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What Happened to the Buffalo?
Bison Present and Bison Past
Mary Ryals
Academic affiliation: Oklahoma State University
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At the beginning of the nineteenth century bison roamed freely, with as many as thirty million in population. Tragically, by the beginning of the twentieth century, merely one thousand were at roam. How did buffalo so rapidly become an endangered species? Other specialists research tactics to save the buffalo and to repopulate the land with their species. Therefore, branching off of this larger group are researchers concerned with positive and the negative causes and effects of buffalo in the Great Plains.

Ernest Callenbach wrote a book concerning the past of buffalo, the present attempts to save the buffalo, and what the future may possibly hold for the buffalo. “These magnificent animals have already regained a place among us” (1). Similarly, authors such as Darrell Creel, Dan Flores, Francis Haines, and Andrew C. Isenberg present the basic positive outlook of the history of buffalo. They also address what conditions may have caused the decline of buffalo in the early part of the twentieth century: “Numerous researchers have inferred that bison populations in the Southern Plains increased and decreased over periods of several centuries in the late Holocene and that the level of human exploitation of bison varied accordingly” (Creel 42). All have written articles or books pertaining to the history in the Great Plains and how bison would freely roam until the rapid endangerment in the later part of the century. Bison in the Great Plains were thought to be sacred. The near extinction of this animal may be due to early European settlers hunting the bison for specific reasons then leaving the carcasses to waste. Previously, Native Americans hunted bison and used every part of the animal for survival. By the late eighteen hundreds and early nineteen hundreds, Native Americans were left short of bison. “Within little more than half a century, the Comanche and other tribes of the Southern Plains were routinely suffering from starvation and complaining of shortages of bison” (Flores 465). Francis Haines describes how important the buffalo were to the Native Americans and gives a description of its magnificence:
With its great size, vast numbers, and wide distribution, the buffalo was in sheer mass the largest game species ever known to mankind, and it exerted a profound influence on man from his first arrival in North America until the destruction of the herds in the late nineteenth century. (2)
Andrew Isenberg also considered Euro-Americans a contributing factor to the decline of buffalo. Isenberg considers environmental circumstances to be part of the problem as well: “Because, a host of economic, cultural, and ecological factors herded the bison toward their near extinction” (1). Isenberg and Flores agree that multiple contributions caused the buffalos near extinction. They both consider environmental effects and Euro-American hunters to be contributing factors:
Environmental historians and ethno historians whose interests have been environmental topics have in the two past decades been responsible for many of our most valuable recent insights into the history of Native Americans since their contact with Euro-Americans. (Flores 466)
Conservation is also a big topic pertaining to specialists, environmentalists, and historians. What can be done to save the bison? European researchers, Gunther B. Hartl and Zdzislaw Pucek, tested Heterozygosity on thirty-five lowland bison to discover genetic variability in attempts to repopulate European buffalo. However, Heterozygosity did not have as much genetic influence as thought previously. Therefore, exempting Heterozygosity as a possible conservation method to repopulate and protect bison (168-170). Unlike Hartl and Pucek, Francis Haines reports breeding and protection of the American bison could be far more useful than attempting a scientific approach: The initial problem in the effort to save the buffalo from total extinction was learning how to handle the animals on a controlled, protected range. Many different men over a period of three hundred fifty years had determined that the buffalo could not be domesticated, nor could it be successfully crossed with cattle. Buffalo had to be handled like animals in a zoo, and it would be difficult to get enough initial breeding stock from the open plains to stock the fenced ranges. (217)

