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What America Lost When It Lost the Bison (theatlantic.com)
132 points by pseudolus 15 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 81 comments

> "...would have been even more powerful in centuries past, when 30 to 60 million bison roamed North America. “They would have been everywhere,” says Matthew Kauffman...”

Interestingly, current scientific evidence suggests that this was not at all the "natural state" of North America, and that it was actually a temporary ecological imbalance lasting for a couple centuries after smallpox and other diseases wiped out ~95% of Native Americans after contact from the Europeans -- and suddenly the bison went essentially "unchecked".

Obviously this doesn't change the evil of their almost-extinction or the need for bison as a proper balance -- just that the gigantic hordes of bison that Europeans first witnessed likely isn't the right baseline either.

See "1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus" for a highly readable account of evidence on both sides from 2006.

[1] https://www.amazon.com/1491-Revelations-Americas-Before-Colu...

Presumably they were also unchecked many thousands of years previous, before the arrival of humans?

The arrival of humans could have also coincided with a reduction of the population of predators of bison? Just thinking outloud I'm not exactly sure what the range of wolfs and bears were before the arrival of humans

My dad was a beef cattle farmer. Beef cows are large animals - 800 pounds isn’t unusual - and if you accidentally get between a mama cow and her calf she can kill you. Dad got thrown more than once that way.

He once investigated raising bison. Doing his due diligence, he visited a bison farm. The fences were telephone poles drilled ten feet in the ground, and highway guardrail instead of wire. Dad backed away slowly and stuck to Black Angus.

A friend's parent raises bison. He was checking the herd out from horseback. The bull decided "fuck you in particular" and charged. Bison can hit 65 km/h. Average horse with rider galloping is ~45km/h. He would have been in trouble if his dog didn't distract it in time for him to get away.

The tribe here uses regular cattle fences. As far as I know only two juveniles have gotten out and that was at an entrance.

My godfather has a bison ranch, one of the larger ones.

Regular fences work, as guidance really. If a bison wants to get through, they're weak as water and won't stop them.

You need telephone post thickness fence preferably cemented into the ground if you want to really stop a bison from getting out. If they are in stampede mode, you're screwed, would have to drive I beams into the ground.

Bison treat fences as guidelines really, they'll move around it if they're not in the mood to care, but if they are in a "screw this" mood, that fence is going down.

Note, when I say regular cattle fence, I mean 8 foot posts driven into the ground, with barb wire every foot to 8 inches apart. Anything less and they tend to work their way through it trying to get at grass on the other side and then no more fence. And that wire has to be taut, like string on a guitar play a note tight.

As an anecdote, even with fences like that, he had about 4-5 bison that escaped. Each one got put down to make sure the rest of the herd didn't get escape into their blood.

I didn't realize bison were so rare.

Where I live, there is a race literally called "The Buffalo Run" [1], a few miles outside Salt Lake City. There are bison everywhere including on the race path.

One of them nearly killed a runner a few months ago. [2]

[1] https://www.buffalorunadventures.com/buffalo-run/

[2] https://www.theepochtimes.com/man-gored-trampled-by-a-bison-...

That runner was my brother; we used to run the island very frequently, but now no more. Rare as bison may be, they are incredibly dangerous when too close to people.

I think it’s worth mentioning the unexpected follow-up: after recovering from his injuries, your brother later took a date to the same park, where SHE was attacked by a bison. I’d stay away after all that too!


Oh wow, too weird a coincidence. Glad he's okay now.

My dad was attacked there too. (And no it didn't happen quite like the article said; he didn't stick around to give his name or tell the story.) [1]

[1] https://www.ksl.com/article/24564347

My dream for the United States is that we repopulate everyone to Texas* and let the rest of the country be wild, in varying degrees, and accessible by bullet train. That’s my stance as an avid outdoorsman. Then we could see all this natural majesty flourish.

* I have not looked up the numbers recently, but I recall that we could fit the entire population of the United States in to Texas with a resulting population density less than that of Manhattan. Obviously doing this is not feasible, for a number of reasons.

it wasn't "wild" by the time european colonists arrived. native americans actively managed vast areas with e.g. controlled burning for thousands of years.

EDIT: "For 13,000 years, many Indigenous tribes, including the Hupa, Karuk, Miwok, and Yurok lit controlled fires across northern and central California. This created a mosaic of habitats with a high diversity of species that California is known for today. Through multiple progressions of these practices, many species, such as acorns and huckleberries became associated with these deliberate, low-intensity fires. Despite their fire resistance, they are ill-equipped to tolerate the high-intensity nature of modern wildfires in California."


Moving everyone in the US to Texas would only result in 0.2% of the population density of Manhattan (just checked with Wolfram alpha which is great for this kind of thing)

You might be thinking of moving the entire world's population to Texas, which would result in 56.7% of the Manhattan density (by 2017 estimates).

