The Story of the Buffalo Is America’s Story

By Neenah Payne

The buffalo — like the Plains Indians — is iconic of the West. The bison (buffalo) is on the back of the nickel. We sing “Home on the Range”: “Oh give me a home where the buffalo roam.” In 2016, President Obama signed the National Bison Legacy Act making the bison our national mammal.

The buffalo has been on this continent from Alaska to Mexico for 200,000 to 800,000 years. However, in the 19th century, White Americans shot buffalo from trains to destroy the Plains Indians who depended on bison for shelter, clothing, food, tools, etc. By 1885, bison were reduced from 30-70 million to 23 individuals. The indigenous peoples of this land went through a similar genocide from about 60 million in 1492 to 800,000 in the early 20th century.

It turns out now that we need both buffalo and Indians for our own survival — and both are roaring back.

Why America Wouldn’t Be America Without This Mountain Of Skulls: This one startling photo captures the horrifying extent of the buffalo slaughter.

Wikimedia Commons

Destruction of The Bison and Plains Indians

“The American bison was once the symbol of a vast, limitless country filled with seemingly endless land and equally endless opportunity. But American settlers soon ensured that the bison would ultimately symbolize the dark, ugly side of “manifest destiny.”

Estimates of how many bison used to roam the Midwest, before European settlers moved in, range from 30 to 60 million. Native Americans once lived in harmony with these migratory herds, while using the bison for food, their hides for clothing and shelter, and their bones for tools and weapons. But the American settlers advancing from the east were hungry for more land and more resources, including bison.

Hunters on cross-country trains would even take aim at the wild creatures from their windows and shoot down several at a time. The hunting train would then slow to a stop for people to skin the animals for coats, or cut out their tongues for culinary delicacies in the cities along the Eastern seaboard. Unlike the Native Americans, these hunters left the rest of the bison to rot.

Overall, between 1800 and 1900, the bison population was brought down from the estimated 30-60 million to approximately 325. While more exact statistics on the amount of bison killed by settlers are hard to come by, the full scope of the problem can be glimpsed in the numbers from one railroad company: 500,000 bison hides shipped east between just 1872 and 1874.

As startling as the numbers behind this mass buffalo slaughter are, most settlers seemed to view the animal as just one small step in manifest destiny, the quasi-religious belief that American settlers were destined to own the land of the New World all the way from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Even the extermination of Native American populations — another enormous casualty of manifest destiny — is directly tied to the bison. “I would not seriously regret the total disappearance of the buffalo from our western plains, in its effect upon the Indians,” Columbus Delano, Secretary of the Interior, wrote in 1873.

The following year, General Philip Sheridan, a leading fighter in the Indian Wars, told the Texas Legislature that bison hunters were “destroying the Indian’s commissary,” and the people should let them “kill, skin, and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated.”

Conflicts and ideologies like these are oftentimes hard to visualize in concrete terms and solid images. But in the case of manifest destiny, one need look no further than the buffalo slaughter.

Today, however, through careful conservation and land management efforts, the bison population has been brought back up to around 500,000.

Documentary: Story of The American Bison


FACING THE STORM is the epic account of our tempestuous relationship with the iconic symbol of wild America. It explores the visionary quest to protect and restore bison and details the inextricable relationship of the Plains Indians with the animal.  The film also recounts the harrowing near-destruction of the species in the late nineteenth century — from an estimated 30 million bison to a mere 23 individuals by 1885. It explores the epic vision — and monumental obstacles — to restore bison to immense tracts of the Great Plains. FACING THE STORM shows us that the American bison is not just an icon of a lost world, but may very well show us the path to the future.

Winona Laduke: “Daughters of Mother Earth: The Wisdom of Native American Women”

Winona LaDuke, a Native American activist, economist, and author of All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life, explains starting around 1:11:47 that Frank and Deborah Popper wrote a paper in 1987 proposing creation of a “Buffalo Commons” to return buffalo to the Great Plains. North Dakota farmers ridiculed the idea 30 years ago. However, 15 years ago, they asked the Poppers for help!

