THE BISON SAVED FROM EXTINCTION

Endangered Species Success Stories: The North American Bison Kept From Going Extinct


Along with the white rhino, the American bison, or buffalo, was one of the first species in the world to arouse actual, concrete human concern over its looming extinction. Prior to European colonization of the New World, millions of these huge, shaggy ungulates roamed the grasslands western North America between northwestern Canada and northern Mexico, and formed the foundation for entire, vast ecosystems that included plant life and other herbivores, as well as scavengers, predators and people. But those numbers quickly dropped into the hundreds during the latter half of the nineteenth century as unregulated market hunters armed with powerful rifles systematically shot down herd after herd of the creatures, often taking nothing but the hides and tongues—which, when pickled, were considered a delicacy—and leaving the rest to rot.

Some historians charge that the U.S. government encouraged the extermination of the buffalo in order to starve Native American tribes that were resistant to white settlement of the West. In addition, the operators of America’s new railroads found them to be a nuisance, as a large herd crossing the railroad tracks could delay a train for hours.

Fortunately for the buffalo, however, it did manage to inspire a nostalgic twinge in the hearts of some Americans, and as the species dwindled toward extinction, a handful of private ranchers collected small groups of them in hopes of saving them. In addition, one small wild herd managed to escape slaughter by hiding in a remote valley of Yellowstone National Park until the “Great Buffalo Hunt” came to an end. It was from these scattered and small remaining families that the numbers of bison have been rebuilt to today’s population of around half a million, most of which are kept as part of private herds on private ranches. Photo credit: Jairo S. Feris Delgado
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