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The Vanishing Beasts

Explore the history of the buffalo in America and learn how the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux tribes are working to restore the buffalo to tribal lands.

By Talia Cowen
From the April 2021 Issue

Learning Objective: to create an awareness campaign drawing on two nonfiction texts about the plight of the buffalo

Lexile: 930L
Other Key Skills: author’s craft, cause and effect, compare and contrast, key ideas, problem and solution

Story Navigation

AS YOU READ

As you read the articles and study the images, think about why buffalo are important.

The Vanishing Beasts

Two hundred years ago, millions of giant creatures roamed the Great Plains. What happened to them?

Let’s take a trip through time to the early 1800s—to the Great Plains of the United States. Nestled between the jagged Rocky Mountains and the winding Mississippi River, this seemingly endless stretch of flat land is covered with grass so tall it tickles your nose. Watch your step—rattlesnakes slither through the soft dirt. Take care to avoid prairie dog holes too—you could trip and break your ankle.

Thousands of people live in this vast area, members of American Indian tribes including the Pawnee and the Lakota. Nevertheless, you could wander for days through the prairie and not see another person. And at this moment, you are alone. All is quiet except for the rustle of swaying grass.

But then . . . the ground shakes. A deep rumble reaches your ears, causing your heart to skip a beat. At first, all you see is a cloud of dust in the distance.

Tornado? No. It’s too low to the ground.

Tsunami? No. You are hundreds of miles from any ocean.

Train? No. Trains won’t arrive in this part of America for another 50 years.

The sound grows louder. And now you see it: an enormous herd of animals. There must be hundreds of these creatures, maybe thousands. They’re covered with shaggy fur, and each one is a behemoth—bigger than a horse.

Run!

You need to get out of the way before you’re trampled.

OK—you’re safely back in 2021. And you’ve just had the honor of observing one of the most important animals in the history of North America: the buffalo. More than 30 million of these majestic beasts once ruled the continent. Today, though, they are mostly gone.

How is that possible? How could 30 million giant animals vanish?

Jim McMahon/Mapman®

Pounding Hooves

Jim West/Alamy Stock Photo

To explore those questions, we have to take another trip, this time almost 115,000 years into the past. This was during the Ice Age, when slow-moving rivers of ice called glaciers covered much of North America.

Buffalo, also called bison, shared this frozen land with many different animals: hairy elephant-like creatures called mastodons, giant saber-toothed cats with teeth longer than icicles, prowling packs of 150-pound dire wolves.

Then, about 11,000 years ago, Earth began warming. Glaciers melted into lakes. Sea levels rose as ice sheets turned to water. Summers became hotter and longer.

Many Ice Age creatures could not survive in this new environment and went extinct. But buffalo were adaptable. Most settled in the region we now call the Great Plains, which extends in a band from Texas all the way up into Canada.

The buffalo helped the ecosystem of the Great Plains become what it is today. Their pounding hooves stomped grass seeds into the ground and loosened the dirt, allowing oxygen and rainwater to reach the grass’s roots. This grass became a key source of food for buffalo and other animals, like prairie dogs and jackrabbits. When a buffalo died, its body became food for foxes and coyotes; what remained melted into the earth, feeding the soil.

Few animals dared take on the buffalo. Their large, pointy horns were lethal weapons, their hides too thick for all but the sharpest teeth and claws to pierce. But one predator was undaunted: humans.

PSF Collection/Alamy Stock Photo

This drawing was created in the 1860s by Martin S. Garretson, who passionately advocated for saving buffalo from extinction. He documented the dwindling herds through his art. Between 1872 and 1874, an average of 5,000 buffalo were killed every day.

Deadly Hunters

For the many American Indian tribes and nations that made their home on the Great Plains, hunting buffalo was key to their survival. Members of the Siksikaitsitapi tribe, also known as the Blackfeet Nation, steered herds into giant traps. Hidatsa hunters disguised themselves as wolves and fired arrows at the animals. The buffalo’s meat was an important source of food, and the bones and skin were used to make clothing, shelter, and tools.

For centuries, buffalo and humans lived side by side. Buffalo nourished humans as well as the Plains ecosystem. Humans hunted just enough buffalo to keep herds from overtaking the land. Many tribes honored this important creature with special dances and ceremonies.

But starting in the 1500s, the Great Plains began to change—and so did the way buffalo were hunted. Newcomers began arriving from Europe. They introduced horses and guns to America. By the 1700s, white hunters were racing after herds at high speeds, felling hundreds of buffalo in a single day.

The 1870s brought even deadlier hunters to the Great Plains: hidemen. These were white men from the East Coast who saw hunting buffalo as a way to get rich. They killed millions of buffalo and sold the prized hides. In some towns, hides were stacked so high that they cast shadows over buildings.

Hi-Story/Alamy Stock Photo

This photo of a pile of buffalo skulls was taken in 1892. By that time, there were almost no free-ranging buffalo left in the U.S.

Bloody Clashes

At the same time, new railroads were being built to connect East Coast cities with the West. Trains were bringing more and more people to the Plains. These newcomers stole land from the American Indian peoples already living there. Bloody clashes broke out when the Plains peoples refused to give up their land quietly. The U.S. Army was called in to force them off.

