The American Bison - European Settlement and Near Extinction - Part Three

The American Bison - European Settlement and Near Extinction - Part Three


North America was once home to approximately 30 million bison, roaming the plains during the 19th century. By the mid-1880s, the number had fallen to less than 1,000. The near extermination of bison and the massive harvesting by white hunters continue to hold great interest among historians of the American West. The question of why this happened has received less attention, and existing explanations often lead to incorrect conclusions.

An Alternative Explanation

The usual explanation for the rapid depletion of the bison was the lack of ownership. Because no one owned the bison, no one had an incentive to protect them, resulting in a "tragedy of the commons." However, this does not adequately explain the demise of the bison during this period. An alternative explanation is that the bison were slaughtered not because of a lack of property rights but because there was a higher-valued use of the land on which their massive herds thundered.

Bison vs. Cattle

The most valuable resource on the plains at the time was not the bison but the grass beneath their hooves. As railroads ventured westward, the grass became increasingly valuable for meat production, specifically beef. Bison meat was expensive to deliver to market, while domesticated cattle could produce beef more efficiently. Since bison were in direct competition with cattle for space, their demise was inevitable.

The Hide Trade

A second factor that fueled the slaughter was the growing demand for bison hides due to technological innovations in tanning. By 1871, technological change meant that bison hides had become almost identical to cattle hides for commercial use. With bison hides fetching between $3.00 and $3.50 apiece at railheads, thousands of hide hunters outfitted themselves with wagons, rifles, and crews of skinners, leading to a remarkable speed-up in bison harvesting.

The New Economic Situation

After 1870, ranchers began to exert a new set of economic values upon the western landscape—one that did not include millions of bison roaming the plains. The bison herds presented a challenge for ranchers in the West as they consumed grass and disrupted cattle production. Their removal was virtually an economic necessity, not necessarily a tragedy or waste of resources.

Compared to cattle, bison were not a practical means of converting grass to meat. They were difficult to confine, raise, and bring to market. Bison cannot be gathered and trailed like cattle, and they don't stick with the herd.

The Role of Government

The government played a significant role in the bison's decline. The U.S. Army actively encouraged the slaughter of bison to weaken Native American tribes that depended on them. The government's policies also favored cattle ranching over bison herding, further contributing to the bison's decline.

The Impact on Native Americans

The decline of the bison had a profound impact on Native American tribes, particularly the Plains Indians, who relied on the bison for sustenance and cultural practices. The depletion of bison herds weakened their way of life and made them more dependent on government assistance.

The Revival of the Bison (covered in detail in future posts)

Despite the near extinction, the bison's story is not entirely tragic. Private ranchers and conservationists have played a crucial role in reviving the bison population. Today, there are more than 500,000 bison in North America, thanks to efforts to breed and conserve them.


The near extinction of the bison in the 19th century was not merely a tragedy of the commons, as commonly believed. Instead, it was a complex interplay of economic, technological, and governmental factors that led to the bison's decline. The story of the bison is a lesson in how market forces, technological advancements, and government policies can shape the fate of a species.

The bison's revival demonstrates the power of private ownership and conservation efforts in preserving wildlife. It's a success story that offers hope for other endangered species and a reminder that the tragedy of the commons is not always the inevitable outcome.


This article is a summary and interpretation of 'The Non-Tragedy of the Bison Commons' published by PERC. For the full article and detailed insights, please visit

Reading next

The Role of Bison in Lakota and Sioux Cultures: A Lifeline and Spiritual Symbol - Part Two
Conservation Efforts and Recovery of the American Bison: A Testament to Resilience

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