All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life

Proposal For The Great Plains

Frank J. Popper chaired the Rutgers University’s Urban Studies Department in New Brunswick, NJ and Deborah Epstein Popper was a graduate student in geography there. In December 1987, they authored The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust — A daring proposal for dealing with an inevitable disaster.

It points out,

At the center of the United States, between the Rockies and the tallgrass prairies of the Midwest and South, lies the shortgrass expanse of the Great Plains….We believe that over the next generation the Plains will, as a result of the largest, longest-running agricultural and environmental miscalculation in American history, become almost totally depopulated. At that point, a new use for the region will emerge, one that is in fact so old that it predates the American presence. We are suggesting that the region be returned to its original pre-white state, that it be, in effect, deprivatized….

Bleak future

It is hard to predict the future course of the Plains ordeal. The most likely possibility is a continuation of the gradual impoverishment and depopulation that in many places go back to the 1920s… The rural Plains will be virtually deserted. A vast, beautiful characteristically American place will go the way of the buffalo that once roamed it in herds of millions.

Little stands in the way of this outcome.…We believe that despite history’s warnings and environmentalists’ proposals, much of the Plains will inexorably suffer near-total desertion over the next generation. It will come slowly to most places, quickly to some; parts of Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Texas, especially those away from the interstates, strike us as likely candidates for rapid depopulation. The overall desertion will largely run its course.

At that point, the only way to keep the Plains from turning into an utter wasteland, an American
Empty Quarter, will be for the federal government to step in and buy the land — in short, to deprivatize it.…..

In practical terms, a federal deprivatization program would have two thrusts, one for Plains people, the other for Plains land. On the people side, government would negotiate buy-backs from landowners — often under distress-sale circumstances….

On the land side, the government will take the newly emptied Plains and tear down the fences, replant the shortgrass, and restock the animals, including the buffalo. It will take a long time. Even if large pieces of the commons can be assembled quickly, it will be at least 20 to 30 years before the vegetation and wildlife reassert themselves in the semiarid Plains settings, where the land changes so slowly that wagon-trail ruts more than a century old are still visible. There may also be competing uses for the land.

In South Dakota, several Sioux tribes are now bringing suit for 11,000 square miles, including much of the Black Hills. The federal government might settle these and other longstanding Plains Indian land claims by giving or selling the tribes chunks of the new commons.

Buffalo Commons

The Buffalo Commons is a cultural and social movement for positive, restorative social and ecological change on the Great Plains.

As both model and metaphor, the Buffalo Commons includes various, sometimes seemingly disconnected components that all add up to a new healthier life for our region centered around sustainability and regained community. This restoration economy can include everything from GPRC’s Million Acre Projects and Plains Youth InterACTION program, to a small West Texas or Kansas farmer’s re-banking of the soil on his land, to a group of Lakota or Oklahoma or Colorado mothers working together to stage gang intervention or ward off a meth invasion, to a string of communities along two hundred miles of a creek or river working to establish clean, healthy water flows again, to environmental groups making ecologically-focused land purchases. It’s problem solving through local, hands-on action.

The Buffalo Commons engages Prairie/Plains people to get invested in the healthful restoration of their communities and local environment wherever they live. Small businesses, housewives, big landholders, small landholders, inner-city children, Indian elders, cities, suburbs, towns and villages can all take pride in the unique identity of being and belonging to our Great Plains region, and working together in a shared sense of community, rather than the old way of every man (or woman) for him/herself.


History of the Buffalo Commons Movement

In 1987, Drs. Frank and Deborah Popper developed their bold new idea for a Buffalo Commons, (Popper and Popper, “The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust, PLANNING, 1987). Their continuing research showed that hundreds of counties in the American West still have less than a sparse 6 persons per square mile — the density standard Frederick Jackson Turner used to declare the American Frontier closed in 1893. Many have less than 2 persons per square mile.

There once were over 400 million acres of wild prairie grasslands in the central part of North America. The backbone of the Buffalo Commons movement is the work — over a period of decades — to re-establish and re-connect prairie wildland reserves and ecological corridors large enough for bison and all other native prairie wildlife to survive and roam freely, over great, connected distances, while simultaneously restoring the health and sustainability of our communities wherever possible so that both land and people may prosper for a very long time.

