The subject of Rep. Don Young’s good intentions roaming the National Bison Range in Montana/Paul Frederickson at Wikimedia Commons

Leave it Alaska Rep. Don Young, the congressman for all Alaska, to convince his colleagues in the House of Representatives to rewrite history.

Young is the sponsor of the House-approved “Indian Buffalo Management Act” that declares “buffalo sustained a majority of Indian Tribes in North America for many centuries before  buffalo were nearly exterminated by non-Indian hunters in the mid-1800s.”

The first part of that claim is debatable. Though bison once ranged most of the North American continent from the Appalachian Mountains in the east to the Rocky Mountains in the west, they were mainly a source of sustenance for the Plains Indians.

The Iroquois, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and other Native Americans of the northeast largely depended on a diet of corn, beans, squash, deer, fish, waterbirds, leaves, seeds, tubers, berries, roots, and nuts, according to authorities on Indian history, and the Native Americans of the Pacific Coast were heavily dependent on salmon.

It is hard to say what sustained “the majority of Indian tribes” on the continent before the Caucasian invasion from Europe, but it probably wasn’t buffalo, although it is equally certain the animals were in the mix wherever they were found.

What led to their near extinction, unfortunately, wasn’t just “non-Indian hunters;” it was almost everybody then on the Western Plains, including the Indians.

The New York Times put the white-man-did-it myth to bed in 1999 – long before today’s “fact checking” became a craze. It quoted researcher Andrew Isenberg’s observation that “before the 1840’s, 60,000 Plains Indians were killing half a million bison a year for sustenance. After the robe trade began in the 1840’s, that total went over 600,000 a year.”


A professor of history at the University of Kansas, Isenberg is the author of “The Destruction of the Bison – An Environmental History, 1750–1920,” which is considered the definitive book on the massacre of the bison.

Non-Indians were a significant player in the destruction, but they weren’t alone. And if non-Indians are to be fairly blamed for anything, it is not for the hunting but for a European-born idea – capitalism – that fueled the blood lust.

The beauty of capitalism is that it gives people the liberty to make choices to better their lives. The dirty underbelly of capitalism is that people often make poor choices, and natural ecosystems did not evolve to support the philosophy.

Enter the tragedy of the commons.

The late Garrett Hardin, a professor of human ecology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, credited William Forster Lloyd, a political economist at Oxford University, for the first recognition of the damage humans can do to so-called “common property” resources shared by everyone.

In a perfect world, Hardin subsequently wrote, individuals might be able to avoid the temptation to over-harvest resources sans all kinds of conservation rules and regulations laid down by governments.

“That is, if all men were angels,” he added. “But in a world in which all resources are limited, a single nonangel in the commons spoils the environment for all.

“The spoilage process comes in two stages. First, the non-angel gains from his ‘competitive advantage’ (pursuing his own interest at the expense of others) over the angels. Then, as the once noble angels realize that they are losing out, some of them renounce their angelic behavior. They try to get their share out of the commons before competitors do….An unmanaged commons in a world of limited material wealth and unlimited desires inevitably ends in ruin. Inevitability justifies the epithet ‘tragedy,’ which I introduced in 1968.”

Everyone was guilty

The massacre of the bison in which so many took part – Indians, white hunters, the railroads which saw in the bison a cheap way to feed those laying down the rails across North America and the U.S. government which believed ” the buffalo should be killed to deprive the (warring Plains) Indians of food” as Col. William B. Hazen put it in 1832.

Hazen thought the policy misguided as did others. Wyoming in 1871 passed a law prohibiting the waste of bison meat. Kansas followed suit in 1872 as did Colorado. There was, however, no enforcement.

A history of Congressional efforts to curb the massacre put together by Rhonda Fraiser, a consultant on bison conservation, records national legislation high-centering on arguments over who should be allowed to kill bison, only Indians or everyone; who was to blame for the massacre, only white hunters or everyone; and some plain old racism against Native Americans. 

It was a different time, and pubic resources were looked upon in a different way. “Market hunting” – the wanton killing of wildlife for sale as food, hides or feathers – was legal in the U.S. into the 1900s. 

At the start of the 1900s in Alaska, a Juneau grand jury petitioned Congress to restrict the hunting of deer for hides in the state’s Panhandle in fear the Sitka blacktails there would be exterminated.

It happened here, too

“The slaughter of game in this country is becoming monstrous,” U.S. District Court Judge Melville Brown reported. “It is said that no less than 15,000 deer hides were shipped out of Southeast Alaska during last season. It is altogether probable that the slaughter of deer will be as great this winter. 

“The result is self-evident; that within two or three years, the game supply will be wholly exhausted and the natives left without food supply, and in order to live they will have to be subsisted by the government.

“The Natives slaughter this game, not for food purposes, but to secure the price they obtain for the hides, which is a very trifling sum – some 40 cents on the average. Of course, they use such portions of the animal for food as their immediate necessities demand, but it is safe to say that nine-tenths of the deer slaughtered are left upon the ground to rot.”

The killing wasn’t done with ill intent. It was done to make some money.


So it was with the bison before and so it would be with the passenger pigeon later. That species was hunted to near extinction in the wild in 1900 with the last of the breeds – a species that had once existed in such numbers that the flocks were reported to darken the skies –  dead in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.

That massacre can be almost wholly pinned on the “non-Indians.”

