Originally published in Points West magazine
Return of the Buffalo: An American Success Story
By Robert B. Pickering
Former Deputy Director, Education and Collections
Perhaps you’ve noticed. Every week, sometimes more frequently, bison are in the news. Sadly, it is often related to bison leaving the safety of a national park or private ranch. Usually, they are shot out of fear of brucellosis infection or that the great shaggy animal will rampage through fences or overturn cars.
As sad as these reports are, in a strange sense, they point to some very good news. Bison are coming back in great numbers. They are outgrowing lands that have been set aside for their safety. Today, bison live in virtually every state in the Union and over most of Canada. Although numbers are difficult to estimate, there are probably 260,000 bison alive today. More than 80 percent of them roam private lands. Federal, state, and city lands host the remaining 20 percent of these magnificent grazers.
If we were living at the beginning of the 20th century rather than the 21st, our view of the fate would be very different. In the 1890s bison were at their lowest point. There were no more than a thousand living animals in the U.S. and Canada. The time of the great slaughter resulted in the near extinction of bison. Fifty years before that, the North American bison population was estimated at 40 – 70 million animals.
In 1875, the naturalist William T. Hornaday wrote about the impending extinction of the bison. His only hesitation was whether the last bison would be killed within five or ten years of his writing. That dire prediction and the thought that bison—the great icon of the West—might become extinct ignited public sentiment, particularly east of the Mississippi. Hornaday, William P. Wharton and Martin S. Garretson, and other notables including Theodore Roosevelt, channeled their prodigious energies into activism to create one of America’s first environmental organizations, the American Bison Society. Founded in 1905, the ABS helped to buy rangeland to provide protected habitat for the buffalo. They also purchased private herds of bison and lobbied congress for support.
The First Success
Bison may be the first American environmental success story. At the time that the total destruction of the buffalo was near, the American public acted decisively. Even a hundred years ago, eastern sentiment and money were the major forces in western conservation. Most of the original members of the ABS were from the East; few actually lived on the Plains. On reflection, perhaps this condition is not so odd. It was for the Eastern audience that the dime novels, the tales of the ol’ West and the romantic ideal of the West as the last frontier were written. The only live bison seen by Easterners were in places such as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show or the Brooklyn Zoo.
This emerging environmental movement forced Congress to buy the land that then became the National Bison Range and Yellowstone National Park. Conservation clubs such as the Boone & Crockett Club and the Campfire Club began raising money and lobbying state and federal legislatures to set aside land for the future. Interestingly, these clubs were also able to convince arms and ammunition manufacturers that conservation was in their best interest. Surely, if all the wild game were killed off, there wouldn’t be a future generation of hunters to buy new guns and ammunition. Ducks Unlimited is a good example of a group that combines hunting and conservation. Also near the end of the last century, the Canadian government began to set aside parkland for bison preservation.
Between the times of the many characters who began saving the buffalo from extinction and the National Bison Association of today, The American Bison Society and its dedicated members worked diligently to save the bison from an end that everyone had predicted.
In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, Michel Pablo was a young buffalo runner who, like his fellow runners, never worried about the herd’s demise. Buffalo runner is the term that commercial buffalo hunters used to describe themselves. Late in life, he realized that bison were not an endless resource and that he personally had contributed to their near extinction. He wanted to make amends for the slaughter. He also realized that there was money to be made from live bison as well as dead ones. Michel and his partner, Charles Allard, sold animals to parks, zoos, and other ranchers. Rarely, however, did they sell a breeding pair. They preferred to sell the young bulls and to keep the cows as breeding stock. Besides live animals, Pablo and Allard also sold hides and mounts.
Pablo offered his herd to the American government for purchase and removal to Yellowstone or other protected habitat. Although powerful men such as Teddy Roosevelt were in favor of the transaction, some members of Congress blocked the purchase. They didn’t think saving buffalo was a good use of federal money paid in taxed mostly from eastern states. Pablo went to the Canadian government. The Superintendent of Rocky Mountain Park at Banff recognized the great opportunity and lobbied to have the Canadian government purchase the herd. They quickly accepted his advice and approved the purchase.
Charles Goodnight, the famous Texas rancher, also got involved in raising buffalo. Within a few years after the Civil War, he began gathering calves to start a herd. Both Goodnight and his wife thought that exterminating the buffalo would be a terrible loss to the country. Goodnight also thought there was money to be made off the buffalo if handled properly, but that was not an easy task. Everyone knew that bison had a nasty disposition and were dangerous to men and horses alike. Among others, Goodnight tried to temper the bison’s disposition by crossing them with cattle. Like any good rancher, he was trying to get the best combination of behavior, size and conformation by crossing two related but different breeds. More often than not, however, this experiment had the opposite result—bad-tempered cows and sterile bulls. There wasn’t much of a market for either one.
