Near Extinction & Recovery
The American bison (Bison bison) once roamed across most of North America in numbers that reached into the tens of millions. Such abundance made the bison a critical part of Native American culture: every part of the bison provided something for their way of life. Before horses and gunpowder arrived in North America, native people hunted bison on foot. One technique involved stampeding dozens or hundreds of animals off cliffs where they would fall to their deaths. A single “jump” could sustain the members of a tribe for an entire year, providing food as well as materials for clothing, shelter, tools, and more.
As European Americans settled the west in the 1800s, the U.S. Army began a campaign to remove Native American tribes from the landscape by taking away their main food source: bison. Hundreds of thousands of bison were killed by U.S. troops and market hunters. By the late 1880s, the great herds of bison that once dominated the landscape were nearly gone. Some animals found protection on private ranches. In the Yellowstone area, their numbers dwindled to about two dozen bison left in Pelican Valley.
In one of the first efforts to preserve a wild species through protection and stewardship, Yellowstone’s managers set about recovering the bison population. In 1902, they purchased 21 bison from private owners and raised them in Mammoth and then at the historic Lamar Buffalo Ranch. Eventually, these animals began to mix with the park’s free-roaming population and by 1954, their numbers had grown to roughly 1,300 animals.