Goodbye to the Bison

As Professor Isenberg tells us, the final destruction of free-ranging herds of bison on the American Great Plains occurred in the 1870s and was the work of a handful of white men interested only in stripping hides from dead buffalo carcasses and shipping them off for sale in the East. But why was urban America eager to pay good money for millions of buffalo hides when cattle hides were readily available close at hand? The answer is simple. Before the invention of rubberized belting for use in factories, industrializing America required leather belts to connect steam engines with all the new machines that were turning out manufactured goods in unprecedented quantity. Buffalo hides, being larger and thicker than cow hides, could be made into stronger and more durable drive belts for America’s burgeoning factories.

This sidelight on the tumultuous ecological history of the Great Plains is characteristic of Isenberg’s short, elegant book. He does not subscribe to naive, romanticized notions of a pre-Columbian Eden, inhabited by Native Americans living in reverent harmony with benign, unchanging nature. On the contrary, he argues that the grassy plains of North America were subject to perpetual ecologi-cal disturbance, caused primarily by changes in rainfall that provoked incessant and quite drastic fluctuations in plant, animal, and human populations. After the die-off of larger species in Late Pleistocene times, bison became the dominant herbi-vores throughout the short-grass prairie. Their numbers seemed infinite to human observers when, during the rutting season, thousands upon thousands of animals assembled into enormous herds, spreading across the landscape as far as the eye could see.

Rough calculations persuade Isenberg that “the maximum possible sustainable bison population was probably between 27 and 30 million”; and his major thesis is that this huge presence was inherently precarious:

The near-extinction of the species cannot be understood simply as the result of hunting. It was surely also the consequence of less direct alteration of the bison’s habitat: displacement of bison from river valleys by Indians’ horses and the livestock of Euroamerican emigrants; and the introduction of cattle to the bison’s range. More important, however, the volatile plains environment itself contributed to the near-extinction of the herds. The pressures of drought, fires, blizzards, and other animals chronically depressed the bison’s numbers. Favorable conditions—rain, abundant forage, and mild winters—could also ultimately be disastrous, as an eruption of the population could lead to overgrazing and a population crash. Human hunters pressured the bison in combination with these unpredictable environmental forces. Thus, the destruction of the bison was not merely the result of human agency, but the consequence of the interactions of human societies with a dynamic environment.

Nonetheless, as he tells the tale, human agency was clearly the dominant factor in upsetting older ecological regimes and eliminating free-ranging bison herds from the Great Plains. Radical transformation began in the late seventeenth century, when a few Indians took to riding on horseback, abandoning older village settlements in the river valleys where mixed subsistence patterns, combining horticulture…

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