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Jumping Buffalo: After the Jumps

Updated: August 6, 2020

Prairie grass
Prairie grass

Spanish explorers brought their horses to the Americas hundreds of years ago. Use of the pishkun effectively ended with the introduction of horses onto Indian country in the 18th century. The horse allowed Indians to adapt their hunting techniques and to hunt buffalo almost anywhere. The tribes no longer relied on specific locations, camping for days or weeks on end, in order to carry out a single hunt. They began to seek out the herds on horseback when and where they chose. But Indians wouldn't remain the only people hunting buffalo out on the plains.

Lewis and Clark survived on buffalo meat as they passed through Montana in 1803 to 1804. Fur traders began hunting buffalo, both for food and for hides, in the 1820's and 1830's. At that time, Indian women usually tanned the hides. It was a laborious process and one woman might produce just ten tanned hides a year to trade. Hides tanned in a factory became soft, spongy, and were of little use to anyone. Then, in 1870, a German tannery discovered a way to tan the hides much more efficiently than could be done by hand. Now people were looking for two or three thousand hides at a time. This discovery was the beginning of the end for the vast free-roaming herds of buffalo.

View of pishkunE
View of pishkun

It is estimated that between the years 1872 and 1874, over six million buffalo were killed. Buffalo have poor vision and hearing. This means that when a hunter shot one buffalo in a herd, the rest of the herd didn't run away in fright. They probably had no idea what was happening. In 1872 a single hide was worth the equivalent of an entire week's wages for an average laborer in the east. In 1873 1,508,000 hides were shipped out to St. Louis. By the next year, in 1874, only 158,000 were shipped out. The herds had been dwindling for years, but not to this extreme. Though the buffalo slaughter was brought to the attention of Congress, no legislation was passed protecting these animals until 1905.

By the mid-1880's, it was difficult to locate even small herds of 100 buffalo or less. William Hornaday came to Miles City, Montana in 1886 to collect specimens for an exhibit at the National Museum in Washington DC after it was learned that the buffalo, the entire species, might not survive much longer. He became fascinated with the animals and returned to D.C. to form the American Bison Society with Teddy Roosevelt as its honorary president. President Roosevelt (former President of the United States) soon established the National Bison Range in western Montana to provide breeding stock in order that the buffalo might be preserved and protected in places like Yellowstone National Park.

Most of the buffalo alive today are descended from only around eighty calves. In the 1880's, at Fort Union, George Catlin reported breathing into the nostrils of young buffalo calves to acquaint them with his scent. Afterwards, they would willingly follow him anywhere he led as though he was their mother. Catlin, himself, never became much of a buffalo breeder. But we can tell from his story that people were experimenting at least as early as the 19th century with some domestication of buffalo. The first modern breeding herd began in western Montana with a Pend d'Oreille Indian during the summer of 1872.

Archaeological excavation
Archaeological excavation

One day, Walking Coyote was hunting in Blackfoot country with a friendly band of Piegan along the Milk River. The next morning he found some buffalo calves. He may have fed them horse or donkey meat to keep them alive. When Walking Coyote led the herd to Browning, the Indian Agent there became very interested in the idea of breeding buffalo. That agent sent Walking Coyote to see a rancher on the Sun River near Haystack Butte. Here, Walking Coyote rested up his small herd for the trek across the mountains. He led them over Cadotte's Pass, 150 miles, and into Flathead Indian Country. Two bulls and four cows survived the journey. Eleven years later, Walking Coyote had thirteen head of grazing buffalo.

Walking Coyote and a few others like him preserved the buffalo because they recognized that someone had to. We are lucky that during an era when these animals were misunderstood and slaughtered by the millions, a few individuals had the foresight to prevent the extermination of an entire species. It is often difficult to see the importance of a natural resource before it disappears. These days, humans are still destroying natural diversity at an alarming rate. One-fourth of the 4,600 known mammal species face extinction right now. The Yellowstone herd is the only free-roaming American Bison herd in the world. As human presence expands around the globe, plant and animal populations are threatened unless steps are specifically taken to protect them. Each buffalo alive today is proof that people can and should protect the plant varieties and animal species still living with us on earth.

Updated: August 6, 2020

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