What Role Did Native Americans and Horses Play in the Decline of Bison?

Bison and the Tetons. Photos: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Many authors today suggest that Indigenous people somehow behaved differently from other humans, particularly western culture that now dominates the globe in their relationship and exploitation of natural lands. The general theme is that while the human influence pre-European contact was significant, human exploitation was tempered by cultural values and techniques that did not disrupt ecosystem processes. Some suggest that conservation lands would be better managed with more positive outcomes for ecological integrity if Indigenous peoples were given oversight and control of these lands.

The idea that somehow either through cultural values or even “genetics” Indigenous people are more likely to protect and enhance biodiversity and other conservation values is widespread. But the other possibility that I think provides more explanation is that across the globe, wherever there was a low human population and limited technology, people “appeared” to live in “balance” more or less with natural landscapes.  This is just as true of Celtic people in the British Isles, Mongols in the Asian Steppes, Bedouin people in the Middle East, or Africans in the Congo.

What is common in all these instances is low population and low technology. Change these factors, and humans everywhere, no matter their religion, race, or cultural identity, frequently overexploit the land. With modern technology, medicine, food availability and other factors, including dependency on the global economy, almost all indigenous people are freed from these prior constraints. Indeed, have been freed for several centuries in most places.

Such ideas are frequently guilty of the False Cause Fallacy. Correlation is not Causation. The False Cause Fallacy occurs when we wrongly assume that one thing leads to something else because we’ve noticed what appears to be a relationship between them.

The fallacy is saying in times past because there were more wolves or more bison or whatever when Indigenous people occupied a specific location, it was due to the people’s cultural values.

Let us examine, for instance, the common assertion that tribal people somehow sustainably utilized wildlife. It is widely assumed that white commercial hunters caused the demise of the West’s bison herds. This is such a widespread assertion that most people take it as fact, but particularly by Native American advocates.

Tribal people in North America were like humans throughout the world and demonstrated intelligence and self-interest and this often meant overexploitation of resources–when they had the capability to do so. However, with limited technology and low population, their influence on wildlife populations were limited, except in localized areas or with animals that had no previous experience with human predators (as occurred with North American Pleistocene extinction of large mammals like mammoths).

There is no doubt that commercial hide hunting by white hunters provided the final nail in the coffin of wild bison. But a careful reading of early historical accounts of the western plains indicates that bison numbers were already in steep decline before significant commercial buffalo hunting began in the 1870s.

What changed the relationship between tribal people and bison was new technology, in this instance, the acquisition of the horse.

Once tribal people acquired the horse, and in particular, the rifle, bison numbers began to decline. Most tribes on the Great Plains had horses by the 1750s, and the typical “plains Indian” nomadic bison hunting lifestyle was in full swing by 1800.

Not only did the horse provide more mobility, and hence the ability to move frequently to exploit bison herds, leaving fewer “refuge areas,” but it also permitted the acquisition of more possessions, including larger teepees (utilizing more hides) since pack horses could move them.

Before the horse, bison hunting was essentially a “hit or miss” proposition. Occasionally a herd could be led over a cliff killing hundreds of animals. Still, the right circumstances, including an available cliff site and a nearby herd that one could stampede over it, were relatively rare. Hunters could sometimes kill large numbers of bison mired in deep snow by approaching on snowshoes, but again the circumstances were relatively rare. All of these were like winning the lottery; as anyone buying a lottery ticket today knows, most never result in a win.

Thus, what may appear to be a conservation ethic is more a consequence of low population and low technology, and limited hunting efficiency.

The introduction of the horse into Indian culture revolutionized bison hunting as well as warfare. Photo George Wuerthner.

One cannot overstate how the horse revolutionized Plains Indian culture. The horse was, in a sense, a new revolutionary technology. Horses were stolen from the Spanish or acquired from wild herds rapidly spread across the plains. By the 1750s, most northern plains tribes had acquired the horse.

Not only did it increase hunting efficiency, but it also led to the development of the “warrior” culture. Acquisition of horses and scalps became the main occupation of male tribal members.