Contemporary environmentalism arrived too late to prevent the passenger pigeon’s demise,”  Barry Yeoman wrote in Audubon magazine on the 100th anniversary of the species’ extinction. “But the two phenomena share a historical connection.

“‘The extinction was part of the motivation for the birth of modern 20th century conservation,’ says (University of Wisconsin professor Stanley Temple. In 1900…Republican Congressman John F. Lacey of Iowa introduced the nation’s first wildlife-protection law, which banned the interstate shipping of unlawfully killed game.

“‘The wild pigeon, formerly in flocks of millions, has entirely disappeared from the face of the earth,’ Lacey said on the House floor. “We have given an awful exhibition of slaughter and destruction, which may serve as a warning to all mankind. Let us now give an example of wise conservation of what remains of the gifts of nature.’

“That year Congress passed the Lacey Act, followed by the tougher Weeks-McLean Act in 1913 and, five years later, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which protected not just birds but also their eggs, nests, and feathers.”

This marked the beginning of the end of laissez-faire capitalism in the marketing of wildlife, where the demands of humans of all races and cultures have regularly outstripped the supply nature can produce.

It’s not a Native thing; it’s not a non-Native thing. It is, paleontologists now argue, a common thing that tracks all the way back to the common ancestors of us all.

“As [hominids] migrated out of Africa, you see this incredibly regular pattern of extinction,” Felisa Smith, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of New Mexico told LiveScience last year.

Smith studies how animals’ body sizes have changed over the course of history. She and colleagues in a 2018 study published a peer-reviewed study showing that as humans migrated into new territories, large-bodied species – elephants, bears and more – started going extinct and disappeared in a few hundred to 1,000 years.

Those big animals are the easiest for hunters to find and thus kill, and the bison would have followed their big, prehistoric cousins into extinction if not for last-minute conservation efforts to save them.

We humans are killers on the scale of the asteroid that wiped out the non-avian dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Until we show up in the prehistoric record, Smith said, there are no other rapid extinctions of mega-fauna.

“The only time you see it is when humans are involved, which is really striking,” she told LiveScience.





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6 replies »

  1. well
    yes and no
    Dirty Don is propagating the noble savage myth-which is wrong on so many levels.

    The introduction of horses and firearms by europeans was a hunting game changer-so hard to not see a correlation with increased over harvesting through European influence.

  2. Great work Craig, I hope you can do something about the claims of deliberate infection of smallpox as being the cause of the massive population loss from EuroAsian diseases after the Europeans came to the Americas. There was some, but the real problem was a lack of inherited immunity because of the long term population isolation.

  3. “Until we show up in the prehistoric record, Smith said, there are no other rapid extinctions of mega-fauna.” Let’s not forget that mass migrations of humans also occurs during periods of rapid climate change, to decouple the two and blame humanity and humanity alone for the rapid extinction events isn’t telling the whole story. Some estimates show that when humans colonized the Americas at the end of the last ice age the loss of mega fauna led to a drop in methane production of close to 10 million tons a year which may have led to the Younger Dryas.

  4. Great job Craig, Lots of “correct” history in a short article. One thing not really noted in you short history paper was, the US government paying bounties on bison. This only added fuel to the fire. As for the “the congressman for all Alaska”, maybe he should have corresponded with Alaska first, before sponsoring a bill, that is not good for Alaskans, our management of wildlife, and our goals to reintroduce Wood Bison into Alaska. The congressman got it wrong on this bill.

  5. “the U.S. government which believed ” the buffalo should be killed to deprive the (warring Plains) Indians of food” as Col. William B. Hazen put it in 1832.”

    For roughly 50 years the U.S government fought an on and off war with the mobile Comanches to make the great plains safe for settlement. The Comanches resisted the encroachment on territory they considered theirs and held the US Army to a standoff because the Army had great difficulty finding the Comanches in that vast unsettled plain and when the Comanche chose to engage, they were better at fighting on their horses.
    No settler along that frontier was safe from Comanche raids, in particular their night raids during full moons. The Comanche raided with the same ferocity they utilized when attacking neighboring native tribes prior to the settler’s arrival. They became the dominate group after they mastered horses which gave them huge tactical advantages.
    The government’s buffalo extermination policy was a tactical move that significantly shortened that war. It was a different time. Many then considered the dead buffalo collateral damage in a larger conflict between two warring peoples, neither of whom was interested in compromise.
    “Empire of the Summer Moon” by S.C. Gwynne is an excellent description of this war and the history of the Comanche.

  6. When I was a boy in the 50s, I’d be regaled by stories of the Passenger Pigeon and Chestnut trees by oldsters who could wistfully remember both. Nothern Pa. had lots of Beech and Chestnut trees back in the 1800s and early 1900s to lure the pigeons to our area.. The Beech still remain, but are currently under assault by imported insects and a fungus. The Chestnuts that helped feed my father’s family during his youth have gone, but efforts are being made to bring them back.

    I’d hear tales of numbers of birds so great they’d “darken the sky” and black nets stretched across local valleys to catch pigeons by the tens of thousands. These adult birds (or more valuable squabs when available) would be salted, placed in casks, and shipped down river, some as far as New Orleans, to be shipped to Europe.

    Stories of birds so plentiful as to bend and break tree limbs were exciting to hear, but met with suspect by us kids.

    Having fished the Anchor River for almost 50 years and Park Highway Streams an equal number of years, I can see we currently have our own Passenger Pigeons. And then there’s the Mulchatna herd…

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