At one time, an estimated 30 to 75 million buffalo roamed over about one third of North America. The term Buffalo is a misnomer; the official name for the breed is the "American Bison." The true buffalo is a native of Africa and Asia, a dangerous animal in the wild, without the broad hump over the shoulders that is covered with a dense mat of shaggy hair, or the long beard under the chin. However, our preference for using the word Buffalo results perhaps from the lore of the American West and mythologies from the American Indian culture.
It is believed that buffalo, or bison, crossed over a land bridge that once connected the Asian and North American continents. Through the centuries buffalo slowly moved southward, eventually reaching as far south as Mexico and as far east as the Atlantic Coast, extending south to Florida. But the largest herds were found on the plains and prairies from the Rocky Mountains east to the Mississippi River. "The moving multitude...darkened the whole plains," wrote Lewis and Clark, who encountered a herd at South Dakota’s White River in 1806.
By 1800, the small buffalo herds east of the Mississippi River were gone. Buffalo may have been killed to protect livestock and farmlands in that region. With westward expansion of the American frontier, systematic reduction of the plains herds began around 1830, when buffalo hunting became the chief industry of the plains. Organized groups of hunters killed buffalo for hides and meat, often killing up to 250 buffalo a day. The construction of the railroads across the plains caused further depletion of buffalo populations. Hunting from train windows was advertised widely and passengers shot them as the buffalo raced beside the trains. By 1883 both the northern and the southern herds had been destroyed. Less than 300 wild animals remained in the U.S. and Canada by the turn of the century out of the millions that once lived there.
Conservation of the buffalo came slowly. In May 1894, Congress enacted a law making buffalo hunting in Yellowstone National Park illegal. Eight years later, money was appropriated to purchase 21 buffalo from private herds to build up the Yellowstone herd. With adequate protection, this herd has steadily increased until it numbers almost 4,000 animals today.
Many other private herds have boosted the buffalo’s overall population over the years as well. While the present herds, numbering about 200,000 buffalo in all, are not as large as the great herds that once ranged the North American continent, they are large enough to ensure the continued well-being of the American buffalo for generations to come.
Also bison as a livestock breed is growing in popularity in the western United States and Canada, which further insures the preservation of the line. The National Bison Association states that there is a growing demand for bison beef. Bison beef is leaner than cattle beef, and lower in cholesterol. Unlike cattle, bison tend to be kept on the ranches throughout their lives instead of being sent to feed lots. Also, there is a demand for bison that are totally grass-fed.
It is possible that much of the wholesale slaughter of buffalo in the 1800's was an attempt to take away the livelihood and well-being of Native Americans, who depended on the buffalo’s meat and hides for their survival, and who also revered the animal as having special spiritual and healing powers, making the buffalo an important part of their culture.
The birth of a white buffalo calf is seen by many Native Americans as the most significant of prophetic signs. In 1933 a white buffalo calf was born in Colorado, and in 1994 another one, named Miracle, was born in Janesville, Wisconsin, on the ranch of Dave and Valerie Heider. Thousands of people of many different faiths have visited Miracle, testifying that her birth is a call for all races to come together to heal the earth and solve our mutual problems.
News of the calf's birth spread quickly through the Native American community because its birth fulfilled a two thousand year old prophecy of northern Plains Indians. Legend has it that two thousand years ago a young woman, who first appeared in the shape of a white buffalo, gave the ancestors of the Lakota Indian Nation a sacred pipe and sacred ceremonies, and made them guardians of the Black Hills. The holy woman told the people about the value of the buffalo. Before leaving, she also prophesied that one day she would return to purify the world, bringing back spiritual balance and harmony. The prophecy held that the birth of a white buffalo calf would be a sign that her return was at hand. Many believe that the buffalo calf, Miracle, born August 20, 1994 symbolizes the coming together of humanity into a oneness of heart, mind, and spirit.
Once on the brink of extinction, this magnificent creature we call the Buffalo lives on as one of the most powerful symbols of the American West.