Tribes in the northern plains were warrior societies. If you were a male, your entire occupation and goal in life was to be a great and respected warrior.

For instance, the Cheyenne, like most nomadic Plains tribes, were extremely war-like. As described in Duane Schultz’s book Month of the Freezing Moon, “the Cheyenne boys were taught to fight and die gloriously, and their goal was to become the bravest warrior… To the Cheyenne, anyone who was not of their own tribe was an enemy….”

In his book “The Fighting Cheyenne,” George Bird Grinnell characterized the tribe as “A Fighting and a fearless people, the tribe was almost constantly at war with its neighbors….”

Father De Smet made a similar observation when he noted that “the Sioux are five or six thousand warriors in number, mounted for the most part on swift horses. War is to them not only a business or a pastime but the occupation par excellence of their lives.” He goes on to say, “No Indian could ever occupy a place in the councils of his tribe until he had met the enemy on the field of battle. He who reckons the most scalps is the most highly considered among his people.”

Edwin Denig, in his book Five Tribes of The Upper Missouri, noted that the Blackfeet and Crow were in “continual war” over horses and that scarcely a week passes, but large numbers are swept off by war parties of on both sides. In these depredations, men are killed, which calls for revenge by the losing tribe.

Chief Plenty Coups of the Crow said in his biography that his tribe always fought the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe. Regarding the U.S. Army’s battles with these tribes, Plenty Coups admitted

“The complete destruction of our old enemies would please us.”

Tribal warfare was so common that it created a severe shortage of warriors. Men suffered such a high mortality to the point that some tribes sought to capture women from other tribes as “breeding stock” to repopulate their numbers. In particular, warriors who were essential to the tribe’s survival and women who did the bulk of the work like tanning hides.

Denig says: “One excellent trait in their character (referring to the Crow tribe) is that, if possible, in battle they take the women and children prisoners, instead of dashing their brains out as the rest of the tribes do.”  He says: “Therefore in thus raising the children of their enemies, they in a manner supply the loss of a portion killed in war.”

Many other tribes also frequently captured women for breeding purposes or slaves from the Comanches in the southern plains to the Mandan in the northern plains. Sacajawea, who helped guide the Lewis and Clark Expedition, had been one such captive.

Indeed, some authorities suggest that other Indians killed far more Indians in intertribal warfare than the U.S. Army.

The horse intensified territorial conflicts.  The Blackfeet moved into southern Alberta in the late 1700s and probably into northern Montana about the same time. However, there were already people living in Montana at that time, including the Flathead, Kutenai’s, and Pend ‘d Oreilles. The latter were pushed back across the Continental Divide by the Blackfeet. The Blackfeet war parties also forced the Shoshone southward out of Montana.

Similarly, the Crow tribe originated, as best as we can tell, in Ohio.  They moved into the Missouri River country of the Dakotas as farmers. Eventually, after obtaining horses, the Crow became more mobile and adopted a plains bison hunting culture. They separated from the Hidatsa in 1776 and moved up the lower Yellowstone River into Montana. In doing so, they pushed the Shoshone south and westward.

The same is true for the Northern Cheyenne. They originated in the Upper Midwest, moved West, and adopted a mobile bison hunting lifestyle after acquiring the horse.   They moved to the South Platte River area and eventually moved back northward due to conflicts with the Comanches

Bison propelled this transformation in Plains Indian culture; obviously, bison were the commissary of these warring tribes, but just as significant was the sale and trade value of bison hides they used to procure trade goods.

Tribes even traded bison hides among themselves. The Crow were known to trade bison hides with the Bannock for horses.

In his book American Bison Rewilding an Icon, James Bailey provides an excellent compilation of bison distribution in the Rocky Mountain mountains. Several of his conclusions are essential here. First, Indian predation had a significant influence on the distribution of bison. Many areas where bison were observed in one year might have few, if any, in subsequent years, in part due to the influence of Indian hunts.

He also documents many examples of Indians killing vast numbers of bison in a single day. The prevailing attitude of tribes was that the occurrence or absence of bison had little to do with hunting pressure but was a consequence of the supernatural divine intervention resulting from the proper prayers, dances, and other appeals to deities.

