Sorry, Environmentalists: Buffalo Were Saved From Extinction By Capitalism
|Today there are around 500,000 buffalo in the United States,|
and about 90 percent are in private hands.
(Photo: Yellowstone National Park/ Flickr/ CC BY 2.0)
It is a fine tribute to a creature etched into American lore. While praises are already being made to the efforts of conservationists and modern environmentalists to save North America’s largest land mammal, the reality is that the species was saved by capitalism.
After describing how bison populations “dwindled from tens of millions to the brink of extinction,” a Huffington Post contributor wrote that the animal must be “acknowledged as the first success story of the modern conservation movement.”
Conservationists did play a role in saving the buffalo from extinction, but it was in large part the power of the free market that allowed the once-decimated species to thrive after nearly being wiped out.
The Bison as an Icon of the Old West
Any description of the Great Plains in the 19th century usually involves vast herds of the giant, imposing bison dotting the landscape. The great frontier historian, Francis Parkman, included numerous, vivid descriptions of buffalo herds and hunts in his books.
Parkman wrote in “The Oregon Trail,”
Anyone who has spent time in Wyoming, Montana, or any one of the Plains states is likely to have encountered giant, seemingly random craters. These are the remains of what were called “buffalo jumps,” and were the primary way many tribes cultivated the animal for food.
Frontier explorer Meriwether Lewis, of the famed Lewis and Clark expedition, described one of these jumps in an 1805 journal entry:
The dwindling of the American bison began long before settlers arrived, but a swelling population of new migrants finally put the species at risk. And the intentional extermination of the herds to drive out the Plains Native Americans left the buffalo on the brink of annihilation. At one point, there were only 300 of them left in the wild.
Saved by a Free Society and Market Economics
Though the social and economic dynamics of the 19th century came close to wiping out the American bison, the species survived and began a recovery in the 20th century. The wild-roaming bison had been hunted mercilessly to the brink of destruction, but widespread private ownership allowed them to flourish.
Historian Larry Schweikart wrote about a study by Andrew C. Isenberg, now a professor at Temple University, which busted the myth that it was government intervention that saved the bison. From a small herd clinging to survival in Yellowstone National Park, the bison began their resurgence. Isenberg’s conclusion “upsets the entire apple cart of prior assumptions,” according to Schweikart:
But even more than as a tourist attraction, the bison became prized for the same reason Plains Native Americans and settlers hunted them to begin with: they’re delicious.
Isenberg’s study showed that the number of bison swelled in the 20th century mostly because they were “preserved not for their iconic significance in the interest of biological diversity but simply raised to be slaughtered for their meat.”
Ranchers like Charles Goodnight, who provided the herd reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in 1902, found ways to raise and profit from the bison. This led to a thriving national industry and ensures the bison will survive into the 21st century. Today there are around 500,000 buffalo in the United States, and about 90 percent are in private hands. And for that miracle resurrection, the world has capitalism, not Congress, to thank.
Jarrett Stepman (@JarrettStepman) is a contributor to .The Daily Signal.
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