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How the Buffalo Were Saved

Have you ever wondered how the buffalo were saved?   Like most such tales, it is actually more than one story, which I’ll get to shortly.

Much better known is how they were nearly exterminated, and – alas – far more depressing.   As I have cited in more than one Trail Talk, it took centuries for the invasion of Europeans on this continent to reduce the proud aborigines to submission.   But the riches of North America were a powerful incentive, and after the distraction of the Civil War, “Americans” were becoming impatient to fulfill their “manifest destiny”.   About the same time, the federal authorities hit on a simple and very efficient solution: starve them out.

It didn’t take much research to uncover that the Plains Tribes – the strongest and most recalcitrant – were nearly completely dependent on the great bison herds for the their lifestyle and food supply.   Eliminate the buffalo and the Natives would be forced to submit to the already established reservation system.

With the completion of the transcontinental line, government-subsidized railroads had unintentionally separated the massive prehistoric beasts into two herds, north and south, accelerating the process.   Buffalo Bill Cody earned his nickname by shooting hundreds of buffalo per day, ostensibly to feed the crews.   But most carcasses were left to rot in the relentless prairie sun. So many buffalo were shot in rapid succession that rifles became too hot to touch, and had to be rotated.   Even those working on this extermination project were amazed at how easy it was, and how quickly the herds diminished.

By the late 1880’s even the country’s most enthusiastic big game hunter, Theodore Roosevelt, became alarmed when his scheduled hunting trip to Dakota Territory, had to be extended because he couldn’t find a single bison to kill.   Those of you who have visited the 26th President’s Sagamore Hill home, know that he got his buffalo.   But it was a wakeup call which created our first (and arguably our strongest) conservationist Chief Executive.   With some of his Eastern hunting buddies, he founded the Boone and Crockett Club, establishing a precedent for combining the seemingly disparate causes of hunting and conservation.

But I digress.   The conservation idea was slow to take hold. In the meantime, scattered ranchers throughout the West were independently coming to the same conclusion – but recognized that there was no time to waste.   Extinct is forever.   Posters were appearing across the West advertising “The last great buffalo hunt” in this or that locale.   This was a time for action, not forming clubs!

Here and there across the West pockets of buffalo which had somehow escaped the hunter’s cross-hairs, were gathered into tiny herds.   One Dakota Territory rancher harbored a half dozen calves rescued from the “last” great hunt.   Quietly, almost secretly, these ranchers nurtured their bison apart from their cattle-ranching operations, to protect their wild natures. One, who called himself “Buffalo” Jones, famously trained his two prized animals to the harness.   There are pictures!   There are also stories that immediately after the photo was taken, the intrinsically wild mammals rebelled, destroying the wagon in the process.

Another – Scotty Phillip of Ft. Pierre, South Dakota – was so successful that he converted his entire ranching operation to buffalo, and managed to amass a herd numbering well over a thousand by the early twentieth century, presaging the very successful ranching operations that would eventually make South Dakota the largest grower of bison in the nation.

The good news is that the buffalo are no longer threatened and were removed from the Endangered Species List decades ago.

And the herd in Custer State Park, which is the cause of much celebration at the annual fall roundup?   The first 36 animals – re-introduced to their new Black Hills sanctuary in 1914 – were descendants of those saved by local hero, Scotty Philip!   A town in the center of the state was named in his honor, and his accomplishments recorded in a biography sub-titled, “The Man Who Saved the Buffalo.”

And now you know the rest of the story.

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