In our last blog, we discussed the evolutionary beginnings of the American Bison. How, like humans, bison came to North America by walking across the ice bridge between Asia and Alaska. For thousands of years, bison dominated the Americas and feared nothing.
Things began to go wrong for the bison after contact with the British and French. European settlers and militia wanted to create farms, settlements, trains, and other developments and left little room for the First Nations or the bison in their plans.
Many of the bison were wiped out by diseases from domestic cattle and loss of habitat from farmers and ranchers. More were lost because bison furs were in high demand, and entire herds would be culled, the skin removed, and the rest of the body left to rot. As the railroads were built across North America, the builders and those riding the train were encouraged to kill as many bison as possible. Bison were a danger to trains as they could cause derailment; they were also an inconvenience as herds grazing on or near the tracks could halt a train for days. During this time, trains driving past herds would slow down to allow the hunters an easier shot. When conflicts began with the First Nations, European militia and governments attempted to completely eradicate the bison and with it the independence of the First Nations people. Without the bison to hunt, the Europeans hoped First Nations would be at the mercy of government subsidies and handouts.
As the bison population began to dwindle, people fearing the species extinction came forward looking to protect the remaining animals. Those in charge were more interested in destabilizing the First Nations and ignored them. By 1900, there were only 1000 bison left in the entirety of Canada and the US. Something had to be done.
It was individuals who started the first initiatives to save the bison. Private landowners domesticated a small herd here and there and slowly bred their animals. In 1907, the Canadian government bought one of these private herds and brought them into the newly created Elk Island National Park. Other national parks like Yellowstone were safe places for wild bison herd to begin growing again and more parks were created. The resurgence was slow but steady.
Today, the bison population is nowhere near where it was in the 18th century, and we’ll likely never see massive herds of bison meandering through the prairies. But as of the 2000s, bison have been doing well. There’s now a solid half a million individuals, and many bison are kept privately for meat production just like the herds at Rangeland.
The history of bison isn’t all nice. Some of it marks a pretty nasty and Eurocentric time in Canadian and American history. It’s pretty astounding that the work of a few individuals managed to bring this magnificent species back from the brink of death, but when we look out at our herds grazing and enjoying the fall weather, we’re so glad they did.
When discussing the history of bison, it’s necessary to also discuss the history of the First Nations and the devastating effects that European colonization had. At the end of the day, we’re bison experts not historians. This blog reflects the history as well as we know it, but if this is a topic that interests you, we suggest you do your own research and talk with anthropologists, historians, and evolutionary biologists in your area. On the other hand, if you have a question on how we raise our bison or how to order meat, please contact Rangeland today!