The Extermination of the American Bison Part 20

Mr. Jenks offered the following amendment:

Strike out in the fourth line of the second section the word "can" and insert "shall;" and in the second line of the same section insert the word "wantonly" before "kill;" so that the clause will read:

"That it shall be in like manner unlawful for any such person to wantonly kill, wound, or destroy in the said Territories any greater number of male buffaloes than are needed for food by such person, or than shall be used, cured, or preserved for the food of other persons, or for the market."

Mr. Conger said: "I think the whole bill is unwise. I think it is a useless measure."

Mr. Hancock said: "I move that the bill and amendment be laid on the table."

The motion to lay the bill upon the table was defeated, and the amendment was rejected.

Mr. Conger called for a division on the passage of the bill. The House divided, and there were--ayes 93, noes 48. He then demanded tellers, and they reported--ayes 104, noes 36. So the bill was passed.

On February 25, 1876, the bill was reported to the Senate, and referred to the Committee on Territories, from whence it never returned.

On March 20, 1876, Mr. Fort introduced a bill (H. R. 2767) to tax buffalo hides; which was referred to the Committee on Ways and Means, and never heard of afterward.

This was the last move made in Congress in behalf of the buffalo. The philanthropic friends of the frontiersman, the Indian, and of the buffalo himself, despaired of accomplishing the worthy object for which they had so earnestly and persistently labored, and finally gave up the fight. At the very time the effort in behalf of buffalo protection was abandoned the northern herd still flourished, and might have been preserved from extirpation.

At various times the legislatures of a few of the Western States and Territories enacted laws vaguely and feebly intended to provide some sort of protection to the fast disappearing animals. One of the first was the game law of Colorado, passed in 1872, which declared that the killers of game should not leave any flesh to spoil. The western game laws of those days amounted to about as much as they do now; practically nothing at all. I have never been able to learn of a single instance, save in the Yellowstone Park, wherein a western hunter was prevented by so simple and innocuous a thing as a game law from killing game. Laws were enacted, but they were always left to enforce themselves. The idea of the frontiersman (the average, at least) has always been to kill as much game as possible before some other fellow gets a chance at it, _and before it is all killed off_! So he goes at the game, and as a general thing kills all he can while it lasts, and with it feeds himself and family, his dogs, and even his hogs, to repletion. I knew one Montana man north of Miles City who killed for his own use twenty-six black-tail deer in one season, and had so much more venison than he could consume or give away that a great pile of carcasses lay in his yard until spring and spoiled.

During the existence of the buffalo it was declared by many an impossibility to stop or prevent the slaughter. Such an accusation of weakness and imbecility on the part of the General Government is an insult to our strength and resources. The protection of game is now and always has been simply a question of money. A proper code of game laws and a reasonable number of salaried game-wardens, sworn to enforce them and punish all offenses against them, would have afforded the buffalo as much protection as would have been necessary to his continual existence.

To be sure, many buffaloes would have been killed on the sly in spite of laws to the contrary, but it was wholesale slaughter that wrought the extermination, and that could easily have been prevented. A tax of 50 cents each on buffalo robes would have maintained a sufficient number of game-wardens to have reasonably regulated the killing, and maintained for an indefinite period a bountiful source of supply of food, and also raiment for both the white man of the plains and the Indian. By judicious management the buffalo could have been made to yield an annual revenue equal to that we now receive from the fur-seals--$100,000 per year.