The idea that Indians “used” all parts of the bison and didn’t “waste” wildlife is another myth. There are plenty of documented instances of tribes killing bison merely for their tongues and leaving behind hundreds and sometimes thousands of dead animals. How many bison were killed annually in this manner is unknown; however, it was common to take only the best parts of a bison if one anticipated encountering more bison in a few days.

It is a lot of work to cut up a bison and transport it in its entirely, and unless you were starving or anticipated a shortage, it was just easier to kill a fresh animal when you needed it. And that was a common practice among Indians as it was among the few whites that roamed the plains in those days to take the best and leave the rest.

It is easy for people today to condemn such wasteful or, in many cases, try to make up excuses for it, but one cannot use today’s cultural values when viewing the past. If bison were abundant, and you believed that the herds were infinite, there was no reason to “conserve” them.

Francis Antonie Larocque, a French-Canadian trader, traveled to the Upper Missouri River in 1805 to initiate a trade with tribes located there. This was the same year that Lewis and Clark traveled up the Missouri and spent the winter of 1805 at the Mandan villages in North Dakota. Larocque noted in his journal that: “They (the tribes) live upon buffalo and deer, very few of them eat bears or beavers flesh, but when compelled by hunger: they eat no fish. They are most improvident with regards of provisions. It is amazing what number of buffalos or other quadrupeds they destroy—yet 2-3 days after a very successful hunt, the beef is gone. When hunting they take but the fattest part of an animal and leave the remainder.”

Alexander Ross, a fur trader who accompanied a bison hunt by Metis in Manitoba, reported they killed twenty-five hundred buffaloes to produce three hundred and seventy-five bags of pemmican and two hundred and forty bales of dried meat. According to Ross, seven hundred and fifty bison would have been sufficient to produce this amount of food. Still, he goes on to say, “the great characteristic of all western hunts of buffalo, elk or antelope, was waste.”

In his book The Ecological Indian, Shepard Krech quotes Trader Charles McKenzie, who lived among the plains Indians in 1804 who noted that Gros Ventre Indians he traveled with killed “whole herds” only for their tongues.

Similarly, Alexander Henry in 1809 noted that the Blackfeet left most of the bulls they had killed intact and reported that they took “only the best parts” of meat.”

And Paul Kane, another visitor to the Great Plains, remarked that the Indians “destroy innumerable buffaloes,” and he speculated that only “one in twenty is used in any way by the Indians” while “thousands are left to rot where they fall.”

(Of course, white trappers and other travelers in bison territory often did the same practices like killing a bison and only taking the prime cuts).

As early as 1800, traders along the Missouri River reported that local bison herds were depleted by native hunting. And here is where you must pay attention to dates—sometimes, most people ignore or simply don’t appreciate the significance.

While a few fur traders had penetrated the Great Plains before the 1800s, the Lewis and Clark explorations between 1804-06 provided a glimpse of the bison hunting culture and the abundance of beaver. Their journals spurred on the era of the mountain man fur trapper who concentrated on beaver trapping. The mountain man was in his heyday between 1820 and 1840s. Estimates suggest that at their height, no more than 1000 white trappers were spread across the entire plains and the Rocky Mountains from what is now Mexico to Canada.  And the mining era only began in the 1850s-60s, and most mining camps were concentrated in the mountains away from the large bison concentrations on the plains.

All of this suggests that hunting of plains bison by white people was insignificant before the 1870s, yet bison herds were already disappearing from many of their former haunts.

Bison herds were also extirpated in the eastern parts of the Great Plains territory by the 1840s.

Yet bison herds were extirpated on the fringes of their ranges throughout the early 1800s. In his book, The Hunting of the Buffalo, author Douglas Branch reports that the Metis (mixed-race children of French fur trappers and Indian wives), residing in the Red River Valley of Manitoba, killed over 650,000 bison in the twenty years between 1820 and 1840. By 1847 bison were extirpated from southern Manitoba, northern Minnesota, and North Dakota.