Future generations may choose to expand these reserves and corridors, as the new culture of caring and belonging we have started today becomes an integral, ingrained part of life in the world of tomorrow, especially as extensive grasslands become needed to help absorb carbon from the atmosphere. (Highly biodiverse native prairies are excellent carbon sequesters.)

Below are papers by the Poppers:

Planning on Shrinking

The Onset of the Buffalo Commons

The Buffalo Commons: Metaphor as Method

The Buffalo Commons: Its Antecedents and Their Implications


Return of the American Bison

North America’s largest mammal, the American bison, is an enduring symbol of the Great Plains. Bison once ranged from Canada to New Mexico and from Nevada to the Appalachian Mountains. By 1889, their populations were reduced from 30 to 60 million animals to fewer than 1000. Bison were pushed to the brink of extinction by a number of factors, including over hunting by hide hunters, trains, competition with cattle and horses, and disease.

Bison survived near extinction with the help of prescient Native Americans and early conservationists who worked to protect the species through effective federal wildlife management policy. Today, bison are considered a conservation success story. More than 500,000 bison now live on the Great Plains in protected herds that range on national, state, local, and private lands, and in 2016 President Obama codified the bison’s place in America’s cultural imagination by signing a law making bison the country’s first national mammal.

Dan O’Brien is the author of Wild Idea: Buffalo and Family in a Difficult Land, Buffalo for the Broken Heart: Restoring Life to a Black Hills Ranch, and Great Plains Bison.

Amazon Descriptions

For twenty years, Dan O’Brien struggled to make ends meet on his cattle ranch in South Dakota. But when a neighbor invited him to lend a hand at the annual buffalo roundup, O’Brien was inspired to convert his own ranch, the Broken Heart, to buffalo. Starting with thirteen calves, “short-necked, golden balls of wool,” O’Brien embarked on a journey that returned buffalo to his land for the first time in more than a century and a half….

In 1998, he bought his first buffalo and began the task of converting a little cattle ranch into an ethically run buffalo ranch. Wild Idea is a book about how good food choices can influence federal policies and the integrity of our food system, and about the dignity and strength of a legendary American animal….
At its center, Wild Idea is about a family and the people and animals that surround them—all trying to build a healthy life in a big, beautiful, and sometimes dangerous land.

Great Plains Bison traces the history and ecology of this American symbol from the origins of the great herds that once dominated the prairie to its near extinction in the late nineteenth century and the subsequent efforts to restore the bison population. A longtime wildlife biologist and one of the most powerful literary voices on the Great Plains, Dan O’Brien has managed his own ethically run buffalo ranch since 1997. Drawing on both extensive research and decades of personal experience, he details not only the natural history of the bison but also its prominent symbolism in Native American culture and its rise as an icon of the Great Plains.

Great Plains Bison is a tribute to the bison’s essential place at the heart of the North American prairie and its ability to inspire naturalists and wildlife advocates in the fight to preserve American biodiversity.

How Bison Are Saving America’s Lost Prairie

American prairies were once home to as many as 60 million bison. But when ranching and agriculture displaced elk and bison from the prairies, America’s grasslands all but disappeared. Now, the Nature Conservancy manages the largest remaining protected tract of tallgrass prairie in the entire world, the Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in northeastern Oklahoma. This 40,000-acre expanse is much more than grass. It is a biologically rich habitat that harbors a diverse collection of plant and animal species—more than 750 species of flora and 80 different mammals.

This prairie is also a vital component in nature’s fight against climate change. The key to keeping the prairie healthy? Bison. The Nature Conservancy reintroduced 300 bison to this prairie in 1993, and the herd has grown to more than 2,000 animals today. They graze on the majority of the preserve, playing an important part in enhancing the prairies. Combined with a method of land management known as patch burning—preserve managers torch about a third of the acreage every spring, summer, and fall, mimicking ancient seasons of fire—the tallgrass prairie is thriving.

Neenah Payne writes for Activist Post and Natural Blaze

Top image: Amazon

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