During the two great periods of slaughter--1870-'75 and 1880-'84--the principal killing grounds were as well known as the stock-yards of Chicago. Had proper laws been enacted, and had either the general or territorial governments entered with determination upon the task of restricting the killing of buffaloes to proper limits, their enforcement would have been, in the main, as simple and easy as the collection of taxes. Of course the solitary hunter in a remote locality would have bowled over his half dozen buffaloes in secure defiance of the law; but such desultory killing could not have made much impression on the great mass for many years. The business-like, wholesale slaughter, wherein one hunter would openly kill five thousand buffaloes and market perhaps two thousand hides, could easily have been stopped forever. Buffalo hides could not have been dealt in clandestinely, for many reasons, and had there been no sale for ill-gotten spoils the still-hunter would have gathered no spoils to sell. It was an undertaking of considerable magnitude, and involving a cash outlay of several hundred dollars to make up an "outfit" of wagons, horses, arms and ammunition, food, etc., for a trip to "the range" after buffaloes. It was these wholesale hunters, both in the North and the South, who exterminated the species, and to say that all such undertakings could not have been effectually prevented by law is to accuse our law-makers and law-officers of imbecility to a degree hitherto unknown. There is nowhere in this country, nor in any of the waters adjacent to it, a living species of any kind which the United States Government can not fully and perpetually protect from destruction by human agencies if it chooses to do so. The destruction of the buffalo was a loss of wealth perhaps twenty times greater than the sum it would have cost to conserve it, and this stupendous waste of valuable food and other products was committed by one class of the American people and permitted by another with a prodigality and wastefulness which even in the lowest savages would be inexcusable.


(May 1, 1889.)

Although the existence of a few widely-scattered individuals enables us to say that the bison is not yet absolutely extinct in a wild state, there is no reason to hope that a single wild and unprotected individual will remain alive ten years hence. The nearer the species approaches to complete extermination, the more eagerly are the wretched fugitives pursued to the death whenever found. Western hunters are striving for the honor (?) of killing the last buffalo, which, it is to be noted, has already been slain about a score of times by that number of hunters.

The buffaloes still alive in a wild state are so very few, and have been so carefully "marked down" by hunters, it is possible to make a very close estimate of the total number remaining. In this enumeration the small herd in the Yellowstone National Park is classed with other herds in captivity and under protection, for the reason that, had it not been for the protection afforded by the law and the officers of the Park, not one of these buffaloes would be living to-day. Were the restrictions of the law removed now, every one of those animals would be killed within three months. Their heads alone are worth from $25 to $50 each to taxidermists, and for this reason every buffalo is a prize worth the hunter's winning. Had it not been for stringent laws, and a rigid enforcement of them by Captain Harris, the last of the Park buffaloes would have been shot years ago by Vic. Smith, the Rea Brothers, and other hunters, of whom there is always an able contingent around the Park.

In the United States the death of a buffalo is now such an event that it is immediately chronicled by the Associated Press and telegraphed all over the country. By reason of this, and from information already in hand, we are able to arrive at a very fair understanding of the present condition of the species in a wild state.

In December, 1886, the Smithsonian expedition left about fifteen buffaloes alive in the bad lands of the Missouri-Yellowstone divide, at the head of Big Porcupine Creek. In 1887 three of these were killed by cowboys, and in 1888 two more, the last death recorded being that of an old bull killed near Billings. There are probably eight or ten stragglers still remaining in that region, hiding in the wildest and most broken tracts of the bad lands, as far as possible from the cattle ranches, and where even cowboys seldom go save on a round-up. From the fact that no other buffaloes, at least so far as can be learned, have been killed in Montana during the last two years, I am convinced that the bunch referred to are the last representatives of the species remaining in Montana.

In the spring of 1886 Mr. B. C. Winston, while on a hunting trip about 75 miles west of Grand Rapids, Dakota, saw seven buffaloes--five adult animals and two calves; of which he killed one, a large bull, and caught a calf alive. On September 11, 1888, a solitary bull was killed 3 miles from the town of Oakes, in Dickey County. There are still three individuals in the unsettled country lying between that point and the Missouri, which are undoubtedly the only wild representatives of the race east of the Missouri River.

On April 28, 1887, Dr. William Stephenson, of the United States Army, wrote me as follows from Pilot Butte, about 30 miles north of Rock Springs, Wyoming:

"There are undoubtedly buffalo within 50 or 60 miles of here, two having been killed out of a band of eighteen some ten days since by cowboys, and another band of four seen near there. I hear from cattlemen of their being seen every year north and northeast of here."