Trader Edwin Denig, who spent 23 years on the Upper Missouri, remarked in 1855 the territory of the Sioux tribe East of the Missouri River “used to be the great range for the buffalo, but of late years they are found in greater numbers west of the Missouri.”

Similarly, on the western fringe of the bison range, fur trapper Osborn Russell observed the slaughter of several thousand bison by the Bannock Indians near what is now Idaho Falls, Idaho. Russell described the scene: “I walked out with the chief to a small hillock to watch the view of slaughter after the cloud of dust had passed away in the prairie  which was covered with the slain several thousand cows were killed without burning a single grain of gunpowder.”

A few years later, along the Portneuf River near present-day Pocatello, Idaho, Russell noted: “In the year 1836 large herds of buffalo could be seen in almost every little valley on the small branches of this stream: at this time the only traces which could be seen of them were the scattered bones of former years, deeply indented in the earth, were overgrown with grass and weeds.”

By the 1830s a decline in bison numbers was noted at Fort Union trading post (trading posts were all called forts in the early days) on the Montana-North Dakota Border. Photo George Wuerthner.

In the late 1800s, bison had been nearly extirpated from the West (in part by Indian hide hunting).   For instance, by 1830, a decline of bison numbers was already noted at Fort Union on the North Dakota and Montana borders.

In 1834 Lucien Fontenelle told a visitor that the “diminution of the buffalo was very considerable.  A survey of the Upper Missouri in 1849 noted a lack of bison, and by the 1850s, bison were becoming scarce in Kansas and Nebraska.

The 1859 Raynolds Expedition did not encounter its first live bison until they reached the Powder River Country of Wyoming and Montana. Photo George Wuerthner.

Bison across the eastern portion of the plains were largely gone by the 1860s. In a transect across much of the Great Plains in 1859, Captain Wiliam Raynolds, guided by non-other than the famous fur trapper Jim Bridger, took accurate daily observations of the wildlife they encountered. They traveled all across what is now the state of South Dakota without seeing a live bison. They finally observed some large herds in the Powder River country of northeast Wyoming and along the lower Yellowstone River near what is today Miles City, Montana. However, once they left the Yellowstone Valley and moved south into what is now Wyoming, they did not encounter any more bison that year.

The expedition wintered on the North Platte River in Wyoming. In the spring of 1860, Raynolds and his men proceeded around the Wind River Range, into Jackson Hole over the Tetons to where Driggs, Idaho is now located, thence over Raynolds Pass on the Montana Idaho border.  They encountered a small herd of about 100 bison on the Upper Madison River but failed to see any other live bison for hundreds of miles. The expedition continued down the Missouri River (all once the heart of Montana bison habitat) to Fort Benton. Only after they passed Fort Benton did they see more live bison.

In total, Raynolds and his party traversed several thousand miles of the prime bison habitat on the plains and mountain valleys of the Rockies and saw few bison over much of that route.

As bison numbers declined, it put more pressure on the remaining bison herds, and by extension, the tribes that still occupied these lands. For instance, the intrusion of the Sioux into Crow territory and the Black Hills in the 1850-the 1860s was in part driven by Sioux’s desire for control of bison.

For instance, as early as 1849, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs wrote that the destruction of the bison herds “must, at no late day, so far diminish this chief resource of their subsistence and trade, as not only to entail upon them great suffering, but it will bring different tribes into competition in their hunting expeditions and lead to bloody collisions and exterminating wars between them.”

The Blackfeet were overly aggressive in protecting the bison plains of Montana against all other tribes. One of the advantages the Blackfeet had over other tribes was the acquisition of the gun earlier than other tribes. Unlike tribes further south, the Blackfeet had access to firearms from Hudson Bay Company traders in Canada.

The fear of Blackfeet encounters is one reason some tribes like the Nez Perce, Bannock, and Shoshoni, who lived outside of the natural range of bison but hunted on the plains, often choose to pass through Yellowstone on their way to hunt buffalo. Some authors contend the Yellowstone Plateau was a demilitarized zone where travel to the bison hunting fields was relatively safe.

