The Bison, or buffalo as they are sometimes called, once dominated the landscape of the Canadian Prairies. For thousands upon thousands of years, they roamed the prairies in numbers as high as 30 million.
Why don’t we have millions roaming across the highways and farms today? Well, that is what this episode is all about.
First, lets get one thing out of the way. The word bison comes from Latin for wild ox and likely means stinking animal, referencing bison bulls during the breeding season. Why do we call them buffalo though? There are no buffalo native to North America, with buffalo actually being in Africa and Asia.
When Europeans began to arrive in North America, they saw the bison resembling the buffalo of those regions and likely transferred the name. Another idea is that the French word for ox is boeuf, which may have become buffalo through English speakers.
I will be using bison and buffalo interchangeably in this episode.
So, let’s go way, way back in time.
The first bison arrived from eastern Siberia about 195,000 to 135,000, and the second wave came from the steppe bison of Asia around 14,000 to 11,000 years ago.
There are two types of bisons, the wood bison and the plains bison. Plains bison are the smallest bison to have ever lived, with males and females measuring in at between 440 and 740 kilograms. Wood bison are the largest living bison, weighing between 540 kilograms and 880 kilograms.
Wood bison mostly dominated from Alaska down through the Yukon, Northwest Territories, into northern British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Plains bisons covered most of the continental United States from the Appalachian Mountains to the Rocky Mountains, and throughout southern Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
In this episode, I am going to focus on the plains bison.
The Indigenous people relied heavily on the bison of the plains for many different things. The bison, or buffalo hunt, was an important aspect of living on the plains for the Indigenous people.
Hunting methods varied by the nations and where they were located. Some Indigenous people would cloak themselves in wolf skin and mimic cries of a bison calf to get without range to shoot the bison with an arrow.
Buffalo corrals were also used in which the bison were corralled into a large coral where they could be killed in larger numbers.
Another very popular method was a buffalo jump and the most famous buffalo jump of them all was Head-Smashed In Buffalo Jump. The buffalo jump, which is located just west of Fort Macleod, Alberta, had been used by the Indigenous people for about 5,500 years. The cliff was 36 feet high and the Blackfoot would drive the buffalo from the Porcupine Hills, three kilometres away, towards the jump in a path lined by hundreds of rock cairns and with the Indigenous dressed as wolves and coyotes. Those who dressed up were young men trained in animal behaviour to guide the buffalo in the lanes. At full gallop, the buffalo would run off the cliff, breaking their legs at the bottom, allowing them to be killed by those at the bottom of the jump. The bone deposits at the base are 39 feet deep, showing the extensive use of the site for thousands of years.
The Indigenous people would use the carcass for everything from tools made of bone, to hide to be used in dwellings and clothing. In addition, the huge amount of meat allowed for more leisure time, which allowed the people to pursue artistic and spiritual interests, which allowed for a more culturally complex society. According to legend, the name comes from the tale of a young Blackfoot who wanted to watch the buffalo plunge over the cliff, but he was buried underneath the fallen buffalo. When he was found, he was dead under the carcasses with his head smashed in.
The Indigenous people and the buffalo continued this pattern, of hunting and balance for thousands of years.
Then the Europeans arrived, and everything changed.
As I said previously, in 1800 there were 30 million bison on the Great Plains. It was estimated that if all the bison on the plains were lined up, they would circle the world 1.3 times.
Things began to change as soon as the horse was introduced to North America by the 1730s. Within four decades, the Indigenous people were using horses extensively and this allowed the First Nations people to lance and shoot the bison at a closer range, thereby speeding up the rate of the bison hunt.
The population also began to decline as fur traders with the Hudson’s Bay Company and North West Company arrived. They needed meat and the bison were an excellent source of it on long trips through the west on expeditions.
Several other factors began contributing to the decline by this point. One was the development of a new hide-tanning processes in Europe that created a huge need for leather. Since Europe could not supply this demand, the vast herds of bison in North America were used instead. The strong hides of the bison were perfect for this new tanning process and many hides were turned into items like belts.
New rifles also came into play on the bison hunt. The Sharps rifles allowed a bison to be killed with just one shot from a long distance. This allowed hunters to kill bison to the number each day only dictated by how many their crew could skin.
From the 1810s to the 1870s, the bison were a main source of income and survival for the Métis people. The Métis would use the bison for all sorts of clothing, and the meat for themselves or trading. The Métis would conduct two hunts a year, once in the spring and once in the summer, and sometimes the hunting parties could number over 2,000 people.