This band was seen once in 1888. In February, 1889, Hon. Joseph M.

Carey, member of Congress from Wyoming, received a letter informing him that this band of buffaloes, consisting of twenty-six head, had been seen grazing in the Red Desert of Wyoming, and that the Indians were preparing to attack it. At Judge Carey's request the Indian Bureau issued orders which it was hoped would prevent the slaughter. So, until further developments, we have the pleasure of recording the presence of twenty-six wild buffaloes in southern Wyoming.

There are no buffaloes whatever in the vicinity of the Yellowstone Park, either in Wyoming, Montana, or Idaho, save what wander out of that reservation, and when any do, they are speedily killed.

There is a rumor that there are ten or twelve mountain buffaloes still on foot in Colorado, in a region called Lost Park, and, while it lacks confirmation, we gladly accept it as a fact. In 1888 Mr. C. B. Cory, of Boston, saw in Denver, Colorado, eight fresh buffalo skins, which it was said had come from the region named above. In 1885 there was a herd of about forty "mountain buffalo" near South Park, and although some of the number may still survive, the indications are that the total number of wild buffaloes in Colorado does not exceed twenty individuals.

In Texas a miserable remnant of the great southern herd still remains in the "Pan-handle country," between the two forks of the Canadian River.

In 1886 about two hundred head survived, which number by the summer of 1887 had been reduced to one hundred, or less. In the hunting season of 1887-'88 a ranchman named Lee Howard fitted out and led a strong party into the haunts of the survivors, and killed fifty-two of them. In May, 1888, Mr. C. J. Jones again visited this region for the purpose of capturing buffaloes alive. His party found, from first to last, thirty-seven buffaloes, of which they captured eighteen head, eleven adult cows and seven calves; the greatest feat ever accomplished in buffalo-hunting. It is highly probable that Mr. Jones and his men saw about all the buffaloes now living in the Pan-handle country, and it therefore seems quite certain that not over twenty-five individuals remain. These are so few, so remote, and so difficult to reach, it is to be hoped no one will consider them worth going after, and that they will be left to take care of themselves. It is greatly to be regretted that the State of Texas does not feel disposed to make a special effort for their protection and preservation.

In regard to the existence of wild buffaloes in the British Possessions, the statements of different authorities are at variance, by far the larger number holding the opinion that there are in all the Northwest Territory only a few almost solitary stragglers. But there is still good reason for the hope, and also the belief, that there still remain in Athabasca, between the Athabasca and Peace Rivers, at least a few hundred "wood buffalo." In a very interesting and well-considered article in the London _Field_ of November 10, 1888, Mr. Miller Christy quotes all the available positive evidence bearing on this point, and I gladly avail myself of the opportunity to reproduce it here:

"The Hon. Dr. Schulz, in the recent debate on the Mackenzie River basin, in the Canadian senate, quoted Senator Hardisty, of Edmonton, of the Hudson's Bay Company, to the effect that the wood buffalo still existed in the region in question. 'It was,' he said, 'difficult to estimate how many; but probably five or six hundred still remain in scattered bands.'

There had been no appreciable difference in their numbers, he thought, during the last fifteen years, as they could not be hunted on horseback, on account of the wooded character of the country, and were, therefore, very little molested. They are larger than the buffalo of the great plains, weighing at least 150 pounds more. They are also coarser haired and straighter horned.

"The doctor also quoted Mr. Frank Oliver, of Edmonton, to the effect that the wood buffalo still exists in small numbers between the Lower Peace and Great Slave Rivers, extending westward from the latter to the Salt River in latitude 60 degrees, and also between the Peace and Athabasca Rivers. He states that 'they are larger than the prairie buffalo, and the fur is darker, but practically they are the same animal.' ...Some buffalo meat is brought in every winter to the Hudson's Bay Company's posts nearest the buffalo ranges.

