The American Bison: Comeback King of the North American Plains

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A bison, in the start of his spring molting, is walking across the frame. He is walking on a grassy opening, with a forest in the background.

The American Bison. Powerful. Majestic. Resourceful. North America’s largest mammal. The national mammal of the United States is one of the most interesting creatures roaming the continent today. But at one point in history, the American bison almost vanished completely. Its resurgence is one of the greatest comeback stories ever told.

The Return of the King: How the American Bison Made Its Comeback

The Fall

Prior to 1800, more than 60 million bison roamed the plains of North America, according to the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife. But by the end of the 19th century, fewer than 600 remained.

There were several factors contributing to the freefall in the bison population. American agricultural expansion in the Great Plains forced bison populations out of their natural habits. Bison, foragers by nature, became a nuisance to the encroaching ranchers and farmers, leading to their mass slaughter in the name of agricultural progress. But the most damning factor in the rapid decline of the American bison was oppressive hunting and demand by non-indigenous populations.

Non-indigenous people used the bison as a means to control the indigenous people in the area. By slaughtering a primary source of food and materials, non-indigenous settlers fostered a forced dependence of the indigenous population on domesticated cattle for food as well as a forced trade relationship for materials. The systematic slaughter of the bison also served as a method for forcing indigenous populations to leave the area in search of less hostile grounds with more abundant resources. This means of oppression is well-documented in David D. Smits‘ 1994 article, “The Frontier Army and the Destruction of the Buffalo: 1865-1883.”

The Return

The beginning of the bison’s turnaround can be traced to the waning days of the 19th century, and the resurgence of the American bison is examined in-depth in George Coder‘s 1975 dissertation, “The National Movement to Preserve the American Buffalo in the United States and Canada Between 1880 and 1920.” Coder identifies six herds that are primarily responsible for the reintroduction of the American bison to the ecosystem of the North American continent: the McKay-Alloway Herd, Charles Goodnight’s Herd, Walking Coyote’s Herd, Frederick Dupree’s Herd, and Charles “Buffalo” Jones’ Herd.

According to Coder, most of the American bison alive today are descendants of the few animals captured to start these five herds. While there were certainly other contributing factors to the American bison’s grand resurgence, these five herds had the biggest impact on attempting to restore North America’s largest mammal to its former glory.

McKay-Alloway Herd

In the early 1870s, James McKay had carved out a considerable name for himself as a frontiersman and as a titan of the railroad freighting industry in Canada. During his rise to prominence, he became acquainted with Charles Alloway, the sportsman brother of his veterinarian, William Alloway. McKay and Charles Alloway spent much of their time hunting the American bison in the early 1870s. But, according to Coder, their sport was short-lived. In 1872, McKay and Alloway traveled west to find buffalo but were greeted with a rather meager herd. They came to the collective agreement that the existing herds would not last much longer and set out to cultivate a herd of their own.

McKay and Alloway captured one male and two female buffalo calves with which to begin and procured two more females and another male in 1874. Unfortunately for them, one of their bull calves died that winter. The setback was apparently a minor one, and by 1879, McKay and Alloway’s herd had grown to 13 purebred bison and three bison-cattle crossbreeds.

A year later, several members of the herd came into the hands of Lord Strathcona, who had been attempting to start a herd of his own, likely with other bison he had obtained from McKay. Eventually, these bison became the possession of the Dominion of Canada and were placed in the Rocky Mountain Park in Banff, Alberta. According to Coder, this herd was “the only breeding population of buffalo in Canada” at the close of the 19th century.

Charles Goodnight Herd

Charles Goodnight was an animal lover from a very early age, and by the late 1860s, he had put together the plan to start a bison herd. His earliest attempts were unsuccessful, in part because of an unscrupulous business partner and an ongoing devotion to the beef cattle industry, but he began his herd in earnest in 1878 at the insistence of his wife, Mary Ann Goodnight. Over the next few years, Goodnight captured a number of wild bison and obtained several more from other ranchers.

Walking Coyote Herd

Whist-a-Sinchilape, known to the non-indigenous people as Samuel Walking Coyote, a member of the Pend d’Oreille peoples of the Northwest Plateau, captured seven bison calves to drive into the Flathead Valley as a peace offering for breaking tradition and practicing polygamy, according to Coder. He was allowed to keep his small herd and spent several years cultivating it on his own before selling 13 buffalo calves to a pair of ranchers in 1873. Those 13 calves were the start of what was to become the largest purebred bison herd under the cultivation of Michael Pablo and Charles Allard.

Frederick Dupree Herd

Frederick Dupree, a legendary pioneer and the namesake of Dupree, South Dakota, made a name for himself as a fur trapper before abandoning the dying fur trade for ranching. Given that he had spent most of his life on the North American frontiers, Dupree saw the rapid bison population decline firsthand. His concern in the 1880s was that the American bison would quickly disappear altogether, so he and a small team spent several months capturing bison calves to cultivate their own herd. Dupree bred and crossbred the animals with domestic cattle until his death.

James “Scotty” Phillips spent several years unsuccessfully trying to cultivate a herd of his own. After Dupree’s death, Phillips acquired the herd, which numbered 57 purebred bison at the time of the transfer. Within 22 years, Phillips’ herd had expanded to upwards of 1,000 animals.

