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The Vanishing Beast

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

By Talia Cowen
From the March/April 2021 Issue

Learning Objective: Students will identify problems and solutions as they read two articles about the near extermination of buffalo on the Great Plains and the efforts of American Indian tribes to bring buffalo back to the wild.

Lexile: 600L-700L, 800L-900L
Guided Reading Level: V
DRA Level: 50

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Problem and Solution

As you read these articles, look for what has happened to the buffalo over the past 200 years and how people are working to solve this problem.

The Vanishing Beast

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

Are you ready to take a trip back in time to the early 1800s? You’re somewhere in the middle of the United States, where the land is flat and covered with grass so tall it tickles the top of your head. Watch your step—there are rattlesnakes everywhere. And don’t trip over a prairie dog hole—you could break your leg.

Thousands of people live in this area, members of different American Indian tribes like the Pawnee and the Lakota. But this land is enormous. You could wander for days and not see another person. And right now, you’re all alone. All is quiet except for the whisper of rustling grass.

But then . . .

The ground shakes. A deep rumble reaches your ears and makes your heart skip a beat. At first, all you see is a cloud of dust.

Tornado! No. Keep looking.

Tsunami! No. Remember, you are hundreds of miles from any ocean.

Train! No. Those won’t come to this part of America for another 50 years.

The sound gets louder. And now you see it—an enormous herd of animals. There must be hundreds of them, maybe thousands! And they’re huge—bigger than a horse, covered with shaggy fur.

Escape before you’re trampled to death!

Poof!

Just in time, we’ve brought you back to 2021. But now you’ve had the honor of seeing 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.

But wait. Why don’t you see any buffalo today? Where are the giant herds?

The answer: They’re mostly gone. Around 100 years ago, buffalo almost became extinct.

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

Let’s take a trip back in time to the early 1800s. You’re in the middle of the United States. The land is flat and covered with tall grass. Watch your step! There are rattlesnakes everywhere. And don’t trip over a prairie dog hole.

Thousands of people live in this area. They are members of different American Indian tribes like the Pawnee and the Lakota. But this land is big. You could wander for days and not see another person. Right now, you’re all alone. But then . . .

The ground shakes. A deep rumble reaches your ears. At first, all you see is a cloud of dust.

Tornado! No. Keep looking.

Tsunami! No. Remember, you are hundreds of miles from any ocean.

Train! No. Those won’t come to this part of America for another 50 years.

The sound gets louder. Now you see it. It’s a herd of animals. There must be hundreds of them, maybe thousands! They’re huge. They’re bigger than a horse, covered with shaggy fur.

Hurry—escape!

Poof!

Just in time, you’re back in 2021. But now you’ve seen the buffalo. The buffalo is one of the most important animals in the history of North America. Once, there were more than 30 million of these majestic beasts.

But wait. Why don’t you see any buffalo today?

Because they’re mostly gone. Around 100 years ago, buffalo almost became extinct.

How is that possible?

Jim McMahon/Mapman ®

 

Pounding Hooves

To explore that question, get ready for another time traveling trip to almost 115,000 years ago. This was during a time in Earth’s history known as the Ice Age. Thick sheets of ice called glaciers covered much of North America.

Buffalo, sometimes known as bison, shared this frozen land with many different animals: hairy elephant-like creatures called mastodons, saber-toothed tigers with teeth longer than icicles, prowling packs of dire wolves.

Then, about 11,000 years ago, Earth started warming. Glaciers melted into lakes. Many Ice Age creatures couldn’t survive in this new environment and went extinct.

But the buffalo were adaptable. Most settled in the grassy fields nestled between the jagged Rocky Mountains and the winding Mississippi River—the area that we now call the Great Plains.

The buffalo actually helped make this land what it is today. Their pounding hooves stomped grass seeds into the ground. They loosened the dirt so oxygen and rainwater could reach roots. This grass became an important source of food for buffalo and other animals, like prairie dogs and jackrabbits. When an old buffalo died, its body became food for foxes and coyotes. What remained melted into the earth, feeding the rich soil.

Few animals dared to try to kill buffalo. Their pointy horns were lethal weapons, their hides too thick for all but the sharpest teeth and claws. There was only one predator bold enough to hunt them: humans.

To find out, let’s travel back almost 115,000 years ago. This was a time known as the Ice Age. Thick sheets of ice called glaciers covered much of North America.