"Dr. Schulz further stated that he had received the following testimony from Mr. Donald Ross, of Edmonton: The wood buffalo still exists in the localities named. About 1870 one was killed as far west on Peace River as Port Dunvegan. They are quite different from the prairie buffalo, being nearly double the size, as they will dress fully 700 pounds."

It will be apparent to most observers, I think, that Mr. Ross's statement in regard to the size of the wood buffalo is a random shot.

In a private letter to the writer, under date of October 22, 1887, Mr.

Harrison S. Young, of the Hudson's Bay Company's post at Edmonton, writes as follows:

"The buffalo are not yet extinct in the Northwest. There are still some stray ones on the prairies away to the south of this, but they must be very few. I am unable to find any one who has personal knowledge of the killing of one during the last two years, though I have since the receipt of your letter questioned a good many half-breeds on the subject. In our district of Athabasca, along the Salt River, there are still a few wood buffalo killed every year, but they are fast diminishing in numbers and are also becoming very shy."

In his "Manitoba and the Great Northwest" Prof. John Macoun has this to say regarding the presence of the wood buffalo in the region referred to:

"The wood buffalo, when I was on the Peace River in 1875, were confined to the country lying between the Athabasca and Peace Rivers north of latitude 57 30', or chiefly in the Birch Hills. They were also said to be in some abundance on the Salt and Hay Rivers, running into the Save River north of Peace River. The herds thirteen years ago [now nineteen]

were supposed to number about one thousand, all told. I believe many still exist, as the Indians of that region eat fish, which are much easier procured than either buffalo or moose, and the country is much too difficult for white men."

All this evidence, when carefully considered, resolves itself into simply this and no more: The only evidence in favor of the existence of any live buffaloes between the Athabasca and Peace Rivers is in the form of very old rumors, most of them nearly fifteen years old; time enough for the Indians to have procured fire-arms in abundance and killed all those buffaloes two or three times over.

Mr. Miller Christy takes "the mean of the estimates," and assumes that there are now about five hundred and fifty buffaloes in the region named. If we are to believe in the existence there of any stragglers his estimate is a fair one, and we will gladly accept it. The total is therefore as follows:

+-------------------------------------------------+ _Number of American bison running wild and unprotected on January 1, 1889._ +-------------------------------------------------+ In the Pan-handle of Texas 25 In Colorado 20 In southern Wyoming 26 In the Musselshell country, Montana 10 In western Dakota 4 --- Total number in the United States 85 In Athabasca, Northwest Territory (estimated) 550 --- Total in all North America 635 +-------------------------------------------------+

Add to the above the total number already recorded in captivity (256) and those under Government protection in the Yellowstone Park (200), and the whole number of individuals of _Bison americanus_ now living is 1,091.

From this time it is probable that many rumors of the sudden appearance of herds of buffaloes will become current. Already there have been three or four that almost deserve special mention. The first appeared in March, 1887, when various Western newspapers published a circumstantial account of how a herd of about three hundred buffaloes swam the Missouri River about 10 miles above Bismarck, near the town of Painted Woods, and ran on in a southwesterly direction. A letter of inquiry, addressed to Mr. S. A. Peterson, postmaster at Painted Woods, elicited the following reply:

"The whole rumor is false, and without any foundation. I saw it first in the ---- newspaper, where I believe it originated."

In these days of railroads and numberless hunting parties, there is not the remotest possibility of there being anywhere in the United States a herd of a hundred, or even fifty, buffaloes which has escaped observation. Of the eighty-five head still existing in a wild state it may safely be predicted that not even one will remain alive five years hence. A buffalo is now so great a prize, and by the ignorant it is considered so great an honor(!) to kill one, that extraordinary exertions will be made to find and shoot down without mercy the "last buffalo."

There is no possible chance for the race to be perpetuated in a wild state, and in a few years more hardly a bone will remain above ground to mark the existence of the must prolific mammalian species that ever existed, so far as we know.


Chapter end

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