C.J. “Buffalo” Jones was one of the true characters associated with saving the buffalo. He experimented with cross-breeding and bison domestication. According to some of his contemporaries, Jones was also quite a storyteller, particularly when it came to his own adventures and importance. Regardless of the hype and showmanship, there are two things with which Buffalo Jones can be credited. He crossbred cattle and buffalo and coined the term “catalo.” Jones also tried to “break bison to the harness” and use them to pull wagons. He was successful with a few animals. Most notably, Jones was often pictured in a buckboard pulled by “Lucky Knight,” a bull that previously had killed its owner, A.H. Cole. The publicity about Jones being able to tame buffalo, particularly the “killer buffalo” was good for Jones’ reputation. Many other people also tried to domesticate the buffalo and use them for plowing and pulling wagons. Although occasionally successful, the practice never really caught on as anything more than a stunt.
Or Not to Crossbreed
Scotty Philip was another of the fascinating characters associated with the early bison conservation movement. Born in Scotland as James Philip, he came to the United States in his teens to build a fortune. After trying his hand at many occupations from gold miner to courier for the U.S. Army, “Scotty” Philip became one of the most influential, if not richest, men in South Dakota. He raised thousands of cattle on his many ranches. His interest in preserving the bison began near the beginning of this century. By 1904, he had 80 buffalo and continued to add more.
Unlike some of his contemporaries, he did not like cattle/bison crosses. He purposely culled them from the herd at roundup time and sold them for meat. His foresight has proven to be a great asset. Many herds today have their origins in the Philip herd. For example in 1914, he sent 60 animals to a newly purchased game preserve of 60,000 acres in Custer County, South Dakota. This group became the nucleus of the Custer State Park herd. Today, excess animals are sometimes given to different Indian tribes who are building herds, or they may be sold at auction to other ranchers. A man of great will, strength and loyalty himself, Scotty Philip admired these same qualities in the buffalo. He also spoke about how the buffalo took care of each other. “If a man wants to get a fine lesson in the advantage of ‘standing together’ he need only watch a buffalo herd in stormy weather.”
Plains Indians and Bison
For as long as history records, bison have been sacred to the Indians of the Plains. They still are. The near demise of both the bison and the tribes themselves did not break the spiritual link between Indian peoples and bison. For many Indian tribes, bison are not an economic venture or a romantic hobby; they are part of a path to spiritual renewal and tribal identity. For some tribes and many individuals today, the resurgence of bison and the active participation of the tribes is a return to old ways of spirituality, renewed pride in the present, and hope for the future. Arvol Looking Horse, nineteenth generation carrier of the sacred buffalo calf pipe, says that he has seen bison ranching turn around the lives of people living on reservations. They have been given hope and direction. Some have given up alcohol and are changing their lives.
At the same time, some tribes are very aware of the potential economic impact of bison ranching. The Inter-Tribal Bison Cooperative now has more than thirty member-tribes that are either raising bison or are beginning to develop herds. The sale of excess bison meat provides much needed income to the tribes. As one tribal pundit has stated, “This is the first time in 500 years that the Indians have been on the cutting edge of economic development.”
Contemporary bison ranching had many roots. It comes from cattle ranching, Native American spirituality, the conservation movement and the romance of the West. While many bison ranchers might see themselves as western, rugged individualist conservatives with well-developed profit instincts, so too, are many of these people very concerned about the environment and the ability to create sustainable agriculture and ranching in the New West.
Profit and Preserve
Profit motive and ecological sensitivity usually are thought of as antithetical; yet, here is an emerging industry in which many of its participants are trying to combine the two. I asked Paul Jonjak, former President of the National Bison Association, about the convergence of political conservatism and conservation in bison ranching thinking that I had just hit upon a great unnoticed truth. Paul’s reaction was, “Sure they are related, that’s why I got into this business.” In Jonjak’s view, conservatism requires the wise use of nature’s resources so that the value and use are not diminished over time.
Most of today’s buffalo ranchers are members of the National Bison Association—the result of a merger between the American Bison Association and the National Bison Association. The NBA, based in Denver, CO, has more than 2,300 members who own or manage most of the 260,000 bison that exist today. As any good trade association should be, the members of the NBA are optimistic about their industry. The Association expects that bison ranching will become more common throughout the country in the future. The NBA serves as a trade association for its members; it supports research into bison related issues and promotes education about bison, bison meat, and ranching.
Not Just the Money
Along with the economic motive, most modern ranchers believe that raising bison is better than raising cattle. They may tell you that these animals are smarter, more interesting, and provides better meat. If they know you well enough, the rancher also may tell you that pride, the romance of the West, and spirituality also are part of the reason they raise bison. In a sense, many bison ranchers believe they are doing something for the country and for the mythic West as well as for themselves and their families.
Scotty Philip’s statement regarding bison standing together embodies much of the attitude of most modern ranchers that I have met. They may ranch for economic reasons but their choice of buffalo over other animals relates to their great respect for bison and their intention to help the icon of the Plains survive.