Friday, May 5, 2017

Harvesting the American Buffalo

Quite literately, millions of buffalo once roamed North America, grazing the Great Plains and prairies as well as the mountains to the east. Historical documents from the time of Columbus's arrival make reference of the animals' importance to the native people. Accounts of early explorers speak of the American Buffalo as follows: “the plains were black and appeared as if in motion” with herds. Weaved into the fabric of the Native American’s lively-hood for thousands of years, the buffalo was not only admired but were honored by these early people.

Clearly, it was no secret that the “new” Americans were aware of the importance the buffalo held for Native Americans.  So what in the name of Mother Nature do you suppose led to the near extinction event administered by these “new” pioneers?

Many knowledgeable scholars suggest that in order to reduce the many risks associated with “going west”, the US government, by way of the Army, secretly adopted a policy to exterminate the Buffalo. As the story goes, the extermination of the Buffalo would in turn mean the demise of Native Americans (Indians) who depended on the Buffalo for almost every aspect of their existence.  In the very least, by killing off this valuable resource, it would severely reduce the ability of the Indians to continue with an armed struggle against the United States. Although the political mind set of the era seems to point to the existence of an official policy of this kind, the debate about whether one actually existed lingers still.

Most historians say that the slaughter of the great Buffalo herds of the West (an estimated 30 million in 1800) took place between 1874 and 1884 (a period of only 10 years); but the truth is, even if there was a secret government policy to kill off the food & clothing supply of the Native American’s, there were also other issues of the day that must also be considered.

Perhaps the first group to come into the line of fire would be the newest big “lobby” of the era; the railroad industry, they wanted bison / buffalo herds culled or eliminated for their own self-serving reason. Large herds were often a real problem when it came to RR tracks and engines.  It seems they could damage a locomotive engine when the trains failed to stop in time to prevent collisions with those unlucky beasts that happened upon the tracks at exactly the wrong time.

But the primary reason for the Bison’s (Buffalo’s) near-demise was plain old commercial market hunting. The fact is that the Buffalo was hunted almost to the point of extinction in the late 19th century primarily by what you could call “market hunters”; they were reduced to only a few hundred by mid-1880. The Buffalo were hunted and killed primarily for their skins; to the amazement of the typical Indian the rest of the animal was left behind to decay on the ground as there was no method available to get those Buffalo roasts and stakes to the available marketplace, absent spoilage.  

Turned out, that buffalo skins were great for clothing such as robes, or rugs and, most importantly, for industrial machine belts (kind a like a huge fan belt). A good hide could bring as much as $3.00 in Dodge City, Kansas, and a very good one (with a heavy winter coat) could sell for $50.00 back east, in an era when the typical laborer would be lucky to make one dollar a day.

Then, after the animals rotted away, their bones gave rise to yet another industry, were in they (the bones) were collected and shipped back east in large quantities.

Bones of most any kind, you see, made an excellent fertilizer and was in great demand during the late 1880’s and early 1890’s.  Therefore bone gathering and selling began first in the Plains area around 1884, and grew into a thriving industry. As many as four hundred trainloads per year of bones were shipped back East for the fertilizer market. The average price for dried bones was $10.00 a ton. This allowed many settlers to “pick bones” whenever they had the time or you could say “at their leisure”, for supplementing the family’s annual earnings. Because picking bones was not a strenuous chore, it was not uncommon for children to participate in gathering them so as to complement the family’s income.

An interesting side note regarding the dry buffalo bone supply — it was eventually depleted to the point that some enterprising bone picker substituted buffalo bones with the bones of dead Indians taken from ancient burial grounds, his scheme was soon found out, which pretty much killed the business altogether.

The region known as the Great Plains stretches from the provinces of Canadian in the north, to near the Gulf of Mexico in the south; from the Rocky Mountains in the west, to the Mississippi River in the eastern U S . . . The Native Americans who lived there became known as the Plains Indians and are still among those which are most often stereotyped in the movies and other media as representing all Indians or Native Americans.  To those people, the horse, the tipi, and especially the Buffalo were all central items to their cultures.

Yes, for the Plains Indians, the buffalo provided them with food, shelter, tools, and even spiritual guidance.   A few of the Plains tribes, such as the Blackfoot, actually considered the Buffalo to be “real food” and all other flesh, such as elk or wild turkey as being, well, inferior.  And then there’s this: For the typical Indian, Buffalo hunting was not a sporting event, but were harvested so that “the people” could live.

Practically every schoolchild is taught that before the arrival of whites, Plains Indians lived in perfect harmony with nature and were the ultimate socialist ecologists. As the typical story goes, Indians had little private property, were not burdened by capitalism, and they hunted and killed only what was required for them to live comfortably. Then the Europeans arrived on the scene, using industrialized hunting methods that nearly eradicated the North American bison, also known as the Buffalo. In the late 1800’s, hunters, such as William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody, slaughtered the animals to meet market demands until the bison were nearly gone. Then, just in the nick of time (the story line continues), the U S government stepped in and saved the buffalo from total extension by sealing the remaining few off from hunters in Yellowstone National Park; a national treasure located primarily in present day Wyoming, but also extending into Montana and Idaho.

Yep, that’s sure an opportune and easily told storyline, but it has left many of us, well, buffaloed!  If nothing else it has certainly caused the story of the Buffalo to be misconstrued.

Of recent date, a number of scholarly studies have materialized, and they universally provide a much more complex depiction of the Great Plains in the late 1800’s. Among other things, the revisions address the nature of Indian Buffalo hunting, and nonhuman factors affecting herd sizes. The studies also show that the real savior of the Buffalo was not necessarily the government, but, believe it or not, the free market.