Of course we would still need to grow food in fields, which surely is the most space consumptious part of the population.

Apparently 41% of the land in the contiguous US is pasture or grazing land for livestock (548MM acre). Just staggering.

To compare, land we use to grow crops that we directly eat account for for ~77MM acres.


It is staggering only until you realize that the majority of land in the US is too arid to grow crops and was once called the Great American Desert -- basically most of the land west of the Mississippi. Such land grows primarily scrub and is ideal for livestock such as Bison and Cattle that are able to eat the vegetation that grows there naturally as a result of the limited rainfall available. That we have water intensive agriculture west of the Mississippi is only because we are depleting aquifers. It's not sustainable, and using this land for livestock is about the best thing that can be done with it. It's also what this land was used for prior to being settled -- large open plains on which Bison roamed.

The gist of your point is correct, but "West of the Mississippi" is the wrong dividing line. You have about a state and half of excellent land west of the Mississippi. It is all about the mountains - From when the mountains start just past the West coast, they cause clouds to dump their moisture on the west side. The east sides are arid, for a couple hundreds miles or more. And because we have multiples ranges of mountains, the western third of the nation is arid... with pockets of agriculture just west of each mountain range.

Indeed, calling the Dakotas/montana as "desert" is... misleading.

Tundra maybe, but its not really a desert. And the plains are a great spot for grazing critters like Bison. The land there is their old stomping grounds, they fit in there like jelly on peanut butter sandwiches.

It's not just "a couple hundred miles past the mountains". It's basically even with the western edge of the Gulf of Mexico. East of there, there's enough rain. West of there, there's not.

You are right that "West of the Mississippi" is not the actual boundary, which is why I said "majority of the land". The actual boundary curves, being farther west in the Gulf and almost touching the Mississippi in the North, but "Western half of the US" is as good a description as any.

Point being, a lot of people who grow up in the Eastern Half of the US think the Western half has a similar climate, when it really doesn't. It really is an arid climate and the difference between East and West is rather stark.

Here you can take a look at a map of precipitation:


Yep. In Texas, we have both FM (farm to market) roads, but also, as you head further west, toward the Mexican border and the landscape turns a beige-tan hue of brown, we also have RM (ranch to market) roads

Introduction of horses changed the landscape. They damage the roots when grazing. Bison and cows don't. Many of these desert scrub areas may have had much more grass cover pre-columbus.

According to Allan Savory and some other respectable scientists the problem arose because the plants evolved to support huge buffalo populations and depended on them to clean and fertilize the ground. As their population declined, there was no more mega-herds migrating annually through the prairies and smaller groups of animals had different grazing patterns. Plants couldn't adapt to the new situation quick enough and the balance got broken. Less cover meant more evaporation, drier soil, erosion and rain washing off the soil rich in organic matter, and it all spiraled down to the land turning into semi-deserts. Allan Savory thinks (and he proved this method successful in practice) that the solution is to have large flocks of grazing animals moving around periodically, which stimulates grass growth and grass protects the soil and helps other plants to colonize the area.

There is some evidence that the huge Buffalo herds did not exist until Indians died off after Columbus "discovered" America. Pre-Columbian indigenous societies hunted the Bison enough to keep their population in check.


Theory turning into practice here: https://amp.theatlantic.com/amp/article/517779/

Eastern Montana looks and feels like the surface of the moon, albeit with air to breathe. Hundreds of square miles of nothing.

One important point to keep in mind is that "land" varies a lot, and "pasture" can mean anything from dense grassy pasture with >1 cow per acre to arid pasture >100.

They aren't convertible to cropland in the same way. Even in terms of "rewinding," one acre doesn't equal another, for most interpretations of "wilderness value."

This is why the amazon-2-pastureland problem is so serious. Every acre of amazon rainforest reoresents a lot of habitat.

Are they counting BLM (federal) land where they allow cattle to graze? A lot of land is federally owned but the BLM allow ranchers to let cattle graze in the summer/warmer months.

That makes a lot more sense. It was late and I was tired when I initially commented, so that seemed too far-fetched without fact checking myself.

Could you share your queries


City-sized sci-fi’ish pyramids, containing all the residential and non-polluting commercial and workspace needs of an average human’s entire lifetime.

Surrounded by natural wilderness that people can escape to at their leisure.

Food supply (that can’t be grown inside the arcology), energy generation (beyond the arcology’s own renewable capacity) and heavy manufacturing will still have to come from elsewhere though.


I keep expecting to hear about "Biosphere 3", funded by some billionaires wanting an arc to survive the climate collapse.


I did see the head line about Gates funding something like Argosanti.



