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Bison Roundup

 



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Overview
For thousands of years, bison (the North American buffalo) traveled widely over the western plains of North America, grazing on prairie grasses and finding drinking water with their acute sense of smell. These enormous animals can stand as tall as six feet and weigh up to 2,200 pounds. Plains Indians hunted bison, using almost every part of the animal in some way. They ate the meat, fashioned weapons from bones, ground hoofs into glue, and made hides into ropes, blankets, clothing, and shelters. Even bison droppings served as a source of fuel. The Native Americans adapted their way of life to follow the bison herd as it randomly moved across its large home range. Less than 200 years ago, over 60 million bison roamed the western grasslands. Settlers described herds so dense and covering such a large area that the ground shook and the prairie appeared to move as they ranged the grasslands. By the late 1800s, however, less than 1,000 bison survived. Experts link the decline directly to the movement of cattle onto the plains. Cattlemen recognized the uniqueness of the plains country. Unlike eastern grasses, wild western grasses of the plains resisted drought and dried out on the open ground, providing nourishment for cattle even during winter. The cattlemen felt they faced one problem, however. Buffalo and Native Americans already occupied the grasslands. As long as they remained, the land couldn't be converted to pasture for cattle. Because people thought the bison population was limitless, few laws protected the animals. Their size and gregarious (social) behavior made bison easy targets. From 1872 to 1874 alone, over three million were killed. Railroads and the army contracted with hunters like Buffalo Bill to supply buffalo meat for employees and soldiers. Professional hides men moved into the area, hoping to make big profits off the valuable hides, and homesteaders came to settle the new land. By the late 1800s, the animal was virtually eliminated from the western plains. This dramatically affected Native Americans. Robbed of their livelihood, entire nations surrendered to the U.S. government. Most were driven onto reservations where they became totally dependent on the government. Luckily, bison were never completely eradicated. Today, about 120,000 survive. Gone are the days when huge herds roamed the prairie. Instead, constrained by boundaries and surrounded by people, bison live a life quite different from that of earlier days.

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