The first congressional efforts were begun in the early 1870s, but none were successful until the Lacey Bill, which outlawed buffalo hunting in Yellowstone National Park, was signed in 1894. That was ten years after the slaughter on the plains had ended for lack of targets. Until then, conscience had yielded to cash, year after year, animal by animal. But not every pilgrim who crossed the Mississippi River in the 19th century was driven by greed, or stupefied by indifference.
In practical terms, the rescue of bison from extermination began in 1873, before the population reached its nadir, when Samuel Walking Coyote, a Pend d'Orielle Indian, herded eight calves back to the Flathead Reservation in western Montana, from a hunting excursion on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation east of the Rockies. His motives were mixed, like those of other individuals who, during the next thirty years, similarly "rescued" small numbers of bison. In nearly every instance, part of the mixture was profit.
In 1905, the U.S. government was responsible for fewer than a hundred bison, scattered throughout the country. In the nick of time, the American Bison Society was founded that year, with William T. Hornaday of the Smithsonian Institution as president, and Theodore Roosevelt as honorary president. It soon became a potent force in the preservation of the bison, and a model for cooperative ventures in wildlife management linking government with the private sector.
In 1907 the ABS was instrumental in the establishment of a herd at the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma, which now numbers about 1,000. In 1909 it stocked the 18,500-acre National Bison Range at Moiese, in northwestern Montana, which now supports a herd of between 350 and 500. It also began a herd on the Fort Niobrara Reservation in Nebraska in 1913, and on the Pisgah National Game Preserve in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1919. After aiding in the placing of smaller bands in various other states during the 20s and 30s, the society's momentum was exhausted, and in 1935 it retired from the field.