The authors of the aforementioned studies include: Author, Teacher, and Historian, Dan Flores, of Texas Tech University before moving to the University of Montana in Missoula where he retired in 2014; Shepard Krech III, an anthropology professor at Brown University; and Andrew C. Isenberg, a professor of history at Princeton . . . point being, these guys are not a group of white elitist, simply trying to “whitewash” history.  

The first shattered myth is that of the “natural” Indian living in perfect harmony with nature — unlike the greedy Europeans who came, seen, and conquered the continent. To the contrary, each of the authors revealed evidence of communal economies that engaged in large-scale burning to "clear" forests and kill game. “Organized” burns often got out of control, and without modern firefighting equipment, destroyed everything in their path. Birds, deer, beaver, and all sorts of wildlife were already on the road to extinction in some areas; a result of over hunting done by Indians, natural predators and disaster thinned herds.   

Further, the selected Buffalo hunting techniques, while productive, were less than, shall we say “animal friendly” to the casual observer.  Simply put, Indians used the tools at their disposal, which was mostly fire, together with a good bit of cunning, to hunt buffalo. A hunting method known as “Box Burning,” was one a common tactic which involved setting simultaneous fires on all four sides of a herd. Charles McKenzie, while crossing the plains in 1804, observed entire herds with flanks charred from Indian fires. Yet another favored hunting tactic, the “Buffalo Jump,” involved luring a herd to follow an Indian dressed in a buffalo skin. At a full run, the brave led the herd to a high bluff, where he jumped to a small hidden but adjoining ledge while the buffalo careened over the edge of the cliff to their demises. Both methods actually led to horrible waste and inefficient use of resources.

Another powerful myth is that the Indians “used every part of the buffalo,” suggesting that the Plains Indians used all of the Buffalo they killed.  Sorry, that’s not the case. In the 1850’s and before, it’s estimated that Indians harvested roughly 450,000 animals per year, and some believe the figure was far high.  Typically, after stripping the best meat and some useful parts, then leaving the remainder to rot—in truth they had little choice, in that they lacked a reasonable method for effectively preserving the kill. The stench engulfed the prairie for miles, and many a pioneer reported coming across acres of bones from buffalo killed by the Indians before (the pioneer) continuing west.

It’s doubtful, at best, whether the slaughter of the Buffalo by the Indian alone would have made the buffalo extinct, but if combined with natural factors such as wolf predation, drought, and wild fires, the Indians’ annual harvest almost certainly surpassed the ability of the Buffalo herds to maintain themselves. Perhaps even of more significance, as Isenberg points out, “Even had they recognized a decline, the inherent instability of the nomadic societies made it difficult always to enforce the mandates against waste.” And lest we forget, many Indian religions held that nature provided an unlimited supply, and thus it was impossible to “overhunt.”  To put it another way, the bison were already doomed before the white man even arrived on the continent — regardless, is would have taken decades longer.

In any event, westward expansion of whites and trade between whites and Indians produced two noteworthy changes, one more destructive than the other. First:  The typical Indian shifted from farming to a nomadic, hunting lifestyle. Second: As American pioneers pushed west, both the Indians and the buffalo constituted an obstruction to more expansion. In truth, a thriving buffalo-hide trade already existed between Indian hunters, however by the 1860’s, a new wave of white hunters, using modern firearms and industrial processing methods expanded the slaughter of the Buffalo / Bison. This activity had three primary purposes: (A) it fed railroad workers and a few western markets; (B) it supplied robes and hides to tanneries and provided the industrial market with “fan belts” and fertilizer; (C) finally, it cannot be denied that it was a cruel method for getting rid of the Indian by eliminating his food supply.

There is little doubt that market forces nearly marked the end of the sooner than had buffalo been left to the handy work of the Indians alone. As was evidenced as early as 1832 when George Catlin— American painter, author, and traveler who specialized in portraits of Native Americans— warned that the days of the Buffalo were. Forty years later, Yellowstone National Park provided the only public sanctuary for Buffalo beyond city zoos.  Trouble was, the public park constantly had a real difficulty in keeping hunters or poachers at bay. You see, private herds had value, and thus were well guarded. But Yellowstone was “open season” for poachers, despite repeated efforts to raise penalties for killing Buffalo inside the park.

So the real credit for saving the Buffalo should go to the private sector; first through formation of the American Bison Society in 1905, whose members were frequently from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, or the New England states.   A few sought to develop Cattle-Buffalo hybrids called “Beefalo,” yet others, including banker J. P. Morgan, focused on creating open-range reserves where “the buffalo roam.” He funded a 20,000-acre expanse in Colorado and stocked it with Buffalo.

Meanwhile, western ranchers such as Charles Goodnight started capturing buffalo calves in 1878 because he, like others, believed there just could be considerable value in private Buffalo herds. As a result, many of the Buffalo that eventually populated government preserves descended from the herds of but a few enterprising Montana ranchers.  

Undoubtedly, profit, was the primary reason behind the “keepers” of the Buffalo, just as it was for hide hunters years earlier. One particular rancher advertised, “We Supply Buffalo for Zoos, Parks, Circuses, and Barbecues.”

Yellowstone aside, the private sector saved the buffalo. By the 1990s, more than 90% of the Buffalo in North America were in private hands, rather than publicly owned.

Without question, market forces had contributed to the near-extinction of the Buffalo, along with the political objective of destroying the Indians by eliminating their food source. But that is well known. What is almost never mentioned is that it was market forces-ranchers, hunters, tourism developers, railroaders, and philanthropists-that ultimately saved the buffalo as well.