Like in that episode of Black Mirror with the bikes and American Idol! Our entire existence can be ad supported with cameras making sure we’re watching.

How different is that from right now, except for multiple buildings instead of one?

In addition to all the other great points:

Where are the train stations? What services at are there? Who works there? Where do they live? Where do their kids go to school? How do they get their food? Who takes care of them for medical issues?

You can recurse a few times on all that, and then you’re just in a similar situation we’re in now, except we’ve got high speed trains going everywhere. That I can agree with, but then let’s save some time and just connect existing cities by bullet train and better preserve the existing nature.

Aren't most of the US already wild ? 50% of the population is on the coasts. Besides the east, as soon as you go inland it's quite literally a desert.

The midwest of the US is neither a desert nor wild. It's mostly farm land.


In the not-so-distant past, the term "desert" would have included what is now referred to as grasslands, savanna, or steppe environments.

Not a native english speaker, "desert" can be used to describe an empty patch of land in my language.

Anyway, there are 10 states in the US with a lower pop density than the least densely populated country in Europe (norway, which is already quite empty). Half of the US states have less than 40 inhab per square kilometer. Sure some are farm land but it's far from all of it https://map.onesoil.ai/2018#3.89/38.32/-98.67

Also, "literally a desert" concerns rainfall, not population density.

I have a different, but related dream: for construction companies to be allowed to build anywhere they please, as long as they meet safety regulations. This way real estate prices in NYC, SF, etc, etc, will descend from the skies, and normal people from all over the country could move in. And move in they would, because that's where the jobs are. Only the damn high rent (and damn high cost of living) keeps them outside of the main metropolitan areas. And then we'd have exactly what you say, natural majesty flourish.

I am in favor of more density in San Francisco, but no matter how negatively we feel about nimbyism we must acknowledge that current blocks are tightly packed with single family homes or at best 2-3 unit buildings, and people live there. This creates an obstacle or delay if we think they should be demolished and replaced with denser housing.

(Not the least of which being how much of Texas is super inhospitable.)

Of course, places like Manhattan require a huge amount of supporting area. People just live there and work office jobs but everything they need is imported, and what they need to get rid of is exported.

But you could look at something like Bangladesh that's more of a real country rather than a city and see how they do the density. Extreme fertility for farming and high poverty helps.

And Texas happens to be a prime location for solar power.

Because fuck anyone who doesn't want to live in the hot, shitty environment of the American south, right?

But see, when you live in Manhattan, as I did for many years, you’re in a dense place, but you’re in Manhattan. If we did it in Texas, we’d all be stuck in Texas.


And the humidity and terrible water quality. Super pass.

Yeah, gotta love that New York winter.

"Lost the Bison". Losing something is unlucky or perhaps careless. The bison were not "lost", they were systematically exterminated.

The word has multiple meanings.

Loss of life does not mean that people mislaid their mortality down the back of the sofa.

Indeed. And the extermination of the Bison was a proxy for the extermination of the native Americans. https://www.insidescience.org/news/bison-slaughter%E2%80%99s...

I don't subscribe to the "Noble Savage" mythology. I'm not of the mind that European culture is all that great but somehow the technological leaps happened and those who stayed low-tech got crushed. The cycle will repeat, don't worry--we must be close to some tipping point of decadence.

In Colorado, there's still some veneration of Buffalo Bill, whose claim to fame was killing buffalo with such efficiency that only the pelts were harvested from the rotting corpses blanketing the plains.

i agree, using "lost" is deeply misleading

FWIW there are some bison in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.

Do those bison ever do anything? They seem uncharacteristically docile compared to other herds.

Mostly a historical artifact. They're down to their last five or six, all of them female.


Worth going check out what they are doing at trying to reset how the prairie was. We lost such a treasured natural wonder when we destroyed the flora and killed the fauna when we "won" the west.

Dan Flores has a great book called the American Serengeti that dives into how diverse it was. We literally had something on the level of the African Veldt and all the ecological riches that we've turned into a series of unsusaintable agricultural deserts punctuated with cities and suburbs. Here is a Joe Rogan interview with Dan that is worth the listen on this and coyotes in America. Conversation meanders a bit but really is a great episode.


“In areas where bison graze, plants contain 50 to 90 percent more nutrients by the end of the summer.”

How does this work, thermodynamically speaking? Is it that by being culled, the plants engage in more photosynthesis overall, so there’s a net gain? What about nitrogen?

Some plants have bacteria that can get nitrogen from atmosphere. Animals digesting those plants return nitrogen and other nutrients to the ground in a form that can be used by other plants, also by removing dead plants they open space for new plants to grow.

