As long as the North American buffalo roamed free and bountiful, the Plains Indians were able to remain sovereign. Buffalo were their lifeline—the Indians had a symbiotic relationship with them, and always honored the mighty beasts for the many blessings they provided. “The creation stories of where buffalo came from put them in a very spiritual place among many tribes,” said University of Montana anthropology and Native American studies professor S. Neyooxet Greymorning. “The buffalo crossed many different areas and functions, and it was utilized in many ways. It was used in ceremonies, as well as to make tipi covers that provided homes for people, utensils, shields, weapons and parts were used for sewing with the sinew.”

For several millennia, both the buffalo and the Plains Indians prospered. Estimates put the peak bison population, during the mid-1800s, near 60 million, but based on the “carrying capacity” of the Great Plains, Temple University history professor Andrew Isenberg, author of The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History, 1750-1920, believes the number was closer to 30 million. He explains that estimates that went as high as 100 million came from travelers on the plains who saw the heaviest congregations of herds during their summer mating season. “Those observers assumed that such large herds were spread throughout the Plains throughout the year,” he said. “But in other seasons, when the grasses were thin, the bison dispersed into small foraging herds.” The bison population also fluctuated depending on a variety of non-human factors like wolves and harsh weather conditions.

As the U.S. government and its restless people looked to expand westward after the Civil War, they started to infringe upon Indian lands. During the Plains Indian Wars, as the U.S. Army attempted to drive Indians off the Plains and into reservations, the Army had little success because the warriors could live off the land and elude them—wherever the buffalo flourished, the Indians flourished. But pressure on the Army to contain the Indians increased in the 1860s when gold was discovered in the Montana Territory, and part of what is now eastern Wyoming became the route of the Bozeman Trail, the quickest way to get to the mines in Montana. This trail cut through sacred ground for the Sioux, as well as their prime hunting grounds—the “best game country in the world,” according to one veteran trapper. The Sioux regularly attacked travelers on the Bozeman Trail, and Army forts were set up to protect travelers through the Powder River Basin. During the Indians’ clashes with settlers, prospectors and U.S. Cavalry to protect a last bastion of their food supply in what became known as Red Cloud’s War, U.S. Army Captain Fetterman bragged, “With 80 men I could ride through the whole Sioux Nation.” He soon got the chance to back up that boast: Captain Fetterman and his men met with some representatives of the Sioux Nation and their allies, led by Crazy Horse, on December 21, 1866, in the Powder River Basin, and the result of that battle is remembered in history books as the Fetterman Massacre—all 81 men in his party were slain. It was the Army’s worst defeat on the Plains until the Battle of Little Bighorn, 10 years later, and forced it to pull out of the area after the Fort Laramie Treaty was signed in April 1868.

General William Tecumseh Sherman, who had broken the back of the South during the Civil War with his ruthless March to the Sea, helped negotiate the Fort Laramie and 1867 Medicine Lodge treaties that were supposed to end U.S. hostilities with northern and southern tribes. But that’s when officers started thinking about a new strategy. Sherman knew that during the Civil War the Confederates’ means and will to fight were extinguished by his brutal—and brutally effective—”scorched earth” policy that decimated the infrastructure of the South. Why couldn’t the same strategy be applied to Indians and their buffalo? Greymorning said, “The government realized that as long as this food source was there, as long as this key cultural element was there, it would have difficulty getting Indians onto reservations.”

A pile of hides in Dodge City, Kansas, ready to be shipped back to the East Coast.

Isenberg said, “Some Army officers in the Great Plains in the late 1860s and 1870s, including William Sherman and Richard Dodge, as well as the Secretary of the Interior in the 1870s, Columbus Delano, foresaw that if the bison were extinct, the Indians in the Great Plains would have to surrender to the reservation system.” Colonel Dodge said in 1867, “Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone,” and Delano wrote in his 1872 annual report, “The rapid disappearance of game from the former hunting-grounds must operate largely in favor of our efforts to confine the Indians to smaller areas, and compel them to abandon their nomadic customs.”