Buffalo (sometimes called bison) shared this land with different animals. There were hairy elephant-like creatures called mastodons. There were saber-toothed tigers with long teeth. There were packs of dire wolves.

Then, about 11,000 years ago, Earth started warming. Many Ice Age creatures couldn’t survive in this new environment. They became extinct.

But the buffalo were adaptable. Most settled in the grassy fields between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River. This area is now called the Great Plains.

The buffalo actually helped make this land what it is today. Their pounding hooves stomped grass seeds into the ground. They loosened the dirt. This allowed oxygen and rainwater to reach roots. This grass became a source of food for buffalo and other animals. When an old buffalo died, its body became food for foxes and coyotes. Whatever was left blended in with the earth. There, it fed the soil.

Few animals dared to try to kill buffalo. The buffalo’s pointy horns were lethal weapons. Their hides were thick. Only one predator was bold enough to hunt them: humans.

Deadly Hunters

Scientists think the first humans may have arrived in North America around 30,000 years ago, toward the end of the Ice Age. Many different American Indian tribes and nations made their home on the Great Plains. Hunting buffalo was key to their survival. Members of the Siksikaitsitapi tribe, also known as the Blackfeet, 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 its bones and skin were used to make clothing, shelter, and tools.

For centuries, the buffalo and humans lived side by side. The buffalo nourished humans and the Plains. Humans hunted just enough buffalo to keep herds from overtaking the land. Many groups 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 to arrive from Europe, a land across the ocean. They introduced horses and guns to America. Soon, white hunters were racing after herds at high speeds, shooting hundreds of buffalo in a day.

Then 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 their hides. In some towns, the stacks of hides were so tall that they cast shadows over buildings.

Scientists think the first humans may have arrived in North America around 30,000 years ago. This was near the end of the Ice Age. Many different American Indian tribes and nations lived on the Great Plains. Hunting buffalo was key to their survival. The Blackfeet tribe steered herds into giant traps. Hidatsa hunters disguised themselves as wolves and fired arrows at the animals. Buffalo meat was an important source of food. The bones and skin were used to make clothing, shelter, and tools.

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

But in the 1500s, the Great Plains began to change. So did the way buffalo were hunted. Newcomers arrived from Europe, a land across the ocean. They introduced horses and guns to America. Soon, white hunters were racing after herds at high speeds. They shot hundreds of buffalo in a day.

The 1870s brought hunters called hidemen to the Great Plains. They were white men from the East Coast. They saw hunting buffalo as a way to get rich. They killed millions of buffalo and sold their hides. In some towns, the stacks of hides were taller than the buildings.

Werner Wolff/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images 

This drawing shows what a buffalo herd might have looked like in the 1860s.

Bloody Clashes

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

General Philip Sheridan, one of the leaders of the army, decided that the way to defeat the American Indian peoples was to destroy the animal they depended on for survival: the buffalo. 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 killing of the buffalo was just one of the many horrors that American Indian peoples of the Plains faced at the hands of the new arrivals. They suffered starvation, violence, and disease. They were forced from the lands they had lived on for thousands of years. But many survived to pass on their rich stories, customs, and traditions—including their deep respect for the buffalo.

At the same time, new railroads were built. They connected East Coast cities with the West. Trains brought more people to the Plains. These newcomers tried to steal land from the American Indian groups already living there. The Plains peoples refused to give up their land. Bloody clashes broke out. The U.S. Army was put in charge of trying to force them off the land.

One of the leaders of the army was named General Philip Sheridan. He decided that the way to defeat the American Indian peoples was to destroy the buffalo. Why? Because they depended on it for survival. He encouraged soldiers and hidemen to destroy as many as possible. He wanted the buffalo to be exterminated. Millions more were killed.

This was one of many horrors faced by the American Indian peoples of the Plains. They suffered these horrors because of the new arrivals. They suffered starvation, violence, and disease. They were forced off the lands they had lived on for thousands of years. But many survived to pass on their traditions. This included their deep respect for the buffalo.

Hi-Story/Alamy Stock Photo

 

This photo of a pile of buffalo skulls was taken in 1892.

Stampeding into the Future

By the close of the 19th century, fewer than a hundred wild buffalo wandered the Great Plains. They would likely be extinct today if it weren’t for the efforts of determined people—including many American Indian people who still call the Great Plains home.

