The fall of the bison population in early America


When Columbus discovered the New World in 1492, the approximately 1 million Native Americans who occupied North America probably never realized they were lost, much less that they need to be discovered.

By 1900, fewer than 250,000 Native Americans remained. There are many reasons for the collapse of the Indian population and culture, but it is certainly no coincidence that during the same time period the bison population fell from tens of millions to near extinction.

European and early American settlers and explorers pursued a policy of “manifest destiny.” In 1845, newspaper editor John O’Sullivan proclaimed that it was America’s “manifest destiny to overspread the continent.”

The germ of the concept dates back decades earlier to the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. It was a catchy phrase that gave settlers and soldiers carte blanche to do anything to conquer the American West.

True Native Americans were persecuted, uprooted, translocated and in some cases, even exterminated.


In addition to the direct mayhem pioneers heaped on Indians, settlers also destroyed the thundering herds of bison that once roamed the plains from Texas to Canada.

It’s hard for us to even imagine tens of millions of bison roaming the plains of North America, much less killing almost all of them. At the time no one understood or cared that Plains Indians’ lives and culture were tied directly to bison.

They used bison for food, clothing, shelter and tools, and in the process they developed strong spiritual and cultural ties to bison. It’s miraculous that Indians or bison survived the onslaught.


Fast forward to today. Bison now roam freely on many western national parks, national grasslands and federal military installations. In 1991 Congress appropriated funds to begin reintroducing bison to tribal lands.

In 1992 the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society and various tribal leaders formed the InterTribal Bison Cooperative. Since then, according to The Wildlife Professional (Fall 2009), the group has reintroduced 17,000 bison from other federal lands to 57 tribes in 19 states.

But a short grass prairie ecosystem includes more than grass and bison. Prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets and burrowing owls are just a few of the other species that define the prairie ecosystem.

Prairie dogs

Prairie dogs, highly social ground squirrels smaller than ground hogs, lived in “towns” that stretched as far as the eye could see. Black-footed ferrets, hawks, rattlesnakes, coyotes all ate prairie dogs and, combined with periodic outbreaks of plague, these forces controlled prairie dog populations.

However, as bison disappeared from the prairies, they were replaced by cattle. Ranchers thought the prairies should be the exclusive domain of cattle; they considered grass-eating prairie dogs vermin.

Ranchers shot them on sight, state wildlife agencies imposed no harvest limits and the federal government tried to eliminate them with poisons. As prairie dogs disappeared, so did black-footed ferrets, small prairie weasels that eat prairie dogs almost exclusively.

And as prairie dog burrow systems vanished so did burrowing owls, rattlesnakes and a variety of other species which used prairie dog burrows as den sites.

Black-footed ferrets

In fact, by the 1970s, black-footed ferrets were thought to be extinct. Then a small remnant population was discovered in northwestern Wyoming in 1981.

Captive breeding efforts since then have enabled to biologists to reintroduce ferrets to a several locations where prairie dog populations have recovered.

Just as bison were part of every aspect of Plains Indians’ lives, black-footed ferrets also had cultural and religious significance to tribal life. Because ferrets sit near the top of the food chain, they were never common, and that may explain why tribes held them in high regard.

Ferret skins were sacred and often part of tribal dance costumes. Tribes often buried their spiritual leaders with their ferret skins.

The herds of bison now living on federal, tribal and private lands have reestablished bison as the large native grazer of the prairie.

Add more limited success with prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets, and short grass prairies are beginning to resemble the prairies of 200 years ago. And just as important, Native Americans are becoming reacquainted with natural connections to their history and culture.


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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at or contact him directly at or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.


  1. Thank you for the very informative information.The buffalo and Bison in my personal opinion were deliberately slaughtered to cut off a major supply source of the Pain Indians. Many Plain Indians depended on the buffalo for their food,clothing and shelter. The mid 1800s was a sad time in America’s history and a people suffered, one such group was the Comanche.Please check out my new book now available on my publisher’s website.
    Sincerely, Cynthia Kay Rhodes

  2. also.. the Indians and Buffalo did not survive in the real sense of the word. What we have now is not even 1% of what the Indian and Bison populations once were.


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