“As a policy statement, I think that’s pretty clear,” Isenberg said. The Army had already used a similar strategy—In its 1863-1864 campaign against the Navajos, led by Colonel Kit Carson, the Army destroyed tens of thousands of sheep in a successful effort to subdue the Navajos.

There was one tactical flaw with this strategy: too many buffalo. But while it wasn’t feasible for the U.S. Army to kill tens of millions of bison, it was feasible for the Army to let hunters use their forts as bases of operation and stand by as they slaughtered the animals in staggering numbers. Another key strategy here was that the Army made no effort to enforce all those treaty obligations forbidding whites to hunt on Indian lands. Whites could needlessly kill a bison for “sport” but when an Indian killed cattle for food for his family because of the growing scarcity of bison, he was severely reprimanded.

Hide Bound
Timing was certainly one factor in the human destruction of the bison, as leather became a hugely popular commodity in an increasingly industrialized nation at about the same time the First Transcontinental Railroad was being cut through the West in the late 1860s. Bison became a cheap alternative to leather products, and hide hunters were reaping the devil’s harvest. Isenberg said, “Hide hunters who were responsible for destroying millions of bison in the 1870s were not operating under the command of the federal government. They were private citizens looking to make money, but many Army officers certainly approved of what the hunters were doing.”

For most Americans, the end of bison was assumed to be a natural and necessary by-product of manifest destiny. “There was a general belief in the 1870s that the bison were wild animals who were likely to eventually go extinct anyway,” Isenberg said. “The eradication of bison from the Great Plains and their replacement with cattle would be an improvement that turned a wilderness into a productive landscape.”

Outrage over the wanton slaughter of the bison did eventually grow, and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals tried to intervene on their behalf—legislation was introduced in Congress by Republican Rep. Greenburg Fort of Illinois in 1874 that would have made it, “unlawful for any person who is not an Indian to kill, wound, or in any manner destroy any female buffalo, of any age, found at large within the boundaries of any of the Territories of the United States.” Fort’s bill made it through

Chief Plenty Coups saw the Plains thick with buffalo—and then witnessed the awful carnage.

Congress, but was vetoed by President Ulysses S. Grant. “In the debates over the bills, supporters invoked the anticruelty rhetoric of the SPCA,” Isenberg said. “Most opponents of the bills believed, like Columbus Delano, that the disappearance of the bison would be the easiest and quickest way to subdue the nomadic Indians of the Plains.”

Delano’s theory proved correct; the last bands of Plains Indians, including those led by Sitting Bull, eventually surrendered and settled on reservations.

Greymorning noted that some revisionists try to blame Indians for the death of the buffalo, but he said one picture is better than a thousand lies: “When you see a photograph of carcasses of buffalo lying miles and miles along stretches of railroad tracks, probably eight to 10 feet high, you know this was part of the government campaign to kill the buffalo.”

A Land Without Buffalo
The end came quickly—less than 400 wild bison were left by 1893. And the Plains Indians were just about pushed off the Plains as well—their warriors had fought valiantly against the Army in spite of their inferior numbers, but they now felt inadequate because they were unable to provide for their families. Those proud warriors were confined to reservations, told to farm and wait for the government to provide rations. “It’s really hard to force another culture to recognize what your attributes are for being an upstanding man. They were told, ‘A good farmer is the best thing you can be in our culture,’ ” said Jim Stone, a Yankton Sioux and the executive director of the Intertribal Bison Cooperative. “To force that sedentary lifestyle on somebody who was out living on the adrenaline rush of hunting buffalo—either on horse or foot—I don’t know if we can fully comprehend what that would feel like. They had been the caretaker of the buffalo, and suddenly there were no more. From the cultural side, they had failed in their role as humans. I don’t know how I would deal with that.”

Crow Chief Plenty Coups (1848-1932) described the mood of his people to his biographer, Frank B. Linderman: “[When] the buffalo went away, the hearts of my people fell to the ground.…After this, nothing happened. There was little singing anywhere.”