Some tribes used the Bannock Trail across Yellowstone NP to avoid the more aggressive Blackfeet warriors who guarded the bison plains of Montana. George Wuerthner.

The Bannock Trail, which crossed Yellowstone National Park, was in use from 1838 until 1878– a mere 40 years. The Yellowstone passage avoided the easier route by way of the Three Forks of the Missouri but this pathway was within the Blackfeet territory. For the same reason, the path was used by other tribes as well, including the Nez Perce, Flathead, and the Lemhi Shoshone.


The commercial killing of bison by white hunters was rapidly expanded in the 1870s when railroad access across the plans provided a ready means of transporting the heavy bison hides eastward. Another factor was the end of the Civil War, which left many soldiers without employment. However, with keen sharpshooter ability, and Sharp’s buffalo rifles developed after the war, they could kill a bison at long range. Another factor was the increasing industrialization use of bison leather for machinery belts which provided a growing financial incentive for bison hunters.

Most people know the infamous claim to fame of William F. Cody, who is reputed to have killed 4,280 bison to feed railroad construction crews. Cody was a harbinger of the bison slaughter that was to occur as the rails moved westward.

It’s essential to recognize that bison were essentially extinct by the early 1880s. The last wild bison were killed in 1886 in Montana and in the southern Plains by 1887.  in other words, a short decade or so of commercial hunting supposedly wiped out the “millions” of bison.  No doubt commercial bison hunting was a factor in the destruction of plains bison, but it ignores the culpability of Indian hunting that for decades was descreaing bison numbers.

While the early fur traders set up posts in Indian territory to obtain beaver pelts, the reluctance of Indians to spend much time beaver trapping resulted in a significant shift in strategy. In 1820s, fur companies hired white trappers like Peter Skene Ogden, William Sublette, David Jackson, Jedediah Smith, Jim Bridger, and Kit Carson. They traveled in large groups of 50-100 trappers as protection against hostile tribes. These brigades wandered the West to obtain pelts.

Tribal people like the Blackfeet, Crow and other plains tribes considered beaver trapping beneath their dignity. They were bison hunters, and hunting bison is what they did not only for their subsistence but also for trade to obtain everything from pretty cloth to rifles.

One of the factors that contributed to the gradual decline in bison numbers was the preference for cow bison both by tribal people and traders. So hunting was focused on the reproductive segment of herds.

According to one estimate, the number of bison killed for their teepees, food, and other uses was about 25 bison a year per individual. How many Native Americans lived on the plains in the mid-1800s is conjecture, but some estimates put it at 250,000-300,000 people. Using the lower number multiplied by 25 and you get more than 6 million bison killed just for “personal use.”

And this number does not include the kill by non-plains tribes like the Nez Perce, Flathead, Utes, and others that made annual treks to hunt bison on the plains.

Then add in the bison killed for trade. We have some reliable numbers on this because the trading posts kept relatively accurate numbers on the furs they acquired. Depending on the post, hundreds of thousands of bison pelts were traded annually, and collectively towards the 1850s and 1860s, some estimates suggest well over a million bison were being traded by Indians at the trading posts on the Great Plains.

By the mid-1800s, most Indians were utterly dependent on trade goods for their survival. Whether the acquisition of metal pots, metal knives, blankets, or pretty cloth for clothing, tribes were already immersed in the global economy, and bison hides were their currency.

Though bow and arrows were still used for bison hunting, rifles and ammunition were essential for war.

It is instructive how much transportation influenced the fur trade. In Canada, where furs were transported mainly by canoe brigades, bison hides were considered too cumbersome to transport. But the opening of the plains by boat transport on rivers like the Missouri allowed shipment of heavy bison hides to eastern centers.