Scholars do research negative effects caused by bison as well as the positive. For instance, Joel Berger and Steven L. Cain wrote about the disease Brucellosis and how bison spread it. Bison carry the disease and if released from reserves, will be exposing it to livestock. Brucellosis is a disease that causes abortion in livestock and is often transmitted through bison’s expelled fetuses or birth fluids:
If Brucellosis affects the timing of parturition, then the temporal distribution of births should vary between populations with and without the disease, perhaps because infected females [cattle] may abort or are likely to recycle at other times of the year. Comparisons of the slopes of regression of the onset of parturition and the cumulative proportion of births developed for each population substantiate the existence of interpopulation variation. (362)
Included in this research is a chart to visually explain the number of infected cattle both exposed to buffalo regions and separate from them. For instance, in Texas, away from roaming bison, the number of successful pregnancies and births of cattle is nearly double that of most public park regions, where bison are abundant. Still, the number in most public park regions is near double those that are near Jackson Hole and Yellowstone National Park. Another team of researchers who condemn Great Plains bison are Ken M. Fritz and Walter K. Dodds. According to Fritz and Dodds, bison have possible disturbing effects on stream communities. “However, we are not aware of studies that have looked at the possible disturbance effects of bison on stream communities” (253). They have researched and documented stream areas in the United States where buffalo graze and stream areas without buffalo:
Found a significantly higher percentage of eroding stream bank and a lower relative percentage of gravelized substrate in grazed vs. ungrazed areas in central Pennsylvania. They interpreted this to be the reason for lowered macroinvertebrate densities and fewer potential brown trout spawning sites. (259)
It was determined bison trails increase the silt fraction of the streambed and widen the stream channel at the crossing. The wider channel decreases velocity of the water, thus maintaining within-site differences (Fritz 261). Therefore, bison do have an effect on stream communities. However, currently researchers are testing how effective the bison are to stream communities and how magnificent their negative effects are. In contrast to the previous researchers, Ernest Callenbach has a more uplifting view of bison. Callenbach strongly admires American buffalo:
Bison have successfully inhabited the region for ten thousand years, since the last ice age, and their bigger and wider-horned progenitor species were here for hundreds of thousands of years before that. Bison fit the western landscape, with its sweeping expanses, its pitiless winters, its austere beauty, it their powerful, shaggy profile, in their ability to forage over limitless areas, find ford under the snow, and endure blizzards, bison have always belonged in the West. (1)
The positive effects of bison have been on the nation’s history. They are a symbol of the past. Bison used to be considered sacred. Native Americans worshiped them and prayed to gods for them. Bison were hunted for survival and every physical part proved to be useful. They are part of the past, part of the nation’s memory. “Bringing them back to a significant portion of their native home will heal a painful gap in our national memory” (Callenbach 1). Along with Callenbach, Francis Haines also has a favorable account of the buffalo. Haines refers to bison as “impressive” and “gregarious” (2). Bison were vast around the plains. This animal was a symbol of strength and unity: "With its great size, vast numbers, and wide distribution, the buffalo was in sheer mass the largest game species ever known to mankind, and it exerted a profound influence on man from his first arrival in North America until the destruction of the herds in the late nineteenth century" (2). Bison were strong and rarely feared predators. They traveled in groups for protection. The physical condition of buffalo explains the power they held over other species:
A mature bull, his massive head and shoulders covered with long, curly hair, is an impressive sight. He stands as much as seven feet tall at the shoulder, and in good condition weighs up to two thousand pounds. Two curved horns project from the mass of hair above his weak eyes. His hindquarters are small and tapering, covered with short, light-colored hair and terminating in a short tail with a wisp of long hair as a tassel. (Haines 2)
North American bison have come to be known as a miracle animal. Close to extinction, they have managed to once again become populous. In the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Plains were home to nearly thirty million American buffalo. A hazardous drop came by the beginning of the twentieth century when the population of bison was merely one thousand. Presently, scientists and activists continue to bring back the buffalo. The main reasons for the near extinction are environmental and physical. In the past, the environment held dangerous conditions and Euro-American hunters more than doubled the existing Native American hunters. Laws are now in tact preventing the hunting of buffalo. Although environmental conditions cannot be controlled, the bison population is increasing rapidly due to new laws and national parks. Today the importance of bison is acknowledged and great attempts are made to prevent bison extinction.

Works Cited

Berger, Joel and Steven L. Cain. “Reproductive Synchrony in Brucellosis-Exposed Bison in the Southern Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and in Noninfected Populations.” Conservation Biology 13.2 (1999): 357-66.

Callenbach, Ernest. Bring Back the Buffalo! A Sustainable Future for America’s Great Plains. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Creel, Darrell. “Bison Hides in Late Prehistoric Exchange in the Southern Plains.” American Antiquity 56.1 (1991): 40-49.

Flores, Dan. “Bison Ecology and Bison Diplomacy: The Southern Plains from 1800 to 1850.” The Journal of American History 78.2 (1991): 465-85.

Fritz, Ken M. and Walter K. Dodds, et al. “The Effects of Bison Crossings on the Macroinvertibrate Community in a Tallgrass Prairie Stream.” American Midland Naturalist 141.2 (1999): 253-65.

Haines, Francis. The Buffalo. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995.

Hartl, Gunther B. and Zdzislaw Pucek. “Genetic Depletion in the European Bison (Bison Bonasus) and the Significance of Electrophoretic Heterozygosity for Conservation.” Conservation Biology 8.1 (1994): 167-74.

Isenberg, Andrew C. The Destruction of the Bison. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

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