What Caused The Near Extinction Of Bison?

Wood Bison

Bison are regarded as one of the most recognizable animals of North America. Before the 1800s, bison were found in large numbers in the Great Plains of the United States, but were reduced to less than a few hundred by the late 1880’s. 

Bison were hunted in huge numbers for their hides, to reduce problems with railroads, and to take away the major food source from the Native Americans.

Bison were slaughtered in unbelievably huge numbers. If you want to know the main reasons why the bison were almost hunted to extinction, please read on.

What Are Bison?

Bison are large wild animals that belong to genus Bison and subfamily Bovinae. Today, there are only two surviving bison species. Of the two species, the American Bison is the largest most populous.

Wood Bison
Wood Bison

Many people confuse bison and buffalo, with some calling the American bison a buffalo.  However, buffalo live in South Asia and Africa, not North America, and are a different species.

If you would like to know more information on bison, I have written a complete guide. You can find this here.

What Caused The Near Extinction Of Bison? 

The near-extinction of this species was due to a few different reasons. 

Below are some of the main reasons why the numbers for the bison population in North America reduced significantly. 

Plains Bison
Plains Bison

The War On The Native Americans

Following the Civil War, land designated to Native Americans was far from their main food source of bison.  Many natives were forced away from their reservations, causing problems with local settlers and wagon trains that were passing the area.

Native Americans used all parts of the bison and were the main source of food for them.  The military wanted to get rid of Plains Indians, and to do this, they wanted to take away their source of food.  Without a source of food, natives would be forced to live on their reservations.

Many bison were killed on behalf of the U.S. military, with the meat left to rot, so that the natives could not live off them.

Wood Bison
Wood Bison

The military recognized that a way to control the natives by taking away their food source.  Native Americans had to rely on rations from the government to survive, effectively taking away their freedom.

The bison is a keystone species. To find out why, I have written an article which you can find here.

Railway Roads

Another reason why bison nearly went into extinction is that the railway authorities wanted to see Bison populations reduced.  

By thinning the population, the risks that bison posed to collisions with locomotives reduced.  With trains not as efficient as stopping, bison could cause damage to trains.  

Train tracks often cut through mountains and hills.  Herds of bison would use these cuts in cold areas to take shelter, delaying trains sometimes for days.

Plains Bison
Plains Bison

Another reason why the railway roads caused a dramatic decline in the population of bison is that some railroad authorities had to feed their workers.  Some railway companies hired hunters to kill bison to feed their workers.

With the increase in railway transport, hunting of buffalo became even easier.  Hunters would sit on top of the roofs of the trains while the trains slowed down to the speed of the bison herd.  

Hunters would then be able to shoot the bison from the train.  With more hunters arriving, bison numbers dwindled in the areas around the passing trains rapidly.

Bison Hide

Bison hides were precious, and one of the main reasons why many people started hunting the animal. 

Plains Bison
Plains Bison

Most professional hunters were given instructions, and their paychecks, from the government and the railroad authorities.  

Hunters would kill as many bison as they possibly could, with some stating that the only reason they would stop was if the skinners could not keep up.  Bison hides were used to make rugs and robes. 

Bison Were Easy To Hunt

Due to the way that bison roam, hunters found that they were easy to kill.  Bison are relatively slow, lumbering animals.  Although they can attack, they are not as fearsome or dangerous as a big cat such as a panther.  Bison were very easy to hunt, allowing hunters to kill many of them.  

Plains Bison
Plains Bison

When a bison dies, bison will gather around the dead bison.  With this behavior, huge amounts of bison were able to be dispatched efficiently and quickly.

Habitat Loss

In North America, the bison population dropped drastically because of the increase in ranching and farming activities.  In the 18th century, there was a massive increase in human activity.  By moving into these areas, humans cleared trees, reducing some of the bison’s native habitat. 

Industrial Hunting

Many people hunted these animals for their meat, but there were many industrial uses for their hides, hooves, and bones. 

Non-indigenous hunters practiced hunting in huge numbers. With such a demand in the market, the populations of bison decreased very quickly.


Hunting increased further as the demand for bison tongue, and their hides increased.  Most hunters of them would cut out the tongue, remove the hide, and leave the rest of the body there to decay, wasting the huge amount of meat that was available. 

There was also an increased demand for the bones of bison.  With the bone’s needs, the bodies were left in the heat to rot.

After the bison had decayed completely, the hunters would come for their bones that were shipped to the east in large numbers. 

Hunting Methods

As social changes came with the European-American arrivals to the west of the country, more advanced hunting tactics and weapons were used. 

Plains Bison
Plains Bison

This meant that hunting these big animals became easier and faster.  In a day, almost 50 Bison could be killed by a single hunter. 

History of Bison

Before inhabitants of the United States started hunting these animals, it is claimed that more than 100 million bison roamed North America. 

In the 19th century, during the century of the Lewis and Clark expeditions, people from the west started settling in the U.S.   

At this time, there was a large increase in hunting, which played a role in the decline of bison numbers. 

Before people settled, bison roamed North America, extending to Canada and Mexico.  Many people expected that in the 20th century, the slaughter would reduce, which was not the case. 


People continued to hunt for them until they were eliminated from several areas, including the whole of Mexico. 

Due to human activities, these animals disappeared from all areas east of the Mississippi River. The slaughter of these animals continued until 1830, and by 1880, herds in most areas were almost extinct. 

When Were Bison Most Threatened? 

Bison became threatened during the 1800s.  This is the time when many people looked at these animals for their hides, bones, and tongues. 

In recent years, the need to take care of these species has increased drastically. 

Do Bison Have Any Benefits? 

Bison have benefits to the economy and specific individuals. Many people eat bison meat because of its high nutritional value, while others enjoy watching bison in the National Parks. 


Bison are herbivores, which means they connect plants with predators and other animals on the food chain. Bison also sustain numerous predators, making the chain complete.     

How Many Bison Are Left In North America?

According to statistics, there are 500,000 bison in the U.S. There are approximately 5,000 individuals found in Yellowstone. 

Due to government efforts, bison numbers are increasing significantly, with the population expected to rise further in the future.  

In the 18th century, there were about 30 million bison in North America. Their numbers reduced after the mass slaughter that began in the 1800s. 

Are Bison Endangered? 

On the IUCN Red List, bison are not classed as endangered.  However, they are classed as nearly threatened. 


The government is taking action to save the species.  Bison are mostly threatened by genetic diversity, human activity, and habitat loss.

Are There Any Pure Bison Left?

Until recently, there were only two pure American bison known to exist in North America. Through a recent study, it was found that there was another herd in Utah’s Henry Mountains.  These bison are believed to be truly wild and disease-free. 

The Yellowstone Park Bison is also known to be genetically pure, with no evidence of significant hybridization between cattle and these bison. 

What Were The Solutions?

During the 1800s, most societies were not educated on the needs of animal preservation. Most people didn’t care about bison during the 1800s except for their hides and meat. 

There were several organizations and people, including Buffalo Bill Cody, that pleaded with the public to save this species. Buffalo Bill was the bison hunter who claimed that he would protect the species. 


Despite his complaints and efforts, bison were not protected until the early years of the 20th century. In the 20th century, the majority of people had all the necessary education, and more organizations came forward to save the species. 

In the 20th century, one herd was preserved in Montana and another one in South Dakota to protect the animals, keeping them from extinction.

Bryan Harding

Bryan has spent his whole life around animals. While loving all animals, Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Not only does Bryan share his knowledge and experience with our readers, but he also serves as owner, editor, and publisher of North American Mammals.

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