The longing for the thrill of the bison hunt lingered for some Plains tribes during the early reservation days. “When the government brought in cattle, some tribes asked if they could hunt them, basically the way they hunted buffalo,” Greymorning said. “Government officials on reservations at first didn’t know how to handle that, but they saw in it something that could almost be like a show or form of entertainment. So they allowed it for a bit, but it wasn’t like that for the Natives.”

It was more than “fun” for the Indians. It was a desperate attempt to preserve their culture, their ceremonies, their identity. These cattle “hunts” gave them an opportunity to dress up in their finery, sing their buffalo songs, and recall better days. But even that was taken away from them when the government decided it would be better to package the beef for them instead of letting them slaughter it themselves.

Private owners and zoos collected some of the remaining buffalo that were scattered about the country, and some ranchers kept the animals as a novelty or tried to breed them with cattle. In 1902 Congress appropriated funds to help save the mighty beasts, and 21 bison from captive populations in Montana and Texas were put in a corral at Mammoth in Yellowstone National Park. Another 23 wild bison remained in the park, Isenberg said. “You could say that was sort of the first effort at bison preservation.”

One of the largest known private owners of bison was Michel Pablo, who sold his Flathead Indian Reservation herd of 700 bison to the Canadian Government in 1907, which put them in Buffalo National Park in Wainwright, Alberta. The same Flathead Reservation area those bison were being shipped from would serve as the American Bison Range established in 1908 under President Theodore Roosevelt, and the National Bison Society used private donations to buy a herd of 34 from a private Montana bison owner. As their numbers rose, bison were dispersed throughout other Canadian and U.S. national parks.

No Room to Roam

After a slight recovery of its meager population, the bison was caught up in a nationwide brucellosis epidemic that again dropped their numbers back down to a few hundred. (Brucellosis, which causes animals to abort their offspring, was introduced to North America by way of European livestock, and elk and bison in the greater Yellowstone area are the only remaining carriers of it.) Cattle ranchers shot bison, fearing that they would infect their cattle. Many bison were slaughtered in this misguided attempt to halt the spread of brucellosis; Yellowstone was the only park with enough political clout to avoid the eradication of its buffalo in the face of this disease. “Every other park and every tribe that had buffalo in the 1930s, they were all exterminated—and then again in the 1970s,” Stone said. Although their bison population numbered just 397 in 1967, according to the National Park Service, the Yellowstone bison population has grown to several thousand in the last few decades.

Canadian herds were severely culled as well. Since the brucellosis scares, Montana has maintained a zero-tolerance policy for bison roaming onto public, state-controlled lands. The Montana Department of Livestock (DOL) has handled the rounding up and killing of bison who’ve tried to leave the park since 1995.

Following the example of their predecessors, the American Bison Society (defunct in 1935), bison-rights groups in the last 20 years (including the Intertribal Bison Council [ITBC], the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Western Watersheds Project and other wildlife advocates) noticed that the bison was again threatened with extinction after much-publicized mass slaughters of the beasts. They lobbied Congress for better protection for the species, which was often at odds with the powerful cattle industry.

Mike Mease and Sicango Lakota elder and activist Rosalie Little Thunder co-founded the Buffalo Field Campaign (BFC) after a particularly brutal 1996-1997 winter that resulted in the deaths of about two-thirds of the Yellowstone bison. Around a thousand buffalo froze and starved, and an equal number were slaughtered by Montana’s DOL officials as they attempted to forage for food away from the high elevation of Yellowstone National Park, where most of the land is above 7,500 feet and covered in deep snow in the winter. In a devastating 2007-2008 winter—and because of the zero-tolerance DOL policy—1,631 bison were killed by DOL officials, according to the Buffalo Field Campaign.

