Why the Buffalo Roam

Contrary to popular myth and legend, the fabled American plains buffalo were not saved by the US government. They are not even true buffalo. They are bison (Bison bison) (true buffalo have 13 pairs of ribs, while bison have 14 pairs), and they were saved by private conservationists, mostly on private land and primarily for profit. Without these private bison owners, the American "buffalo" of western lore today would be long gone.

Individual entrepreneurs rescued bison from the "buffalo commons" long before federal and state government agencies began to act. In truth, it was private conservationists who saved the American bison from extinction. "Bison were initially saved by six individuals who either saw business opportunities in the existence of bison or simply wanted to save a vanishing species," wrote Valerius Geist, a University of Calgary ecologist and author of Buffalo Nation: The History and Legend of the North American Bison, in 1996. "Beginning in the 1870s, these six men captured the bison from which virtually all plains bison have descended: James McKay, Charles Allowav, Charles Goodnight, Walking Coyote, Frederic Dupree, and Charles ‘Buffalo’ Jones."

Most of today’s bison are direct descendants of animals rescued and bred by private individuals. Of the approximately 250,000 bison in North America today, 20,000-25,000 are in Native American or public herds, meaning that at least 90 percent of today’s bison are in privately owned herds. Every true environmentalist owes America’s first game ranchers, the bison’s saviors, a debt of gratitude for rescuing and conserving what few animals government "protection" left on the range.

In 1905, the year the American Bison Society was formed, there were only 29 bison under government control: 21 in Yellowstone and 8 on display at the Mall in Washington, DC. All 29 were acquired from private conservationists. In Yellowstone National Park roamed another 20-25 "wild" bison, whose ultimate fate is not clear. A census in 1903 by William Hornaday showed 41 herd owners in 24 states with a total of at least 969 bison. That means the government protected just over 5 percent of all the American bison in the world, a figure that has risen to just under 10 percent during the past 95 years.

American bison represent perhaps the single most spectacular wildlife recovery success in North American history, and it occurred precisely because this one native species made the rare transition from public property to private property.

Excerpted with permission from "Where the Buffalo Roam, and Why" (Exotic Wildlife, January/February 1999) by Ike Sugg, Director of the Exotic Wildlife Association of Texas and an adjunct CPC scholar. This research is part of an ongoing CPC bison project.

CEI’s Center for Private Conservation (www.cei.org/cpc/index.html) studies and promotes private, non-governmental efforts to advance environmental objectives.