The Demise of the Plains Buffalo

Posted by Posted in General Information, Historical Places & Events, Nature & Wildlife Posted on 28-08-2016

The Bison Trail - 1908 - 2

Certainly most all of us have either read or heard tales of the demise of the huge herds of Bison that were so predominate and plentiful in the early 1800’s. I recently realized that I was certainly educated with regard to the referenced demise but possessed little to no perspective on its magnitude. That all changed when by happenstance I ran across the photograph shown below.

The Bison Demise - 02

The Bison Demise - 03I found that photo personally to be a stark kick in the behind, a reality check if you will. I had seen numerous drawings and paintings in the past such as the one just to the left depicting in some manner the demise of the numerous buffalo herds but apparently none of them had any real sobering effect at the time. I suspect, at least for me, that many drawings and paintings depicting such events border on entertainment rather than journalistic documentation such as the above photo with a mountain of buffalo skulls and horns.

As history informs us, as the 19th century was nearing its end the Bison population had been all but decimated. With a growing population of upwards of some 30 – 60 million at the beginning of the 19th century, by the late 1880\’s there were as few as 1000 left and the Great Plains buffalo was at the edge of extinction. William Hornaday, a noted conservationist of the times, estimated the total population of Bison in 1889 to be 85 free ranging, 200 in the Yellowstone National Park federal herd, 550 at Great Slave Lake in Canada and 200 in zoos and private herds. By 1902 there were only 23 buffalo estimated to be in the Yellowstone National Park herd and 700 in private herds.

I ran across a couple of other additional journalistic photographs that further added to the stark realization of the human inflicted tragedy that befell our subject animal. One can only ponder at what our forefathers were thinking as they plundered these herds. On the other had, history has certainly taught us that when there is a great bounty, there is likewise an accompanying of great waste.

The Bison Demise - 01

The second of the two photographs is noted as being taken in Dodge City, Kansas in 1878 at the Rath & Wright Buffalo Hide Yard showing an estimated 40,000 buffalo hides stacked in one location in their hide yard. And let me note that a larger view of the subject photos can be seen by clicking on them…

Rath & Wright\'s Buffalo Hide Yard in 1878 showing 40,000 buffalo hides - Dodge City, Kansas

It would have probably under normal circumstances never even crossed my mind as to the history and demise of the Great Plains buffalo. After all, I had seen the film “Dances with the Wolves” where there was one traumatic scene showing the waste left by white hunters in their quest for hides. But in reality that scene did not even scratch the surface of that crime against nature when viewed in these few photographs.

In closing I should note that the current North America estimated Bison population including Canada herds, the Yellowstone National Park herd, zoos and private herds is inclusive of approximately 500,000 buffalo. It took less than 100 years to decimate a population of between 30 – 60 million buffalo and over 100 years to bring that population back to only a half-million. 🙁