Buffalo once roamed from Canada to Mexico, grazing the great plains and frequenting the mountain areas of the North American continent. Their number being so great that the early explorers could not count them, describing them as "number-numberless," and "the country was one black robe" and the "plains were black and appeared as if in motion" with the herds of buffalo. The most commonly used estimate of their former numbers is approximately 60 million.
A strong relationship between the human and the bison has existed for thousand of years. Buffalo were the center of life for the Plains Tribes of Native Americans, providing them with food, shelter, clothing and spiritual inspiration. 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."
The near extermination of the American Plains Buffalo did not occur just in a few short violent years. The fur trade, which begun in the 1600s initially focused on beaver, but then demanded buffalo (bison) robes be shipped to Europe. By the early 1800s, trade in "buffalo" robes and "buffalo" tongues significantly increased and caused approximately 200,000 bison kills annually on the plains. The 1830s to 1860s were the four decades in which most of the slaughter of buffalo occurred. Wagon load after wagon load of robes, tongues and, occasionally, selected cuts of buffalo meat moved east. Soon, collection and shipping of bison bones to eastern cities where they ground up for use as phosphorous fertilizer or bone char became common. The arrival of the railroads further exacerbated herd conditions for the buffalo and by the early 1880s there were a few free ranging buffalo.
In 1886, zoologist William T. Hornaday needed specimens of the plains buffalo for the National Museum in Washington, D.C. Knowing that the plains buffalo were now becoming quite scarce, he went west and collected in eight weeks time only 25 bison in a region (Montana) that had supported tens of thousands a few years earlier. His thorough search clearly demonstrated that the species was indeed in danger of imminent extinction. By 1893, the estimates were only slightly more than 300 buffalo left of the herds that conservatively numbered near 60 million animals.
On December 8, 1905, the American Bison Society was formed with William Hornaday as president and Theodore Roosevelt as honorary president. Roosevelt persuaded Congress to establish a number of wildlife preserves, and, with the help of a cadre of private bison owners, the Society was able to stock a number of preserves and parks. A 1929 inventory of buffalo counted 3,385 animals, and although the count was not precise it was encouraging enough that the Society discontinued its programs and activities in 1930. Ranchers and breeders recognizing the obvious economic potential of the animal, expanded their efforts to preserve , protect and reestablish the American Bison. The National Bison Association (NBA) estimates approximately 150,000 buffalo in public and private herds in the United States at this time. Of these animals the federal government manages approximately 6,000 and tribal authorities at least 5,000. A small number of buffalo are managed by city and state governments but 90% are owned and managed by private sector entrepreneurs. Herd numbers can range from one to several thousand. The largest public herd is in Yellowstone National Park (approximately 4500), and the three largest private herds are those owned by the Houck family of Pierre, South Dakota, Turner Enterprises and Durham Ranches, Inc.
Over the years the presence of the American Buffalo had deeply affected the peoples of this continent in a way that no other species, present or past, has been capable of doing. This heroic and magnificent beast is not only an inseparately part of America's past, its future place in American history now also appears secure. The buffalo, more so than any other animal or bird, is a unique symbol of the strength and determination of the people of North America.
Thanks to AmercianWest.com for the information on this page
For more information on the american bison see the National Bison Association at BisonCentral.com