To determine how detrimental Indian bison hunting may have been on bison numbers, one has to estimate how many buffalo existed on the plains. Estimates *which I hasten to add are all mere guesses) is that anywhere from 20 million to 100 million bison were living on the Great Plains at the beginning of the 1800s. https://journals.uair.arizona.edu/index.php/rangelands/article/viewFile/11258/10531

Some historians believe Indian hunting was out of balance with bison reproduction as early as the 1800s.  https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/188080102.pdf

By the 1860s, bison herds had already shrunk. With the completion of the Union Pacific Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, the bison herds were effectively divided into a southern herd of five million and a smaller northern herd of a million and a half animals. In other words, an estimated six and a half bison left alive before the great slaughter.

Again, this is before there was any significant white settlement and hunting on the Great Plains. Keep in mind that hostile tribes largely precluded the white settlement of the region. The northern plains were entirely in Indian possession. Events like the Sioux slaughter of more than a thousand white men, women, and children in Minnesota in 1862 or Custer’s demise at the Little Bighorn in 1876, and similar events in the southern Plains by the Comanche and Apache, occurred throughout the 1860s and 1870s. These effectively limited white settlement and intrusions across much of the plains. And except for a few trade routes and mining centers like Denver and mining operations in the mountains of the West, most of the Great Plains and Rockies were mainly under Indian control.

The 100 million estimate is likely a significant inflation and is based on a guess made by Cornell Dodge (Dodge City, Kansas is named for him). Dodge encountered a great herd of bison near the Arkansas River that took days to pass by and suggested it contained 12 million bison. He then extrapolated from his estimate to suggest millions upon millions of bison were found on the plains.

The problem with Dodge’s estimate is that he did not even put it into print until 16 years after he encountered the herd. And like a lot of extrapolations, it neglects to consider while great congregations of animals do occur during migration, much of the landscape is empty of animals.

Other travelers also noted a similar abundance, likely seen during a migration when smaller herds were bunched up for the annual trek.

I have seen how this error can occur. I have watched caribou migrations in Alaska’s Brooks Range, where I have witnessed ten thousand animals pass through a valley. It would be easy to assume that the next valley also had ten thousand caribou. But with modern radio transmitters, airplanes, etc., we know that there were many valleys with no caribou. A similar problem existed with all the attempts to articulate bison numbers.

If we assume that the 100 million number is an exaggeration, let’s suggest for argument’s sake maybe 20 million is more accurate. Suppose tribes were killing 6-8 million bison annually and primarily reproductive animals. In that case, it is easy to see how reports of declining bison herds BEFORE commercial bison hunting occurred might have led to bison’s demise.

In 1870, the first year of active commercial bison hunting, approximately 250,000 hides were shipped East. In 1877, it was estimated that you could find 60,000-80,000 bison hides awaiting shipment in Dodge City at any time.

By the late 1870s, it is estimated that 2000 bison hunters were roaming the plains slaughtering bison for their hides. Tens of thousands of bison hides were shipped from Kansas City, Dodge City, and other rail towns. As the railroads moved West, so did the killing.

The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 enabled heavy bison hides to be shipped efficiently and promoted the massive bison slaughter of the 1870s and 1880s. Photo George Wuerthner

In 1873 the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad shipped 424,000 hides east. Similar numbers were shipped on other rail lines so that as many as 1,250,000 hides were sent east from the killing fields. White hunters, desperate to get the last bison, were even trespassing on to Indian Reservations in their pursuit of hides.

I need not go into more details about the slaughter, as many other authors documented the enormous numbers of bison killed during this short period. Suffice to say, commercial hunting combined with rail access was the final coup de grace for the wild bison of the plans.

However, lest we continue to place all the blame solely on commercial hunters, there is more nuance to the issue than most people acknowledge. Another contributing factor seldom mentioned by the “commercial hunting eliminated bison herds” is the influence of climate change. Starting in the early 1800s, the Great Plains began to dry out. This contributed to a reduction in the carrying capacity of the plains, which occurred at the same time that Indian and white bison hunting was increasing.

In the southern Plains, historian Dan Flores in his book American Serengeti suggests competition between bison and vast herds of wild horses may have had a limiting influence on bison numbers.

While it is often portrayed that this final slaughter of the bison was widely supported by the U.S. Army and most politicians to subdue the tribes, there was significant opposition to the slaughter. Some members of Congress and in the military thought the butchery was a shameful policy.

