Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Bison

The study of the relationship between the native Americans and the bison is an excellent example of the sustainable use of resources.  On the other hand, the near extinction of bison brought on by market hunting and social pressures in the 19th century demonstrates the need for conservation and the results of restoration of threatened species.   A team of our Master Naturalists, trained by our mentor Jay Barber, are taking this lesson out to area schools.
Bison roamed the soon to be United States and southern Canada for thousands of years prior to man's arrival.  An estimated 60 million traveled in massive herds, thriving on the prairies between the Rocky Mountains and as far east as New York.*  When they first encountered man, he was armed only with spears and the atlatl, but later with the development of the bow and arrow, man became a more serious predator.
The Native Americans initially depended upon an unending supply of bison for all their needs.  Bison were their Walmart, providing food, clothing, shelter, and utensils.,  Virtually every part of the bison was used, including buffalo chips, the main source of fire fuel on the grass covered prairie.  Until the development of agriculture after 2000 BCE, hunting bison and gathering plants was their way of life.
Lewis and Clark and others were amazed at the numbers of bison and relied on them for much of their food in the move west.  Then in the 1850's, hunting them as a sport became popular among the "new Americans".  Building the railroads created the need for meat for the workers and market hunting became a new industry.  New hide tanning techniques led to a demand for buffalo hides in Europe the completion of the railroads provided the transportation, leading to the wholesale slaughter of Bison.
Finally, the discovery of buffalo tongue as a delicacy back East led to the slaughter of animals which were left tongue-less on the prairie, hides and all.  These developing markets led Native Americans to join in the slaughter in trade of guns and other goods.
The economic pressures did what 10,000 plus years of Native American hunting pressure had never come close to creating- extinction.  By 1873, bison were on the verge of extinction.  From 60 million, their numbers dropped to an estimated 400 on the North American continent.  Changing political philosophy and increasing public awareness finally created conservation efforts.  Over the next 50 years the restoration of token herds, led to the bison we see today.
The westward growth of our nation with expanding agriculture would have eventually destroyed the way of life of the bison, even without the hunting pressures.  The story of the bison is more dramatic, but the same story almost played out with deer and turkey.  Hunting pressure from native Americans and settlers in the 1820s decimated those populations until the establishment of game laws and the Missouri Department of Conservation led to their thriving again in the state.
This was not the first episode of extinction of a large mammal by man on this continent.  Smithsonian Magazine this month features an article on the mammoths and the mastodons of North America.  They were separate breeds, frequently confused in the public minds.  Their extinction occurred at the time of the arrival of man across the Bering Land Bridge and the ending of the last Ice Age.  There is considerable debate about which factors caused the extinction.  What ever the cause, as I pointed out in the March 12th blog, megafauna in general "had a bad habit of disappearing around the time of human arrival, be it West Indies about 6,000 years ago or Australia 50,000 years ago."
We know that they were hunted by early Native Americans.   Mastidon State Park just south of st. Louis is the site where archaeologists first discovered a stone weapon with the bones of American mastodons. This was the first solid evidence of the coexistence of humans and mastodons in eastern North America.  The whole story is found here.
By telling the story of Native American use of the bison, near extinction and restoration to the WOLF School (right) and any other area schools, we spread the message of conservation and maintenance of our natural resources.
* The best single Bison resource we have come across is The Time of the Buffalo by Tom McHugh.

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