Slightly OT so I’m sure I’ll be rightfully downvoted, but my favorite part of playing The Oregon Trail in first grade was always hunting for bison, even tho it was often a waste of resources because you couldn’t carry all the meat back to use.

And I guess from skimming the article, that’s sort of what really happened. We just lost nearly an entire animal group (I don’t remember the proper taxonomy ranking, forgive me) because of excessive hunting.

The difference in the ecology with and without the bison is fascinating. I’m curious what other changes have happened in other parts of the world due to manmade extinction of an animal or organism group.

There's the dodos of mauritius

There is a taxidermied Bison in the museum of my (Australian) city.

The damned thing is HUGE. I cant imagine how terrifyingly amazing it would be to witness a herd of the big bastards running across plains.

I hand-fed one through a fence in New Zealand. The fence seemed feebly inadequate if the beast was determined to escape. This beautiful, large, shaggy-headed beast was, however, very gentle, much like a regular cow.

I know a bison rancher. They have problems with them jumping the fences. He's got 5 foot tall fences, and some of them can jump the fence without touching it. They could plow right through it if they wanted, but they prefer to jump.

Only tangentially related, but we had a funny incident when an American visitor staying with us told us about his visit that day to a wildlife park here in NZ.

He and his wife spotted a hole in the wire netting fence enclosing the lions.

They assured each other it couldn't really be a hole - after all, the park owners would be sued up the wazoo if they actually left a hole in the fence, such that a lion could potentially escape and maul a visitor.

So they crept closer and closer until they realised that yes, it really was a hole and no, there was nothing else restraining the lion within.

I explained to him after all this that sueing people was not really a thing here, and he should assume that any such holes were just that - an actual hole.

Fences at zoos are generally for the visitors.

Modern zoo design largely uses things like moats to contain the animals, as they can be hidden from visitors and need dramatically less maintenance.

I live by a large-ish herd of farm raised Bison. I've gone to visit them a few times, mainly because they boarder a national forest with great trails. They're big as heck, when they run as a herd you can feel them. Truly impressive animals.

Its pretty terrifying to look out of your sedan at a herd of 100 bison, they are BIG.

They do a lot of Bovine farming in Australia... and they have enough trouble keeping them in their paddocks... how the hell do they make herds of say 100 Bison stay in their paddocks?!?

Apparently, using a five foot fence instead of a four foot fence is enough https://fencing.bekaert.com/en/animal-fence-applications/cat...

I guess also you just want to make sure that they don’t feel motivated to leave.

There’s a really good autobiography called buffalo for the broken heart which chronicles a ranchers quest to switch from a cattle ranch to a buffalo ranch. It really lays out the case for these amazing creatures.

Thank you for the recommendation. Probably my next book to read. There is a little bison operation here in Oregon and I'm a regular customer. Strange to think that we are saving them by eating them. I like the "move everyone to Texas" version proposed upthread better.

Well I guess I got downvoted because of the implication that you picked up on - “saving them by eating them.” One kind of has to read the book. When you look at efforts to repopulate bison to the prairie, the most famous is Yellowstone. And indeed it’s been successful. But we are talking about a herd of a few hundred - not the millions that once roamed the American prairie. Further, when you consider the prairie is not the Rocky Mountain region but places like North/Sohth Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, eastern Colorado, etc, one needs to consider current land use/ownership - most of the land is privately owned and used to grow feedstock for the cow - An animal that is essentially a foreign invasive species. So before one gets all high and mighty about not eating bison, consider that by replacing cows with bison, the prairie ecosystem gets restored (the bison’s hooves act as natural aerators vital to an amazing amount of bird species that also have all but disappeared), an amazing amount of feedstock land gets returned to its native state, etc, all without resorting to some tyrannical scheme to move everyone to Texas which despite its landmass could not support anywhere near the population of the US much less the world without an ecological catastrophe. Am I angry I got downvoted - not really - everyone is entitled to their opinion. But I do think we need an ounce of reality in this discussion. anyway read the book - if it helps the author is a conservationist and his plea/rationale is very humane and respectful to nature.

Thanks again for turning me onto the book. I just got it and I'm through the first chapter already. I eat bison for the same reasons alluded to barely in the first chapter: they graze well[1], and they have evolved together with the surrounding vegetation and wildlife. Yeah, the Texas thing is silly. Mostly wishful thinking on my part.

[1] https://phys.org/news/2019-11-yellowstone-migrating-bison-sp...

I’m glad you like it. Above article is fascinating - it’s like cows destroy the ecosystem through grazing while bison “engineer” it to make it better to the point they can see bison grazed land from space.

We're screwed!

Free lawn mowing?

Is actually being done by herds of sheep over here, especially in harder to access locations like sound walls and dikes.

Saw a wild bison chase a car up here. Pretty terrifying. They're huge and mean AF.

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