The more I delve into the history of bison over the last 200 years, the more I realize how the slaughter of these animals still has very real impacts on life in North American today. Historians and biologists writing over the last century have grown up in a world where bison are largely segregated into natural areas far away from urban centres and/or behind fences. As such, bison and their absence are not always top of mind. Out of sight, out of mind, after all. However, the near-extinction of this iconic animal has had huge ecological and social impacts on the west throughout the last 150 years and more. Now whenever I read something new about western Canadian histories or landscapes, I can’t help but re-examine these stories with a “bison lens.”
Even today, people are so divorced from bison that they may not even realize the origin of various local place names. For example, there’s a place just east of Edmonton called Hairy Hill, so called because bison used to scratch themselves there and leave behind their winter fur in the spring. Chip Lake to the west of Edmonton, I am told, is a warning on a map: don’t water your horses here, as bison have fouled it with their chips (dung). The same may be true of the myriad of “Buffalo Lakes” across the North American west. These names aren’t just whimsical – they have very real meaning.
The thing that got me thinking about the impact of the loss of bison upon events in the west in the first place was wolves. The only two real natural predators of bison are wolves and humans. We’re both pack animals that can work in groups to take on bison herds. Wolves that primarily eat bison are absolutely massive. (See this preview of a documentary on the buffalo wolves of Wood Buffalo National Park, the only place in the world where these two species have experienced an uninterrupted predator-prey relationship. In that clip, a single adult wolf stops a huge yearling bison in its tracks.) One sentence from Grant Wilson’s Frontier Farewell (page 262) caught my attention last year:
“The great herds were continually harassed by wolves that attacked the calves, the weak, and the aged. As many as 1.5 million wolves prowled the plains…” (Emphasis mine.)
The thing is, the bison populations declined very steeply. Within a single human lifetime, tens of millions of bison were slaughtered. During the height of the killing, often most of the bison carcasses went to waste: hide hiders would skin the dead animal and leave the meat to rot and be torn apart by scavengers. That means that when bison populations were in sharp decline, the wolf population, oddly, initially shot up. So when you read historical accounts of early settlers in the west being terrified by massive wolves, it isn’t just an inbuilt European prejudice against these noble creatures, borne of too many “Little Red Riding Hood” type fairy tales… there were definitely huge, starving packs of wolves roaming the prairies in the decade after the decline of the bison. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series has a chapter in which the family encounters a pack of 50 massive wolves: an event more fact than fiction, or at least within the realm of possibility.
I was trying to think of a third really salient example of the effects of a lack of bison on the landscape, and I came up with too many. Here’s a non-exhaustive list to contemplate:
- Grass fires: Fire was an actor upon the landscape in the past, but the decline of bison meant that grass grew much taller and fire was suppressed by settlers. As a result, particularly in the 1880s – 1920s period in western Canada, when fire did occur, there were larger conflagrations than there would have been a generation before. (Source: page 19 of Beaver Hills Country.) We still have massive wildfires today, growing in intensity due to fire suppression and climate change. I do wonder if bison on some of these landscapes would mitigate the strength of some of these fires? What else do humans now have to manage intensely that was managed naturally by bison and other natural forces in the past?
- Insects and endangered insect eaters: bison poop is an excellent incubator for many species of insects. No other native animal out west produces patties like that. There are probably many species of insects that went extinct prior to them being documented by western scientists, who didn’t come out in force until after their decline. Bison poop incubates insects, which are then eaten by other creatures. (Source: an amazing talk by bison expert Wes Olson.) Now think of all of the insectivorous prairie birds that are on the endangered species list. Their populations are declining due to lack of habitat, but are there also fewer insects than there were when there were 30 million bison roaming the continent?
- Health of Indigenous Peoples: there are many First Nations who once depended upon the buffalo for food. There was starvation and hunger across the west after the slaughter. Today, diabetes is an epidemic in some Indigenous communities, due to a high-sugar diet and barriers to eating well, including high cost of food in remote communities, poverty, and lack of grocery stores or fresh produce in general. The lack of fresh bison meat in the diet isn’t the only reason for these health problems, but it certainly contributes. The Buffalo Treaty specifically cites “Health” as one of the reasons why signatories are working towards restoring bison to traditional territories today.
As you go about your research (historical or otherwise), as you drive across the prairie and look out on the landscape, and as you wander the streets of the big cities in the west, take the time to think about how the slaughter of bison has resulted in the world you live in today. The presence and absence of bison is still felt.
- Text of the Buffalo Treaty: The Buffalo: A Treaty of Cooperation, Renewal and Restoration
- Brink, Jack W. Imagining Head-Smashed-In: Aboriginal Buffalo Hunting on the Northern Plains. Edmonton, AB: Athabasca University Press, 2008.
- Wilson, Garrett. Frontier Farewell: The 1870s and the End of the Old West. Regina, SK: University of Regina Press, 2007; 2014.