Buffalo: The Mighty Giant of the Plains

“At one time, buffalo were found from northwest Canada throughout the plains of the United States and down into northern Mexico. Their numbers were estimated to be between 30 and 60 million. And then, in a phrase that appears often in the history of the canyons and plains, things changed.

Few animals are as iconic to the American West as the buffalo. He holds a place in our ecology, our history, our culture and our imaginations. Not only is he the largest terrestrial animal known to reside in North America, he is also the oldest, having roamed this continent for thousands upon thousands of years.

Many of the Plains Indian tribes viewed the buffalo as sacred and a symbol of abundance. It's no wonder; impressive is just one word to describe these extraordinary animals.

A typical full grown male stands 6 feet tall from hoof to shoulder, weighs between 1700 and 2200 pounds and has a life span of around 20 years. They have the ability to jump 6 feet—vertically—and to run at top speeds of around 35 miles per hour for several hours at a time. Such speed and size kept them invulnerable to most predators except for wolves and bears, who could often only cull the herd. Their ability to move also limited the way they could be hunted by indigenous tribes who, until just the last five centuries or so, were forced to either do so on foot or corral parts of a herd and, either through fire or by chasing for several miles on foot, run them off a cliff. The Olsen-Chubbuck archaeological site roughly 15 miles southeast of Kit Carson (and within Kiowa County) made history with its discovery and confirmation of these hunting techniques.

It's widely believed that the buffalo may have played a large role in shaping the ecology of the plains. Their grazing habits and widespread roaming prevented overgrazing. The pressure of their trampling broke the surface of the ground and allowed moisture to more easily penetrate soil. In contrast, their “wallowing”—that is, drinking and rolling around in water that filled natural depressions in the land after a rain—actually preserved the water holes for other wildlife in a way that was almost symbiotic. As the buffalo “wallowed” in the water holes, the water holes would become extremely muddy. The thick hide of the buffalo would trap the mud, which they would carry with them when they left, leaving the watering hole even deeper after they departed. In exchange, the natural oils and hair on their hide would coat the bottom of the watering hole, making it almost impenetrable to water and, in so doing, assure that the next time rain fell, the watering hole would retain the water and remain available for the wildlife who came to drink from the watering hole after the buffalo moved on.

A few buffalo wallows can still be seen today. One is located in Kiowa County on the south side of Highway 96 west of the town of Eads and near to the site of what was once a town named Galatea.

Just as the environment of the plains seemed to be suited to the buffalo, the buffalo were highly suited to the environment of the plains, which is why they thrived on the plains for centuries.

All these factors worked to the advantage of the buffalo and, barring destructive weather patterns, went a long way toward guaranteeing their ongoing survival if not outright proclivity. At one time, buffalo were found from northwest Canada throughout the plains of the United States and down into northern Mexico. Their numbers were estimated to be between 30 and 60 million.

And then, in a phrase that appears often in the history of the canyons and plains, “things changed.”

A perfect storm is a term used to describe a disastrous event that's caused by a number of factors working together at the same time. It would be a fair description to say the buffalo were almost made extinct by such a perfect storm.

Their demise can be directly traced to a number of events. The first impact on the buffalo is attributed to the period of 1700s to 1800s. As more and more people immigrated to the United States, there was an expansion from the east coast spreading west. The vast majority of these people were farmers, and they did what farmers do: they broke ground, plowed under natural vegetation and planted crops. In doing so, they moved the buffalo out of their natural habitat. They also brought with them cattle, which introduced diseases to which the buffalo had no immunity. Also, feral horses, left behind by the Spaniards, were grazing competition. Although the impact of these first settlers was not direct, per se, the impact was nonetheless very real. By 1802, the buffalo were virtually gone from Ohio.

By 1820, just 18 years later, buffalo were virtually extinct east of the Mississippi.

However, it wasn't just the buffalo who were pushed out of land in the east; by 1820, Native American tribes had been forced to move. As they migrated west and out on to the plains, their presence put additional pressure on the buffalo. Not only did they have horses, they had something clearly more deadly with a more direct impact: guns. Being on horseback gave them the ability to hunt more frequently, and guns gave them greater accuracy and efficacy. However, hunting for subsistence was not as destructive as another force: fashion.

As the beaver market played out and fashion changed from beaver hats to silk hats from China, buffalo robes took their place, not just on the coast to the east but Europe, as well. Newspapers from the time show numerous ads offering to buy and sell buffalo robes, by the thousands.