Bison hunters rode horses and were known as buffalo runners. Hunting took a great deal of skill and many Métis would go on to become successful ranchers and cowboys thanks to the skills they learned on the buffalo hunt. The Métis women would follow the hunt with carts and once a bison was taken down, he would leave a glove as a token on the buffalo. The women would then gather the carcass and prepare it to make pemmican, a vital resource for fur traders and something that would lead to a war between the Hudson’s Bay Company and North West Company in the 1810s. You can learn all about that in my episode on the North West Company.
The first business venture ever in southern Manitoba was the Manitoba Buffalo Wool Company, which was created in 1820 and involved a factory where hide and hair from bison were utilized and tanned. The first shipment of bison products came from this company and reached England in 1822.
The Métis people quickly realized how important the bison was and in 1840, they codified this protection in the Laws of the Hunt, also known as the Laws of the Prairies. This set of laws dictated that there should be no hunting of bison on the Sabbath, and also enforced rules related to running and patrolling and clear punishments were dictated for anyone who broke the rules.
Many blame the loss of the bison on the concept of the tragedy of the commons, not capitalism. The tragedy of the commons is a situation with a shared-resource system where independent users can act in their own self-interest and behave contrary to the common good of all users. Since the bison were communal property and not private property. As a result, the population was abused and squandered for short-term goals that created long-term problems.
In 1860, the price for buffalo skins was eight to 10 shillings, fresh buffalo meat was three pence and buffalo tongues were one pence. By 1875, buffalo robes were selling for $6 to $10 each. In that year, 2,500 buffalo robes were shipped out of Manitoba.
Hides were taken but the carcass was left to rot. In addition, many hunters would also poison the carcass with strychnine in order to kill wolves that came to feed. Wolf skins were also valuable, and this was a terrible method of killing two birds with one stone.
Governments got involved in the decline as well, and on purpose.
The American military shot mass herds of bison, since they were the main source of food for Indigenous people, in an attempt to force them to rely on the government and be pushed to reserves. The Canadian government was not innocent either. Prime Minister John A. MacDonald forced Indigenous off their lands to allow for European settlement and this was done through the rapid decline of the bison. This made the Indigenous dependent on food and that food could only be given if they were on reserves.
As a result of this, the plains bison in Canada were wiped out and eventually only 116 remained in North America before the slaughter stopped. At one point, bison could circle the globe they were so plentiful but by the 1880s, the number of bison on Earth couldn’t even circle a city block.
The decline was incredibly quick. Reverend John McDougall stated that he estimated herds were half a million when he saw them in Manitoba in 1873. In 1875, a police officer travelling from Fort MacLeod to Fort Qu’Appelle claimed he was never out of site of the herds.
But by 1880, they were gone.
The sheer amount of export of bison products was staggering. In 1873, 50,000 buffalo robes were shipped out of Canada alone. From this point, as herds began to get smaller, 30,000 robes were shipped out in 1877, 12,797 in 1878 and 5,764 in 1879. On the American side of the border, it was estimated that 2.5 million buffalo were being killed each year.
In 1876, the Winnipeg Free Press was warning people to ensure they had a good supply of buffalo robes as the extermination of the bison was predicted to happen within the next 12 to 14 years.
Isaac Cowie of Winnipeg would compile a report on the bison in 1912 and would state that the last bison hunt he could find any evidence of happened in July of 1888 in the valley of the Red Deer River between Edmonton and Calgary. Only five animals were killed.
It was at this time that Charles Alloway, a cowboy of the truest sense, came into the picture. He would relate how he helped to save the buffalo in 1820, saying
“As railways began to be built across the United States, contractors hired hunters to supply buffalo meat for the workers and this marked the beginning of the end for the great beasts. It was back in 1873 I conceived the idea oath at the day was dawning when the vast herds would be depleted. I had bought as many as 21,000 buffalo hides from a single group of hunters, paying $3 on average and $4 for the large ones. It didn’t take any higher mathematics to realize that this rate of killing them couldn’t go on forever, especially as there were dozens of groups out hunting at a time.”
Alloway began to round up any buffalo he could find and had cows to help sustain any calves that they found. Doing this would help to save the species from extinction. By 1878, his small herd had grown to 13 purebred and three crossbred bison. By 1888, the herd was over 100.
Thankfully, a few hundred were saved in time and all plain bison today come from those individuals.
By 1907, Canada was able to gather 700 plains bison from Montana and ship them to Elk Island National Park in Alberta. A small herd was also taken to Banff National Park where they were a display herd for 100 years. A new wild population was introduced in February of 2017 and for the first time since 1883, wild bison calves were born at the park.
Due to conservation efforts and the rebuilding of the species through breeding, there are roughly 350,000 to 400,000 bisons in North America, mostly on farms and ranches. Around 1,500 to 2,000 plains bison live in conservation herds in Canada.
Information comes from Wikipedia, The Canadian Encyclopedia, Indigenous People’s Atlas Of Canada, Tales of Early Manitoba,