“It’s disheartening what they’re doing to buffalo. It’s marked with prejudice that exists from way back,” Mease said. The goal of the Buffalo Field Campaign is to get to see bison migrating freely as wildlife species in Montana and elsewhere. “I think the whole problem with white society is there’s this fear of anything wild,” Mease said. “They’re so scared of anything they can’t control, whereas the First Nations take pride in being part of it and protecting the wild because of its importance. Our culture is so far removed from that, and afraid of it.”

The Intertribal Bison Council was formed in 1990 to assist tribes in returning buffalo to Indian country and now has a collective herd of more than 15,000 bison divided among 57 tribes in the western United States up to Alaska and over to the Great Lakes area of Michigan. The ITBC realizes, however, with only so much time and so little resources, they must limit their focus to what happens on reservations. They want to utilize and restore the bison not only for health and cultural measures, but for economic reasons as well. “At one time they were our entire economy anyway,” said Mike Fox, a Gros Ventre and ITBC member. He oversees the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation’s 400 head of bison in northern Montana. “There’s also a spiritual connection with bison that you don’t have with cattle. This is something we may never be able to explain to non-Indians.”

Other recent bison “management” policies have included a $3.3 million plan to purchase winter grazing rights for Yellowstone National Park bison on 2,500 acres in the nearby Gallatin National Forest. Bison advocates deemed the plan naive, as the family-oriented, wild herd animals would not behave the same as cattle and abide by arbitrary boundaries, in part because they don’t rely on humans to feed them with hay in the tough winter months. Twenty-five bison were randomly selected to winter this season in the Gallatin National Forest (north of Yellowstone), but most of them left the area soon after they were released and tried to go back to their families by swimming across a river. Others were captured and shot exploring elsewhere, as bull bison often scout out areas for the rest of the herd to travel to. “Historically, their winter range is way [south of] the park, and it’s really inhumane to try and limit their winter range in Yellowstone,” said Dr. Sara Jane Johnson, the executive director of the Montana-based Native Ecosystems Council. “Forage is tough to come by with all the deep snow, so it’s natural for them to migrate toward lower elevations where they have winter range, and they’ve been cut off from that. They should be able to access public land [south of Yellowstone National Park].”

Another example of the lack of cooperation between the government and perservationists: the DOL prefers to send the wild bison it captures to the ranches of media mogul Ted Turner—who co-owns a restaurant chain that serves buffalo meat—instead of needy Montana tribes.

Federal regulations regarding the handling of brucellosis have been loosened over the years. In the past, an entire state could be deemed as not being brucellosis-free if just one herd had the disease. Now, only the specific area of the outbreak is considered an outbreak area. But cattle-ranchers have several motives for perpetuating the fear that bison are diseased, or just disease-carriers. It’s never been documented that wild bison—which have naturally strong immune systems—have ever transmitted the disease to cattle. Elk, however, have given cattle brucellosis seven times in the last five years. Stone notes the double standard. “Brucellosis is thrown up as a scare tactic, but the reality is: It’s spread by elk. There’s nothing they can really do to stop its spread other than the mass slaughter of elk.”

Mease says cattle ranchers don’t want to share any public land with bison, and the public grazing rights granted to cattle are a welfare project to the cattle industry. “They get to raise their cows on their land—everyone’s land—and this falls under the treaty rights of the tribes where they get to hunt buffalo.”

In February, a federal judge ruled that more than 500 bison that left the park boundaries this winter could be slaughtered. On February 15, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer temporarily blocked the decision with an executive order. “They’re basically doing a bureaucratic shuffle and some paperwork exercises to make sure they don’t get in trouble, but they’re not accomplishing anything,” Stone said, noting that the Montana DOL still kills on average over 1,000 bison every three years. “That’s the real issue. Nothing they’re doing is going anywhere toward addressing that.”

Mease concurred. “We have all these naive plans that never look at these animals as being wild buffalo. We want them to be domestic cows, but that’s the beauty of the buffalo: they’ll never be that. And until we step back and look at what they show us and teach us, then we can work around their ways, and that’s the only way we’ll ever come up with a solution to this.”