A brief critique of early bison conservation
This particular story begins in the late 1870’s when a Pend d’Oreille man named Samuel Walking Coyote brought two bull and two cow buffalo back to the Flathead Reservation (near Missoula) after a visit with the Blackfeet in Northern Montana. The most popular explanation for where these buffalo came from is that they simply wandered up to him while he was hunting near the Milk River. Another story tells that he married a Blackfoot woman during this hunting trip and, already married to a woman on the Flathead reservation, took the buffalo home to atone for his sins.
This was the first in many controversies that would lead up to the current situation in Yellowstone Park and the near extinction and reintroduction programs of the Wood Buffalo in Canada.
Historically, this is also one of the events that helped bring the plains buffalo back from the brink of extinction.
By 1884, Walking Coyote’s herd had grown to 12 or 13 animals. These buffalo were then sold to Charles Allard and Michael Pablo, also of the Flathead Reservation.
Pablo and Allard also bought 26 buffalo from C.J “Buffalo” Jones, a rancher from Kansas who had achieved fame as a buffalo hunter and hunting guide, and who would go on in 1902 to become the game warden in charge of the Yellowstone herd.
It was also in 1902 that Yellowstone Park acquired 18 buffalo cows from the Pablo-Allard herd. These buffalo, along with three bulls donated by Charles Goodnight from Texas, were raised in an enclosed pasture near Mammoth and eventually became part of the Lamar Valley and Hayden Valley herds. They were kept as ranched animals, herded daily from enclosure to pasture. They contracted brucellosis from cattle kept at the ranch to provide meat and milk to park visitors.
Back at the Flathead Reservation, Anglo ranchers were leading a propaganda campaign to convince Montanans that the natives were wasting grazing and timber resources. In the years leading up to the Land Allotment Act of 1910, Anglo businessman began buying up Flathead land.
By this point, Allard had died and his heirs had sold his portion of the herd to Charles Conrad. Conrad’s herd later went on to form the nucleus of the National Bison Range.
As fences were build around the allotments, Pablo’s buffalo became more and more restricted in their range, until finally, in 1907, Pablo was forced to sell the herd.
Pablo tried to sell his herd to the U.S. government, and had he been able to, the Canadian Wood Bison might still be disease free and genetically pure.
When it was discovered that there were only 23 plains buffalo left in the entire country, W.T. Hornaday, a taxidermist for the Smithsonian Institute, formed the American Bison Society. Hornaday might not have realized how few buffalo were left until it was almost too late. He slew 24 of them in his efforts to provide specimens for the museum.
In co-operation with the U.S. government the society set about reintroducing buffalo to parks and ranches across the country.
The American Bison Society would have liked to see Pablo’s herd remain in Montana, but the government didn’t like his terms.
In the same year the American Bison Society attempted to establish a herd of buffalo in the Adirondack Mountains. The appropriations bill made passed both houses of legislature, but wisely vetoed by the Governor of New York.
By the turn of the 20th century, the Canadian Wood Bison (bison bison athabascae) had also suffered its share of slaughter and was believed to number less than 500.
In 1907 the Canadian government decided to buy Pablo’s herd of 600+ plains buffalo and transport them to Elk Island National Park, near Edmonton. Two years later, all but 45 buffalo were shipped north to Buffalo National Park near Wainwright.
It took five years and 75 professional cowboys to round up the buffalo and ship them by train and riverboat. This round-up lives on still as a widely told chapter in American cowboy adventures.
In 1922 Wood Buffalo National Park was formed near the border of Alberta and Northwest Territories to protect the last of the Wood Bison. The wood bison (bison bison athabascae) is darker, taller and less stockier subspecies of the plains buffalo.
By 1925 the plains bison population in Buffalo NP had exceeded its carrying capacity and one of the most idiotic decisions in bison management history was made. Some half-wit politician had the brain-fart that it would be a good idea to send the 6000+ surplus plains buffalo up to Wood Buffalo National Park.
Maxwell Graham, the Director of the Dominion Parks Branch, never accepted the possibility that there were two distinct sub-species. He also didn’t accept the possibility that they would spread brucellosis and tuberculosis to other wildlife. (The buffalo were already known to have contracted the diseases from local cattle during their stay in Wainwright.)
Regardless, the plan was to put them far enough away from the wood buffalo that the two would never intermingle. As you can imagine, the plan failed, the two (definitely distinct subspecies) intermingled and by the 1950’s it was assumed that the last of the wood buffalo had been absorbed into a plains/wood hybrid.
By the late 1950’s, scientists were able to confirm that the introduced bison had also managed to spread brucellosis and tuberculosis.
The remaining buffalo at Buffalo National Park near Wainwright were eventually all slaughtered to eradicate the diseases. After all that trouble getting them up to the park.
In 1959, however, a herd of 200 pure wood bison were found in the northwest corner of WB Park.
In 1963, eighteen healthy wood buffalo from the 200 discovered in WBNP were transported northwest into the Mackenzie River basin of Northwest Territories to establish the Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary.
In 1965 twenty-one more were captured and released into Elk Island National Park near Edmonton.Soon after it was discovered that some of those buffalo had brucellosis, and an intensive test and slaughter program eradicated the disease from that herd.
The buffalo that remain in Elk Island Park are now used for reintroduction programs around Canada. An iron fence separates the remaining plains buffalo from the wood buffalo herd.
A bison control area exists between the diseased hybrids in Wood Buffalo National Park and the healthy wood bison in the Mackenzie River Basin. Any buffalo found in this area are not considered wildlife and do not fall under any management plans. They can be hazed, captured or hunted, and local hunters do not require permits.
Fortunately, not many wander into this zone.
Conservation in the 20th century consisted of creating habitat, capturing, testing, slaughtering, relocating, interbreeding, hand rearing, herding, hunting, vaccinating and radio collaring. An ‘Armageddon’ solution for the WBNP herd was being proposed as late as the 1990’s.
These practices continued into this century. As always, science too often takes a back seat to political influences like industry and settlement, and a logical approach to wildlife management is still an elusive promise.
No one is quite sure how Walking Coyote came to have those buffalo in his possession.
Those four orphan calves, as they passed their legacy from Walking Coyote to the numerous National Parks, Reserves and ranches around North America, have become legendary.
They helped reestablish the buffalo in North America and saved the plains buffalo from extinction.
They also played a part in the ongoing bureaucratic nightmare which saw the last continuously wild plains buffalo herd infected with brucellosis, a new hybrid species created, and the near extinction of the wood buffalo.
The grassroots efforts of groups like Buffalo Field Campaign may herald a new era in bison conservation, one in which all the voices involved have a chance to be herd, including the buffalo themselves.