What really happened to the bison?
for Tri-State Livestock News
Bison are the iconic symbol of the American West. From literature to advertising to art, the awesome creatures have had a strong presence is the psyche of American people. The fact that huge herds of bison used to wander the plains in search of food and water is known to all. Number estimates of bison swing widely from 30 million to 65 million. The other fact known to most is this symbol of the west very nearly faced extinction in the 1880s when bison populations numbered only 464. Today the accepted, and adamantly proclaimed, belief is bison were hunted almost to extinction by professional buffalo hunters with Sharps rifles, notably for the animal’s hides and tongues. The common 21st century belief is relentless hunting across the prairies was exclusively the reason for the collapse of the bison population.
That is not necessarily so, says researcher Dr. Sierra Stoneberg Holt who has spent considerable time investigating the demise of the venerable animals.
“I became interested in this because of the dichotomy of thought: on one hand, countless organizations, workshops, university departments and government agencies, dollars and hours have been dedicated to the science that grazing management is vital to the ecosystem. Alternately, other organizations and government agencies are convinced that the best kind of grazing management removes human intelligence, planning, goals and research from the equation and ‘lets nature take its course.’”
Stoneberg Holt notes that the “leave it alone” beliefs are being used more than ever. First, the American Prairie Reserve, which is gobbling up huge tracts of land just north of the Charlie M Russell (CMR) Wildlife Refuge, is petitioning the Bureau of Land Management to let it remove interior fences and abandon its grazing plan. Stoneberg Holt, who gets her mail in Hinsdale, points out that Yellowstone National Park has seen a huge leap above and beyond the Park’s carrying capacity since it instituted “natural herd management.”
She explains the proponents of goal-free grazing management use the Great Plains bison population in the early 1800s as a good example of how a species can thrive without human intervention.
Some wildlife groups state the professional buffalo hunters decimated the bison. However, simple math may prove otherwise. Holt explains that a study by Dr. William Temple Hornaday, 1889, reveals records of animals shot and hides traded show the number of animals killed has never exceeded the natural increase. “Estimates show bison numbers of around 65 million. Every year hundreds of thousands of buffalo were harvested. If they were fossils or statues and you took hundreds of thousands from 21 to 88 million every year, then in 21 to 440 years you’d get rid of them all. But what do tens of millions of bison have every year? They have millions of calves,” Stoneberg Holt explains.
This led her to become very curious as to why bison numbers plummeted in the late 19th century when research shows professional hunters’ extermination of all buffalo was a myth with no factual basis. She discovered two candidates for a death-by-disease theory: Texas tick fever in the Montana area and anthrax in the Nebraska area. In digging through more history books, Stoneberg Holt unearthed the evidence of epidemics. She found that Dr. Sam Fadala quoted trapper Yellowstone Kelly who circa 1867 found bodies of ‘dead buffalo as far as the eye could see that bore no mark of a bullet or arrow wounds.’
Stoneberg Holt read a careful, scholarly analysis of the bison disappearance done by Dr. Rudolph Koucky in 1983 and found evidence that hunters weren’t the guilty culprits. Dr. Koucky reported, “In 1926, while hunting on a former northern buffalo range, I saw a cluster of buffalo skeletons arranged much like a herd of cows lying on a meadow. I examined the skeletons and, with my training as a pathologist, could find no suggestions the animals had been killed. They had simply laid down and died.”
“Although I saw the epidemic/disease as the probable cause for buffalo deaths, I still felt something was missing,” said Holt. She found the Pikuni (Blackfoot Confederation) ranged the north-central/eastern part of Montana since at least the 14th century, and that ancient peoples in nomadic bands hunted bison as long as 14,000 years ago in the same area.
She explained that in reading Allan Savory’s Holistic Management: A New Framework Decision Making (1999), she discovered a section that explained how in two instances, removing a single species from an environment caused catastrophic collapse. In one case, the species that was removed was Homo sapiens. In that case, when the people and their land management were removed, species in an area became impoverished and the land began deteriorating. She admits to leafing through a month of journal entries by Lewis & Clark when they were close to what now is Hinsdale.
The explorers wrote: “Over 31 days, I found 28 mentions of unhealthy vegetation (compared to today), fourteen mentions of extremely large herds of game animals, thirteen mention of unseasonably dry stream beds, five mentions of collapsing river banks, four mentions of high levels of water erosion, four mentions of extreme wind erosion (compared to today) and two mentions of oddly gentle buffalo.”
This matters, because Lewis and Clark were writing 25 years following the devastation of the Pikuni population by smallpox, says Stoneberg Holt. “The African situation, described by Savory, when a human population was removed, followed by collapse of the ecosystem and overpopulation followed by extinction took approximately 30 years to give the same results as those described by Lewis and Clark. Simply, the hypothesis is: The Pikuni land managers died tragically. Within a few decades the unmanaged bison critically overpopulated and damaged their environment. The crowded, starving bison then were ravaged by disease and nearly went extinct.”
Stoneberg Holt believes skillful management led to healthy productive bison plains. “When that management was removed, the bison critically overpopulated and damaged the vegetation. Then you had crowded, starving bison in a severely degraded range that couldn’t begin to support them,” she explains. “That meant that their immunity was gone, and epidemic could rage unchecked. The most fascinating thing is that tick fever and anthrax both seem to be native here. Bison had suffered from them for maybe thousands of years without ever being driven extinct by them. But once they were no longer managed, once their range was destroyed from neglect, then the weakened bison were wiped out by familiar diseases. Generally, creatures can survive familiar diseases. In the case of the Pikuni, the smallpox was so devastating because it was a new disease from Europe. But without their Pikuni managers, the bison were in such terrible shape, those old diseases that they had always had were a death sentence.”
Stoneberg Holt shares her thoughts on the current modern thought about nature. “Most of us really do believe nature can solve all our problems,” she says. “We know that if we abandon a lot in town, it will not turn into a magical Shangri-La of beauty and plenty. But we are programmed to believe that turning our backs on broad stretches of territory will have that result. We completely discount the intelligence, skill, and abilities of the people that spent thousands of years managing this landscape. The myth is that they never existed, never did anything. What are you called if you jam 100 goats into a barn with feed for 10? You are an animal abuser. What are you if you jam 5,000 bison in a range with room and feed for 500? You are a Park or a Reserve, a mythical place of beauty and communion with Nature. We have been trained to abdicate all sense of responsibility toward wildlife and the environment. My research does two key things: It says the ancient Pikuni were actual human beings with knowledge and skill and what they did really mattered. If we want this environment and these species to survive, we need to learn enough to emulate their results. Two, it says that ‘no management’ is a kind of management and it can be an extremely destructive kind.”
Dr. Sierra Stoneberg Holt was born in Montana. She has Bachelor of Science degrees in Botany and Range Science from Montana State University, plus an Honors degree. She received her PhD in Botany from Masaryk University in the Czech Republic. Currently, she works for her mother on her family ranch 50 miles south of Highway 2, just north of Fort Peck Lake. The ranch was established by her great grandparents and great, great grandmother.