At the end of the Civil War, the American drive to achieve an apparent Manifest Destiny regained its stronghold over settlers and economic entrepreneurs alike, compelling droves of people to pick up and head westward into the unknown wilderness. However, settlers quickly found this wilderness to not only be inhabited by various Native American communities that weren't too keen on the idea of bowing down to the individuals overtaking their land, but also by impressively large hoards of bison that were sure to earn a pretty penny or two for anyone who managed to successfully hunt them down. So what did they do? They went on a slaughtering binge that brought the bison to near extinction – from 30 million to under 400 in the course of a few decades.
The bison's ultimate demise was due not only to the indifferent attitude they held towards people (not to mention their impressively slow-moving demeanor), but also to the exploitative and cruel intentions of the settlers who found the economic and political advantages of killing the bison to be too good to pass up.
However, the consequences inherent in the exploitative practices of bison hunters became evident when observing the massive piles of bones from the animals, which collected as they decayed across the Great Plains – until the population of millions had dropped to only hundreds before reaching the turn of the 20th century.
Before American settlers had set their sights on the extermination of the American bison, or buffalo as they're colloquially known, the animals' numbers were estimated to be around 30 million across the Great Plains (with some estimates even pushing 60 million). However, by the end of the 19th century, the bison population had dramatically dropped to fewer than 400.
Hunting down these animals for their skins, tongues, and bones was not only economically and politically fruitful for settlers – but they also believed that the extermination of the animal was necessary for their achievement of the American Manifest Destiny. Andrew Isenberg – a history professor at Temple University and the author of The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History, 1750-1920 – even pointed out that:
"there was a general belief in the 1870s that the bison were wild animals who were likely to eventually go extinct anyway... The eradication of bison from the Great Plains and their replacement with cattle would be an improvement that turned a wilderness into a productive landscape.”
Hunters took down the animals in droves, often while leisurely riding on trains through the Great Plains and shooting them as they passed by. This left tens of thousands of bison carcasses littering the countryside, stripped of their skins and tongues and left to rot until their bones could be harvested and ground into a charcoal-like substance used for everything from fertilizer to refining sugar.
The killing off of the bison population didn't just have economic benefits for the settlers – it came with perverse social and political benefits as well, only serving to bring settlers closer to their goal of complete control over the land.
Once settlers began exploring the Great Plains, it became obvious that the Native American tribes throughout the area relied heavily on the bison for everything from food to clothing to spiritual fulfillment. And with this realization they also determined that the downfall of the bison would eventually lead to the submission of the Native Americans – and the achievement of Manifest Destiny. As a result, the US government instructed "military commanders [to order] their troops to kill bison — not for food, but to deny Native Americans their own source of food." As early as 1867, Colonel Richard Dodge – a prominent US Army official – declared that: “Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.”
By 1880, it is estimated that only a few thousand bison remained, reaping devastating consequences for Plains tribes and the ecology of the area as a whole. And, by the turn of the 20th century, that number had dropped below 400.
Efforts to repopulate the Great Plains with bison and prevent their impending extinction began as early as 1899 with a small herd on a farm in South Dakota owned by a man named James "Scotty" Philip. By 1911, Philip had managed to grow his heard of bison to an impressive 1,200 animals – though that was nowhere near enough to save the species.
Since then, numerous other conservationists have become involved in the efforts to save the bison from extinction, and today there are many reserves set up across the US that cater to the preservation and growth of the species. There are now close to 500,000 bison living on private land reserves, with an additional 30,000 on public government held nature preserves.