From 60 million buffalo in 1830 to 23 free-ranging animals in 1884 – 54 years. How did men accomplish this? They slaughtered and slaughtered and slaughtered.
Some states and territories passed laws to try to save the American buffalo. Idaho in 1864. Too late. There wasn’t a single buffalo left in Idaho. In 1871, Wyoming passed a law making it illegal to waste buffalo meat. It wasn’t enforced. Kansas passed the same law in 1872. The governor vetoed it. In 1880, New Mexico passed a law to save the buffalo. Like Idaho, they actually had no buffalo to save.
In 1884, Congress passed legislation to save the buffalo. Pres. Ulysses Grant refused to sign it into law. In 1885, the Texas legislature wanted to save the buffalo. Gen. Phil Sheridan talked them out of it, saying the only way to control the Native Americans was to destroy the buffalo. The buffalo was sacred to the Native Americans, never killed wantonly, and every part of a killed animal was used.
White hunters did not have the same respect for the buffalo. They wanted the hide and the tongue. The rest was left to rot. Or sometimes, they just shot them out of the open windows of trains. In the 1880s, hunters in the northern United States assumed the great herds had moved north, to Canada. They hadn’t. They were all dead.
In 1884, only 23 buffalo were alive and free-ranging in the United States. Another 300 were on ranches, but these had been interbred with cattle, so their DNA was not pure.
In 1886, the wife of a Texas rancher named Charles Goodnight talked him into saving the buffalo. He captured a few buffalo and started a herd. In 1873, James McKay did the same thing in Canada, managing to capture five buffalo.
From these small beginnings, this magnificent animal was rescued from extinction. When a species dwindles down to a few animals and then survives, a DNA bottleneck occurs, but the buffalo show few, if any, ill-effects from such a limited gene pool.
Today, we can see this majestic animal, with five million years of history, related to the European wisent and the extinct auroch, in herds on private ranches and on public lands, looking like it just stepped off the walls of caves paintings done 30,000 years ago. In 2016, the U.S. named its first ever official animal – the American buffalo.