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What Caused The Near Extinction Of Bison?

The bison is regarded as one of the most recognizable animals in North America. Before the 1800s, bison were found in many millions in the Great Plains of the United States but were almost extinct by the late 1880s. 

Bison were hunted in huge numbers for the cost of their hides. They were also hunted to reduce railroad problems and take away a major food source from the Native Americans.

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

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

There are three main reasons why animals become extinct.  Do you know what they are?

Wood Bison

Many people confuse bison and buffalo, with some calling the American bison a buffalo.  However, buffalo live in South Asia and Africa 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.

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 passing the area.

All parts of the bison were used by Native Americans and were a main food source.  The military wanted to get rid of the threat of Plains Indians, and decided to take away their source of food.  Without a source of food, natives would be forced to live on reservations.

The military realized that to control them, they had to take away their food source.  Native Americans had to rely on rations from the government to survive, effectively taking away their freedom.

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

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


Another reason why bison nearly went extinct is that the railway authorities wanted to reduce their population.  

Bison were a threat to the booming locomotive business as they caused collisions. By thinning the population, the risks were reduced.  With trains not efficient at braking, bison could cause lots of damage.  

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

Another reason the railroads caused a dramatic decline in the bison population was to feed their workers.  Some railway companies hired hunters to kill bison to feed their workers the meat.

With the increase in the number of trains, the hunting of buffalo became easier.  Hunters would sit on top of the train roofs while the trains slowed down to the bison herd’s speed.  

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

Bison Hide

Bison hides were expensive and one of the main reasons why many started hunting the animal. 

Many professional hunters were given instructions, and their paychecks, from government and 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 people skinning them could not keep up. 

Easy To Hunt

Due to the way that bison roam, hunters found that they were easy to kill.  Bison are slow, lumbering animals.  Although they can attack, they are not as dangerous as a big cat.  Bison were easy to hunt, allowing hunters easy pickings.

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

Plains Bison

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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 would cut out the tongue, remove the hide, and leave the rest of the body there to decay, wasting the huge amount of meat available. 

There was also an increased demand for the bones.  When bones were needed, 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. 

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

Bears can often be seen playing with each other, but do you know why?  Find out in this article I wrote

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 most of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.  Many people expected that in the 20th century, the slaughter would reduce, but this was not the case. 

People continued to hunt bison 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. 

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 increase 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 near threatened. 


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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 with cattle.

What Were The Solutions?

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

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

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

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

Want to know how mammals adapt to winter? Find out in this article I wrote.