History of the North American Bison

An incredible captivating story of survival, unity, compassion, and healing. 

Native The Prodigies of an Icon will start with a recap of the history of the North American Bison.  A story of a species that once roamed the vast landscape of nearly the entire North American continent.  While it’s population size varied from indigenous hunting and varying climates since prehistoric times, its ultimate demise came through a series of unfortunate events.

In the 1500’s it is estimated that nearly 60 million bison roamed the North American Landscape. 

Between the 1500’s and the 1800’s the bison population rapidly dwindled from disease, hunting, and habitat loss to an estimated 325 wild bison in the United States by 1884 (25 in Yellowstone).

As the population of bison was decimated across North America, so to was the ecosystem. Without large populations of ruminants maintaining North America’s grass lands the bread basket of America faced severe desertification which helped cause the dust bowl of the 1930’s.  Their disappearance from northeastern woodlands lead to degenerative forests and likely increased plant diseases which may have fed into the loss of species. The loss of the bison, crippled North America. 

The modern day story of bison began in the 1860’s as conservation efforts to protect the bison began to take root. Idaho passed the first law protecting bison in 1864.  In 1866 Charles Goodnight began rounding up bison along the Texas Caprock to preserve the species at the request of his wife.  Goodnights partner sold the herd and in 1879 Goodnight was able to reestablish a slightly larger herd.  Goodnights efforts began feeding the start of an industry that would eventually play a larger role in bison conservation. In 1885 C.J. Jones purchased bison from Goodnight to start a herd. In 1888 Austin Corbin established a herd in New Hampshire’s Blue Mountain Game Preserve. 

By 1899 conservation efforts began with the establishment of the Bronx Zoo herd. In 1901 Congress placed 61,500 acres within the Kiowa, Comanche and Apache Indian Reservation under control of the Department of the Interior establishing the Wichita Forest Reserve. Four years later under Roosevelt the reserve began to reestablish bison from the Bronx Zoo Herd. 

In 1902 Bison restoration began in Yellowstone National Park with sources from Colonel Goodnight (3 Bulls) in Texas and the Pablo-Allard (15 Cows) ranch in western Montana.

By 1905 the bison population began to increase. According to William Hornaday there were a total of 1,722 bison in captivity, of which 1,116 were in the United States, 476 in Canada and 130 in Europe, besides about 300 wild bison in Canada and 25 in the United States. Most of these animals are under the control of 45 private owners in the United States.

In 1919 the bison population had regrown to approximately 12,500. In 1936 ABS estimated the population to be approximately 22,000. 

Nearly 100 years after the great demise of the bison the North American bison population recovered to approximately 275,000 in 1990 with 250,000 head owned by private ranches and 20 to 25 thousand on conservation land. 

Today, 30 years later, that number has more than doubled. 

The bison story is one of the largest conservation successes in the world, lead by ranchers, indigenous tribes, and conservationists. 

NATIVE | The Prodigies of an Icon focuses on the incredible comeback of the bison and it’s modern day role in society.  More than an icon, the animal has an incredible ability, attributed to it’s unique personality,  to inspire the hearts of people across North America. 

As our team has ventured down the road of documenting the bison’s story, we’ve discovered another almost mystic hallmark of this extraordinary species.  Beyond it’s naturally regenerative influence on our ecosystem, or its remarkable story of survival against our best efforts to eliminate it. The bison has managed to unite people of varying political, ethnic, and extreme culturally diverse backgrounds into a single cause even during disruptive social, political, and economic times. 

The cardinal narrative of NATIVE | The Prodigies of an Icon is a story of healing.  The healing of our land, people, and nations. 

Articles worth reading on Bison History:

Bison History Timeline by All About Bison

Bison History In History by All About Bison

The worst animal genocide in history and the greatest recovery from the brink of extinction – Ozark Valley Bison

A Keystone Species

The fragile North American grasslands evolved in concert with the Bison.

Bison are North America’s keystone species.  A large focus of the documentary project will focus on the bison’s regenerative impacts on North American ecology.  Over the past several years a narrative has risen that ungulates,  particularly ruminants are harmful to our environment   ‘They are responsible for producing a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions contributing to anthropogenic climate models’. Contrary to these beliefs, ruminants once roamed the world in mass herds out numbering the number of domestic ruminants today.  Our ecology evolved in concert with these majestic creatures.

Understanding the impact of large ungulates and their regenerative capabilities on our landscape is essential in order to restore centuries of environmental degradation. While the scientific debate of greenhouse gasses has become the forefront of environmental focus, it is arguable that land degradation is of more concern.  The loss of soil and proper forest management have led to ecological disasters that are now impacting the global food supply and our very existence.

Studying the impacts of keystone species is essential to mankind.  While these phenomenal creatures may not be able to freely roam the vast majority of their historical range in a modern world, what we learn from them can influence management of domesticated livestock to increase land productivity and reverse environmental degeradation.