National Geographic : 1977 Jan
The bison's comeback, a saga of survival "A wonderful composition :i:' of divers Animals," the bison was described by an awed 16th-century conquistador. "It has crooked Shoulders, with a Bunch on its Back like a Camel; its Flanks dry, its Tail large, and its Neck cover'd with Hair like a Lion." Bison once ranged from Mexico to Canada, from Oregon to the Eastern Seaboard. They thundered across the western plains some 60 million strong-the greatest spectacle of herd animals ever seen. The shaggy beasts were indispensable to Plains Indians. They butchered the animals for fresh meat and made pemmican of it dried and mixed with berries. The Indians fashioned moccasins and leggings from tanned hides, stitched scraped hides together to cover tepees, and slept under warm buffalo robes. Tribes used rawhide for saddles, ropes, shields, and cooking pots. They boiled hooves for glue and carved spoons and ladles from horns. Bones served as tools; sinew made bowstrings. On the treeless prairie buffalo chips fueled campfires. In the great Indian wars of the late 19th century, the vast herds were all but wiped out. "Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone," calculated Gen. Philip Sheridan. Professional hide hunters continued the slaughter. "Buffalo Bill" Cody shot more than 4,000 animals in 18 months. Passengers on trains fired at stampeding herds-a popular sport. Hides sold for $1.25 each, tongues for 25 cents. Most of the rest was left to rot. By 1889 fewer than 1,500 bison survived in the United States. But even these were not safe. A remnant band of just 21 animals remained in Yellowstone National Park when President Cleveland signed a bill protecting them. Today, thanks to an enlightened wildlife-management program, there are more than 20,000 bison in North America, several hundred of them thriving in Yellowstone. The bison's comeback inspires hope for other endangered creatures-the whooping crane, for example. Conservation of wildlife remains a continuing challenge. That fact of life-and death-is stressed repeatedly, as members know, in the pages of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC.