The American bison is a species of bison that has populated the North American plains for thousands of years. It’s estimated that at one point nearly 30-60 million wandered the Americas. Due to a variety of factors in the 19th century the American bison population rapidly dwindled to the point of near extinction.
The most widely distributed theory for the disappearance of bison from the plains is due to over hunting by American settlers encroaching into the region. While there is a degree of truth to this, the actual reason is much more complicated.
American settlers certainly had a large role to play in the decline of the bison. Settlers brought their cattle, horses and other animals with them, and fenced off large areas that prevented bison from grazing. Commercial bison hunting emerged as well with the furs, tongues and bones being particularly valuable.
The Devastation of the American Bison Population
The American military also sanctioned the killing of wild bison. At the time the military was engaged in many conflicts with frontier natives. The army knew that the natives relied upon the bison as a primary food source, and thus the removal of their food would make them more dependent on the US government and reduce hostilities.
Bison management and hunting ground were a key component of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie.
There were two other factors that contributed to the decline of bison populations: disease and lack of land management. These factors go hand in hand. Firstly, before settlers even began to show up in the Great Plains, the native populations there were ravaged by European introduced diseases. The land they had been tending for thousands of years fell into disarray.
Bison will reproduce plentifully if left unchecked and will graze in the same location for months if not hunted and forced to move. The bison began to overwhelm the landscape and ate everything in sight. Within a few generations the bison were critically overpopulated in many areas and many were starving.
In their weakened state they became extremely susceptible to diseases. Some were introduced from cattle, but most were diseases local to their areas. It’s impossible to tell just how many bison were killed from disease vs humans, but there were many factors contributing to their decline.
Luckily they were identified as an endangered species and allowed to repopulate. By the 1990’s, bison not privately owned numbered around 25,000, a significant increase from the only 325 remaining in 1884.
Source: Flat Creek Inn