By most historical accounts, 1830 is the year identified when the mass destruction began of the great herds of buffalo on the plains. Buffalo trade had been established on the Northern Plains. In 1832, the great Western artist, George Catlin, made the prophetic statement, “The buffalo's doom is sealed.” In the 1840s, Native American “market hunters” began to focus on buffalo cows, due to the higher price their robes brought on the market. The increased hunting of cows naturally led to fewer and fewer calves being born, and herd numbers plummeted.

Accounts of the buffalo trade at Bent's Old Fort confirm the massive kills. William Bent and his traders reportedly bought tens of thousands of buffalo hides for many of the years Bent's Old Fort was in business.

In the late 1850s and 1860s, there began to appear comments from people traveling through the west that buffalo are not nearly as plentiful as they once were. In 1864, the state legislature of Idaho passed a law protecting the buffalo; unfortunately, by that time, they were all gone.

However, some of that reported decrease has been attributed to the ending of the “mini-ice age” when the temperatures were much warmer in the northern part of the United States than they had been, resulting in more abundant moisture. This leads many historians to think that the herds had begun to migrate toward the north and more favorable climate and grasses.

But then, in 1866, an article appeared in a St. Paul paper that gives credence to those who believe disease was partly responsible for the animals' decline. The paper reports that a cattle disease is “raging among the buffalo” on the northwestern plains, where many of them had migrated not long before. There are reports of “huge numbers, incomprehensible in size” of animals who are “dead in their tracks with no account of the cause of death”. Cattle are also dying of what appears to be the same disease as that sweeping through herds of cattle in Europe. Given that this also coincides with the ending of the Civil War and the beginning of the expansion westward, it's conceivable that, with that migration, came the onset of a disease that had the potential to be highly fatal to buffalo.

The perfect storm is intensifying.

The attention of the military had shifted from the Civil War to the war with the Indians on the Plains. People were looking to the west more than ever; Indian tribes were in the way of this expansion. Although there is no documentation of this in any record, a colonel by the name of Dodge made a statement that echoed the sentiments of many in the military. “Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.” In other words, remove the source of food—the mighty buffalo—and the various tribes will be forced to turn to the government to survive. It must be noted that a number of men in the military were violently opposed to this notion and attempted to take steps to stop its spread. Even General Sheridan, who had achieved some notoriety during the Civil War for being part of the “scorched earth” practiced by Sherman in subduing the South, echoed the tragedy of what was being done, going so far as to defend the natural response of the tribes to fight.

At the same time that the military was focusing on clearing the plains for the coming wave of settlers, the railroads were laying tracks. Some historians believe that this was responsible for splitting the great herds into those to the north and those to the south. Others disagree. But the arrival of the railroad brought the arrival of the “gentleman hunter”, that individual who was enthralled at the idea of killing such a large animal but only wanted to do so from the comfort of the car of a passing train. Recognizing this, the railroads advertised “hunting trips” where, upon coming on a herd of buffalo, the train would slow down, and guns that had been stored on board the train for protection were issued to passengers who were allowed to shoot at the herds as they passed.

The horror of the slaughter is difficult to grasp.

A behavior of the buffalo worked against them, in this case. When a buffalo is killed, the other buffalo standing in proximity don't run; instead, they gather around the dead animal, kicking at the ground and snorting. This made the slaughter of the magnificent animals that much easier.

The buffalo were now in the eye of the perfect storm. In Germany, a technique had been developed where buffalo hides could be tanned and either turned into fine leather or used for belts to drive motors. It was also found that buffalo was infinitely more durable than leather. The hunting increased even more. The buffalo were even targeted by the Industrial Revolution.

It's a horrific and tragic lesson of what can happen when human beings are motivated, for different reasons, to target a single animal. By 1883, a magnificent, iconic animal—a species—that had, at one time, been more plentiful than any other large animal on the entire continent was hunted to near extinction. Disease, military strategy, fashion, sport, commerce, competition for grazing... they all combined to make a force no animal could survive, even one as majestic and symbolic of strength as the great American buffalo.

The good news, and it is good news, involves the conscious efforts being made to repopulate parts of the United States with genetically pure bison who as close to the buffalo of our ancestors as possible. It's not being done without opposition, mainly from advocates for the cattle industry who don't want the competition for grazing land. But the defenders of the bison are determined, as progress is slowly but surely being made. Whether or not we, as a species ourselves, have the restraint, foresight and wisdom to preserve their numbers this time around remains to be seen.