For example, Arizona Congressman R.C. McCormick called the bison slaughter “wantonly wicked” and considered it “vandalism”. McCormick introduced legislation in 1871 to halt the butchery that: “excepting for the purpose of using the meat for food or preserving the skin, it shall be unlawful for any person to kill the bison or buffalo found anywhere upon the public lands of the United States; and for the violation of the law the offender shall, upon conviction before any court of competent jurisdiction, be liable to a fine of $100 for each animal killed”.

Major General Hazen added his objection to the butchery. He wrote: “The theory that the buffalo should be killed to deprive the Indians of food is a fallacy, and these people are becoming harmless under a rule of justice.” Lieutenant Colonel Brackett, another military officer, added his objections, saying: “The wholesale butchery of buffaloes upon the plains is as needless as it is cruel.”

In 1874 new legislation was introduced by Rep. Fort of Illinois, which declared it would be unlawful for anyone, not an Indian to kill, wound, or in any way destroy any female buffalo of any age found at large within any Territory of the United States. In the Congressional debate that followed Fort’s legislative effort, another member of Congress argued that killing off the bison was the only means to “civilize” the tribes. Fort bellowed: “I am not in favor of civilizing the Indian by starving him to death, by destroying the means which God has given him for his support.”

Fort’s legislation passed both the House and Senate, but President Ulysses Grant allowed the bill to die in a pocket veto.

However, despite the apparent decline in bison, the northern herd was still being slaughtered by Indians. Between 1874 and 1877, between 80,000 to 100,000 buffalo robes were shipped from Fort Benton in Montana annually, with 12,000 hides contributed by the Blackfeet tribe alone. Again, keep in mind that the northern plains were still in control of the Indians, with only a few white traders living among them.

In a final desperate act like the famous “Ghost Dance” that led to the Wounded Knee tragedy in 1890, a Comanche medicine man with Quanah Parker, the famous chief of the tribe, declared that the Great Spirit would protect the tribe from bullets. In June 1774, the Comanches and the Arapahoes, Kiowa, Apaches, and Cheyenne agreed to attack buffalo hunters based in an old fort named Adobe Walls. Like a lot of Indian superstition, the Great Spirt wasn’t available on that day. The Buffalo hunters with Sharp’s buffalo rifles were effective at cutting down the Indians at long range.

The Medicine Man who had the vision declared that his medicine was ruined because a Cheyenne member of the war party killed a skunk the day before, thus breaking the special magic of his vision.

By 1887, the last bison in the southern herds were killed. A similar rapid expansion of hide hunting occurred in the northern plains once the Northern Pacific Railroad reached Bismarck, North Dakota, in 1876.  With the near extinction of the southern herds, bison hunters flooded into the northern Great Plains in the early 1880s after the last great Indian Wars were ended and effectively made it safe for white hunters to travel the region. The remaining large herds were still found on the best bison habitat in a triangle between the Musselshell River, Yellowstone River, and Missouri River. An estimated 5000 bison hunters, not to mention Indian hunters, flooded into the Yellowstone country and quickly eliminated the last vestiges of what were once great herds of bison. By the late 1880s, only about 100 wild bison were left in Montana.

I go through this detail to demonstrate that many of the assumptions and traits ascribed to the presumed “conservation ethic” of Indigenious people can be explained in other ways.  No matter where they originate, humans have similar biological controls on their behavior. In general, all people seek to further their self-interest. And among more “primitive” cultures (I use that term to denote more limited technologies), the self-awareness of their actions on wildlife and natural processes was limited.

As I hope I’ve shown in this essay, if you change the technology, population, or other factors, humans still tend to exploit the natural world for their benefit. If there is an incentive whether financial or political power to exploit Nature, most humans behave the same no matter what culture they may represent. That is why conservation strategies that strictly control human exploitation like national parks and other reserves are necessary. The idea that Indigenous people will create sustainable systems in an age where nearly everyone is embedded to some degree in the global economy and  the paradigm is based more on inaccurate revisionist history and political goals.

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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