General Philip Sheridan, one of the leaders of the Army, sought to defeat the American Indian peoples by destroying the buffalo, the animal they depended on for survival. He encouraged soldiers and hidemen to kill as many as possible. “Let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated,” he said. Millions more buffalo were slaughtered.

The mass killing of buffalo was just one of the many horrors that American Indian peoples of the Plains faced at the hands of the newcomers. They also suffered starvation, violence, and disease. They were driven from the lands they had lived on for thousands of years. Still, many survived to pass on their stories, customs, and traditions—including a deep respect for the buffalo.

Into the Future

By the end of the 19th century, fewer than 100 wild buffalo wandered the Great Plains. Today, however, the numbers have improved; there are now about 4,000 wild buffalo in the U.S. The increase is due to the work of a few determined people, including many American Indian peoples, to reintroduce buffalo to their ancestral habitats. Without such efforts, the buffalo would likely be extinct.

Now let’s take one last trip, into the future. You arrive on the Great Plains. Flying cars zip through the air.

Look around. Do you see any herds of buffalo stampeding across the grasslands?

Let’s hope you do.

Return of the Buffalo   

American Indian tribes lead the way in bringing the buffalo back to the wild.

The silver trailers cross the grassy plain, rolling to a stop in a line. From inside the trailers come strange noises: snorting, banging, the knocking and scraping of hooves. These are the sounds of giant beasts, waiting to break free.

All at once, the trailer doors open, and out charge 63 buffalo, thundering onto the prairie.

It is the winter of 2012. On American Indian land in Montana, after a 120-year absence, these buffalo are coming home.

The Buffalo's Rightful Place

Behind this historic moment lay more than five years of hard work by the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux tribes. In 2007, tribal members had the idea of returning a small herd of wild buffalo to their lands. At the time, the largest wild buffalo herd was in Yellowstone National Park—a vast protected wilderness in Wyoming and parts of Montana and Idaho. Inside Yellowstone, the herd had grown to about 5,000—too many for the park ecosystem to support. There wasn’t enough grass and open land for such a large herd to live in a healthy way. Thousands of buffalo had been culled over the years to protect the herd and the land.

The Fort Peck tribes wanted to save some of these buffalo and bring them back to tribal land, to their place at the center of tribal life. But the tribes immediately ran into problems. Ranchers in Montana opposed moving the buffalo. They worried about a disease called brucellosis that half the Yellowstone buffalo carried. This disease affects cattle and can cause their babies to die before they are born.

Finally, in 2012, after a long legal battle, the Montana Supreme Court ruled in the tribes’ favor. Yellowstone Buffalo could finally be brought to Fort Peck land.

NPS Photo/Alamy Stock Photo

A buffalo brought from Yellowstone is released onto Fort Peck tribal lands in August 2019.

Joy, Hope, and Pride

© WWF/Day’s Edge Productions

Now, thanks to the Fort Peck Buffalo Program—and with help from the National Park Service, Defenders of  Wildlife, the World Wildlife Fund, and several other organizations—303 Yellowstone buffalo have been relocated to Fort Peck tribal lands. For the Assiniboine and Sioux, the buffalo bring joy, pride, and hope—like seeing a long-lost family member finally come home.

One of the leaders of the buffalo program is Jonny BearCub Stiffarm. She says that when she was a child, “We only read about buffalo in books or saw them at a zoo. Now, as our children grow up, buffalo will always have been part of their lives.”

The Fort Peck Buffalo Program saves as many as 100 Yellowstone buffalo every year. When these buffalo arrive at Fort Peck, they are quarantined until they can be tested for brucellosis. Some will be added to the Fort Peck herd. Others will be sent to 16 tribes across the United States. This will enable the tribes to form their own buffalo herds on their lands.

On Their Way

The goal is to establish at least 1,000 buffalo in herds on American Indian lands. These herds will help restore the grasslands, bringing new bird and plant life. And they will preserve the buffalo’s place in the history, culture, and spirituality of the tribes, enabling American Indians to once again perform traditional ceremonies, make traditional medicines, and cook traditional foods that incorporate parts of the buffalo.

This past August, a trailer arrived at Fort Peck to carry 40 buffalo to new tribal homes in Kansas, Wisconsin, and Alaska. Wishing them well, members from the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes gathered in a drumming group called Tatanka Oyate, which means “Buffalo Nation.”

They drummed loudly as the buffalo were herded into the trailer, thanking them, blessing them, and sending them on their way.

Writing Prompt

Imagine that you work for a conservation group focused on raising public awareness about buffalo. Design a slideshow, a social media campaign, or a poster for the group that explains why buffalo are important and why they should be protected. 

This article was originally published in the April 2021 issue.

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Activities (11)
Quizzes (1)
Answer Key (1)
Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

Close Reading, Critical Thinking, Skill Building

1. PREPARING TO READ (10 MINUTES)

2. READING AND DISCUSSING (45 MINUTES)

3. SKILL BUILDING AND WRITING (20 MINUTES)

4. MEET THE AUTHORS (10 MINUTES)