The Profound History And Return Of The Plains Buffalo

In recent news by the BBC, Canada reintroduced buffalo to the Banff National Park.

They once roamed North America in excess of 50 million, some say as many as 80 million.

Humans hunted the buffalo to near-extinction around the turn of the century, to fewer than 1,000. Through conservation efforts, we’ve only recently pulled the creature from the threat of genocide, but at fewer than 500,000, we are a long way off from millions.

If you’ve ever had the chance to stand near a buffalo, you can attest, they are thunderous creatures. They run as fast a 40 miles per hour, despite their mass. They can also jump six feet in the air. If one chases you, your only chance to survive a trampling is finding a big tree. They don’t corner very well. Best you keep your distance.

The history of the plains buffalo is rich with a meaningful connection to the Native people of North America. Their story, the buffalo, met resistance when the cattle industry came to fruition, but they are crawling out of danger in one of North America’s most emotional stories of adversity.

Sacred History

The native people who lived in North America before the Europeans saw the buffalo as sacred creatures. Yes, they were a source of food, but every part of the buffalo had a purpose to them. Left to their own, it’s unlikely they would have hunted them to depths European settlers managed.

For the many native people there is a story thread that weaves through their shared history; the white buffalo. For many non-natives, the white buffalo was a myth, a story native people told about a sacred beast that would signal a significant change in history.

By the numbers, the probability of a white buffalo is one in a million. For the naysayers, it’s an albino buffalo, common in many species. In a strange twist of biological defiance, the last fifty years we’ve experienced more white buffalo births than anyone can remember, despite their thin population.

For the native people, this is an undeniable sign of something important about to happen. For others, it meant the chance to bag an interesting kill. A company in Texas, the Texas Hunt Lodge, arranged canned hunts of white buffalo for a $13,500 fee.

Cattle Industry

For cattle industry folks, buffalo loose on the plains occupied land they could use for cattle. Killing off the buffalo was good for business.

This writer wonders what might have happened had they switched to farm-raising buffalo instead of cows? Reportedly, buffalo were tough to handle compared to their docile cousins. Domesticating them would have meant an overhaul of how they did business. Overhauls in business cost money. It’s easier to stick with what you know.

The other benefit to early farmers was the removal of the native people. By killing off their primary food source, they forced Native Americans to live elsewhere, abating farmer’s fears of attack.

For the cattle industry, the end of the plains buffalo was a multilevel win.

Where They Live Now

These creatures once roamed freely from the Eastern seaboard of the United States, down as far south as Texas, and as far west as Northern California. They stretched all the way to Canada, with other forms of Buffalo as far as the northern tip of Alaska.

Now they live in patches, not unlike the native people. Today’s buffalo roam the plains in protected places, but they are still considered a threat to cattle farmers, even though raising buffalo livestock is now a normal practice.

About 15,000 buffalo roam free, without borders of any kind. Obviously, you can now find them in Banff National Park in Canada, as well as other national parks throughout North America.

As an interesting tidbit, if you have the chance to visit Catalina Island off the coast of Los Angeles, you may see live buffalo roaming free. Leftover from a movie that once filmed there, buffalo have established a strong herd on the island.

The island herd is unique, smaller in stature than normal plains buffalo, something to do with the island keeping them small. Every time they transplant buffalo from Catalina to help other populations grow, they grow to normal size.

Could we ever see the buffalo reduced to near-extinction again? One hopes not. As disheartening are the stories of hunters killing white buffalo, and as painful is the devastation to the once thriving populations of buffalo, we have more stories of hope for the future of these creatures, despite their cheerless history.