Poof!

Let’s take one last trip, into the future.

You arrive on the Great Plains in a flying car. You’re dazzled by glittering hovercraft zipping by.

Look closely. Do you see any herds of buffalo stampeding across the grass?

Let’s hope you do!

By the close of the 19th century, there were fewer than a hundred wild buffalo on the Great Plains. They should be extinct today. But thanks to the work of many American Indian people on the Great Plains, they’re not.

Poof!

Let’s take one last trip. Let’s go to the future.

You arrive on the Great Plains in a flying car.

Look closely. Do you see any buffalo stampeding across the grass?

Let’s hope you do!

Return of the Buffalo 

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

NPS Photo/Alamy Stock Photo

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

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

Suddenly, 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 silver trailers cross the grassy plain. They roll to a stop.  From inside come strange noises. There’s snorting and scraping. These are the sounds of giant beasts. They are waiting to break free.

Suddenly, the trailer doors open. Out charge 63 buffalo. They thunder onto the prairie. They are on American Indian land in Montana. It is the winter of 2012. After being gone for 120 years, these buffalo are coming home.

Buffalo’s Rightful Place

Behind this historic moment lay six years of hard work by the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux tribes.

In 2007, tribal members had the idea of bringing a small herd of wild buffalo to their lands. At the time, one of the largest herds of buffalo was at Yellowstone National Park, which is in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho.

The buffalo were protected inside the park, and the herd had grown to around 5,000 buffalo. That was 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 killed 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 they immediately ran into problems. Ranchers in Montana opposed moving the buffalo. They were very afraid of a disease that half of the Yellowstone buffalo carried called brucellosis. This disease infects cattle and causes their babies to die before they are born.

There was a long legal battle. Finally, judges decided that the tribes would be allowed to take some buffalo onto their lands.

How did this happen? It took six years of hard work by the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux tribes.

In 2007, tribal members had an idea. They wanted to bring a herd of buffalo to their lands. At the time, one of the largest herds was at Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone is in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho.

The buffalo were protected inside the park. The herd had grown to around 5,000 buffalo. That was too many for the park ecosystem. There wasn’t enough grass or open land. Thousands of buffalo had been killed over the years. This was done to protect the herd and the land.

The Fort Peck tribes wanted to save some of these buffalo. But they ran into problems. Ranchers in Montana opposed moving the buffalo. They were afraid of a disease that half of the Yellowstone buffalo had. The disease is called brucellosis. It infects cattle. Then it causes their babies to die before they are born.

There was a long legal battle. Finally, judges decided that the tribes could bring some buffalo onto their lands.

Joy, Hope, and Pride

© WWF/Day’s Edge Productions

Jonny BearCub Stiffarm

Now, thanks to the Fort Peck Buffalo Program—and with help from the National Park Service, Defenders of Wildlife, World Wildlife Fund, and several other organizations—303 Yellowstone buffalo have returned 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.

Now, 303 Yellowstone buffalo have come home. This is because of the Fort Peck Buffalo Program and other organizations. For the tribes, the buffalo bring joy, pride, and hope. Seeing them return is like seeing a long-lost family member finally come home.

On Their Way

The goal is to grow buffalo herds of at least 1,000 animals on American Indian lands. These herds will help restore the grasslands, bringing new bird life and plant life.

Most importantly, they will preserve the buffalo’s place in the history, culture, and spirituality of the tribes. Once again, American Indians will perform traditional ceremonies, make traditional medicines, and cook traditional foods.   

This past August, a trailer returned to the Fort Peck lands, 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.

The goal is to grow buffalo herds of at least 1,000 animals. The tribes will do this on American Indian lands. The herds will help bring back the grasslands. They will also bring new bird life and plant life.

Most importantly, the buffalo will be part of tribes’ lives again. Once again, American Indians will perform traditional ceremonies. They will make traditional medicines and cook traditional foods.   

This past August, a trailer returned to the Fort Peck lands. Forty buffalo were herded inside. They were taken to new tribal homes in Kansas, Wisconsin, and Alaska.

Members from the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes gathered in a drumming group. They drummed loudly as the buffalo were herded into the trailer. They were thanking them, blessing them, and sending them on their way.

This article was originally published in the March 2021 issue.

This article was originally published in the March 2021 issue.

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