way to Canada. The great plains was described by early explorers as "one black robe" and the "plains were black and appeared as if in motion" due to the herds of bison. It is estimated that at the peak of the bison's existence, nearly sixty million roamed this area of North America.

North American bison trace its origins to a similar Eurasian bison species, which crossed the Bering Strait in prehistoric times. Two types of bison evolved from this species, which are known as the Plains Bison and the Wood Bison. Bison migrated from Asia into North America about 200,000 years ago, and are the largest living land mammal native to the Western Hemisphere.

A bond between humans and bison was forged, which has existed for thousands of years. Bison were the center of life to native people of the plains and were held in very high regard. This is not surprising since the plentiful animals provided the mainstay of their diet. I praise the Native American people for the reverance and high value that they bestowed upon the magnificent beasts. The spiritual inspirations that these animals gave to the people of the plains is awe inspiring. Legend tells "the Great Spirit brought the pipe to the people. She came as a young woman wearing a white buckskin dress and moccasins. After the Great Spirit presented the pipe to the people and explained the significance of that pipe, she left the teepee as a white bison calf."

Not only was the bison a spiritual animal for the Native American people, they also depended upon those animals for their livelihood. Absolutely every part of the animals were utilized. The rawhides constructed shields, saddles, and moccasins. Bison hair made sturdy ropes and stuffing for pillows, and let us not forget the warmth for robes. The brain was even used for the preparation of hides, which was then used for the construction of teepees. The stomach lining made great cooking vessels and the contents were used for medicinal purposes.

The immigration of white settlers into the prairies of North America brought imminent danger to the vast bison herds. Their numbers dwindled to a fraction of what they once were, nearing extinction. This did not happen in just a few violent years, but over a span of hundreds of years. Fur trading began in the 1600s, which initially focused on beaver, then turned into a demand of bison robes to be shipped to Europe. By the early 1800s, trade in bison fur significantly increased and caused about 200,000 bison kills annually on the plains. Most of occurred between the 1830s and the 1860s as wagon load and wagon load of robes moved east. The arrival of the railroads further devastated herd conditions and by the early 1880s there were only a few free ranging bison. The infamous Buffalo Bill once bragged that he killed 4,200 bison in seventeen months to feed rail laborers. The estimated number of bison left by 1893 were between 300 and 800 (these numbers vary depending upon the source).



On December 8, 1905, the American Bison Society was formed with zoologist William Hornaday as President and Theodore Roosevelt as honorary president. Roosevelt persuaded Congress to establish wildlife preserves and help private bison owners. An inventory of the animals in 1929 was encouraging at 3,385 animals so the society discontinued its programs in 1930. Ranchers and breeders expanded their efforts to preserve, protect, and reestablish the American Bison.


Today, there are approximately 500,000 bison in North America. Even though the plains bison are secure in numbers within the United States, the wood bison are endangered in northwestern Canada.