Charles “Buffalo” Jones Herd

Charles J. Jones began his journey toward conservation as a buffalo hunter, but he disliked killing the animals and quickly discovered that he had a penchant for capturing them alive. While many non-indigenous settlers were slaughtering the American bison by the hundreds, Jones was capturing calves and selling them. When a blizzard in 1886 killed domestic cattle by the thousands, Jones saw an opportunity in the bison herds that escaped the winter storm unscathed. He set out on a mission to capture buffalo year after year, and he had gathered 57 in all by his final hunt in 1889. He continued to purchase buffalo from smaller herds across the continent, amassing bison left and right and selling off smaller portions of his grand herd to keep his operation afloat.

In 1893, Jones shipped 44 purebreds and crossbreeds to Pablo and Allard. Members of this herd, which numbered 300 by 1896, became the foundation of the herd at Elk Island National Park in Alberta, Canada.

Genetic Bottlenecks and the Bison Resurgence

When an animal population of any species undergoes a dramatic population implosion, there is a significant danger in trying to grow the species from a limited number of specimens. In the case of the American bison, most of the existing bison in North American can trace their genetic lineage back to less than 1,000 bison existing on the continent in the 1800s. Repopulating a species from limited numbers involves inbreeding, creating a genetic bottleneck that can result in serious issues for the species.

But so far, this has not been an issue for the American bison.

James Derr, Ph.D., a professor of Veterinarian Pathobiology at Texas A&M University, attributed the genetic success of the American bison to a number of factors in a 2010 presentation titled “American Bison: The Ultimate Genetic Survivor” alongside Todd Ward, Ph.D.; Robert Schnabel, Ph.D.; Natalie Halbert, Ph.D. and Christopher Seabury, Ph.D.

Deja Vu for the American Bison

Previous (historic) population declines and near extinction events have purged bison genomes of many deleterious alleles.”

In other words, this has happened to the species before. The bison have undergone similar massive drops in population, and the alleles that cause issues as a result of inbreeding were removed from the species’ genetic material.

Good Ol’ American (Bison) Genes

Following the bottleneck on [sic] the late 1800s, surviving bison were found in isolated populations that encompassed a high frequency of the overall (pre-bottleneck) genetic variation. … Bison that survived the bottleneck retained genetic adaptability at important genes that influence fitness (the luck hypothesis).

The American bison got really lucky. The herds that survived, like Phillips’ herd or the one sold by Samuel Walking Coyote, were a beautiful representative sample of genetic variation in the pre-mass-slaughter herds. When conservationists began their efforts to repopulate the species, there was enough genetic variation in their tiny herds to significantly reduce the effects of inbreeding depression.

Additionally, these surviving bison had the right genes for a historic comeback. The surviving bison populations not only had a good variety of genetic material, but they had the right genetic material. Fitness, in this context, refers to evolutionary fitness, or the ability to reproduce successfully, not physical or athletic fitness.

Mixin’ It Up

Surviving bison population encountered an influx of new genetic variation at the apex of this bottleneck (hybridization with domestic cattle).

Frederick Dupree was not alone in his efforts to interbreed domestic cattle and the American bison. Derr et al. tested a number of federally owned, state-owned and privately owned bison herds and found that, while federally owned bison herds were free from cattle genetic material, the significant majority of the state-owned and privately owned bison herds they tested contained bison with cattle genetic material.

But Derr believes that this interbreeding was not a primary factor behind the American bison’s recovery:

Clearly hybridization between bison and domestic cattle that occurred in the late 1800s (in a failed attempt to produce a better beef producing animal) has had an impact on current bison populations but I do not think this unfortunate set of events has had a major effect on their ultimate recovery. I think bison survived in spite of this and other insults over the last 150 years.

Native American Efforts to Restore the Bison

The InterTribal Bison Council is one of the strongest efforts in North America to restore the American bison to its former glory. This council, formed in 1990, comprises 63 tribes across 20 states.

Their mission, as stated on their website, is “to act as a facilitator in coordinating education and training programs, developing marketing strategies, coordinating the transfer of surplus buffalo from national parks to tribal lands, and providing technical assistance to its membership in developing sound management plans that will help each tribal herd become a successful and self-sufficient operation.”

One of their most recent landmark efforts was the official acknowledgment of the American bison as the official mammal of the United States. The National Bison Legacy Act of 2016, which was signed into being by President Barack Obama, solidified the official status of the animal and established National Bison Day, held on the first Saturday in November.

The Buffalo Field Campaign, a non-profit organization based out of Montana, aims to “stop the harassment and slaughter of Yellowstone’s wild buffalo herds; protect the natural habitat of wild, free-roaming buffalo and other native wildlife; and work with all people—especially Indigenous Nations—to honor and protect the sacredness of the wild buffalo.”

As stated in several places on their website, they focus their efforts on supporting and protecting wild, free-roaming bison herds, rather than supporting attempts to revive the buffalo using breeding in captivity. Recently, the Buffalo Field Campaign expressed solidarity with a group of like-minded conservationists known as the Wild Buffalo Defense after several WBD members were arrested following a protest at the Stephens Creek Bison Capture Facility at Yellowstone National Park.

Supporting the American Bison

Adopt an American bison through the World Wildlife Fund.

Donate to the InterTribal Buffalo Council.

Donate or buy merchandise that supports the American bison through the Buffalo Field Campaign.

Become an advocate for wildlife through the Wildlife Advocate Center.

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