125 years ago bison were on the brink of extinction. Today, nearly all of the bison in the world can be traced to the five foundation herds assembled in the late 1800’s by people such as Charles Goodnight of the Goodnight-Loving cattle trail fame, showman and entrepreneur Charles “Buffalo Jones,” Native American Samael Walking Coyote, partners Michel Pablo and Charles Allard, and “Buffalo King” Scotty Phillip. These ranchers saved the species. Canada had home-grown saviors of the bison as well.
These ranchers struggled to economically sustain their efforts. Charles Goodnight spent $7,000 filming an elaborate Indian buffalo hunt, but couldn’t market the footage. Pablo had offered to sell his herd to the U.S. government for $250/head, and had been shunned. Phillip leased 3,500 acres of unclaimed government land along the banks of the Missouri for $50 annually to be used as a tourist attraction, but the herd outgrew the pasture.
In the first half of the 20th Century, there was little perceived economic value in bison. The new preserves fostered by the American Bison society, the State of South Dakota and the federal government, provided the only significant outlet for the excess animals in the private herds. Animals from the herds of Pablo Allard, Goodnight and Jones were acquired by Yellowstone National Park in 1902 to restock the herd that had nearly been decimated by poaching that had continued until the mid-1890s. Thirty four bison originally from the Pablo Allard herd were purchased by the American Bison Society in 1909 to serve as the nucleus of the National Bison Range in Montana. Phillip’s heirs sold 36 bison to the state of South Dakota in 1914 to serve as seed stock for the Custer State Game Preserve herd. Phillip’s heirs struggled unsuccessfully to find private buyers for the remainder of the Buffalo King’s herd. With options exhausted, the family began to liquidate the approximately 700 bison in 1924.
Custer was renamed a state park in 1919, and soon began to attempt to manage its growing bison population by conducting annual field harvests in the park’s buffalo pasture. The meat was likely distributed in the community for the Christmas season. In 1922, 125 bulls were hunted in the park. Other animals were shipped from Custer to other parks in the East and the West. In the 1930’s, a slaughterhouse was constructed for bison to help dispose of surplus animals. Still, the herd had grown to 2,500 animals by the early 1940’s.
World War II provided a market boost for bison meat from Custer State Park and the adjoining Wind Cave National Park. Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt had established the Office of Price Administration, which began to impose severe rationing of several types of food-stocks, including beef.
“Wild Game,” including bison meat, was exempt from the rationing. Demand surged. In the winter of 1942, Custer State Park’s slaughter plant failed to meet its orders, and work began on a new processing plant in the park. Meat from Custer State Park was marketed across the country, including in some of New York City’s finer restaurants. Sales of buffalo meat from the park continued to increase after the war. By 1953, meat sales generated nearly seventy-five thousand dollars for the Park.
Today, the slaughterhouse at Custer State Park is long gone. But the annual auction held there, along with other auctions at Antelope Island State Park, Fort Niobrara Wildlife Refuge, and elsewhere provide a balance of preservation and conservation.
No doubt, wanton slaughter of bison—along with diseases introduced by European livestock—nearly decimated bison 125 years ago. At the turn of the last century, efforts by public herd managers and private ranchers focused on preserving bison as a link to our American heritage. Through the years, however, conservation—and restoration—of the species has involved an interwoven relationship among public, private—and now tribal—herds across North America.
Today, bison is revered as a gourmet food item, embraced by chefs, hailed by nutritionists and devoured by consumers. Bison has found its way onto menus in restaurants from delicious burgers to decedent filets and also on American diner tables as part of heathy, satisfying home cooked meals. The remarkable nutritional value and delicious taste that consumers love drives the bison industry today. This, combined with rancher’s commitment to sustainable, natural production practices will ensure the future of this magnificent animal. simply put, the economical viability of bison is largely dependent on consumer demand. The demand for deliciously healthy bison meat is the key to preserving the species.