The history of the American bison, at least since the arrival of Europeans on the continent, reflects the opposing premises of two European philosophers. René Descartes (1596-1650) the progenitor of the Age of Reason, maintained that animals are "mechanical robots" incapable of feeling pain. The English jurist Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) answered for a later generation: "The question is not, Can they reason? Nor, Can they talk? But, Can they suffer?"
The legal code of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, enacted in 1641, had decreed that "No man shall exercise any Tirranny or Crueltie towards any bruite Creature which are usuallie kept for man's use." But there was the rub. Clearly, bison could not easily be "kept for man's use," although some men tried. In the first place, compared with European cattle, that had been domesticated for more than 8,000 years, bison were too dangerous, too destructive, and too much trouble to control in close quarters. The final solution was obvious, so by the early 1830s they were exterminated east of the Mississippi.
Was it the flush of sympathy for abused animals that ignited the movement to preserve American bison? Or was it the realization that, as one of F. Scott Fitzgerald's characters in The Great Gatsby says, in a comparable context, they were "face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to their capacity for wonder."
Almost as soon as frontiersmen began to push westward from the Alleghenies, a few individuals began to protest the wanton killing of bison. Given the apparent plenitude of the herds, however, plus the evident impossibility of domesticating them, a majority of westerners failed to see any problem with killing them. The old mechanistic view served well enough.
Meriwether Lewis noted on one occasion that the Corps of Discovery killed only as many animals as they needed to feed themselves, although he himself evidently felt no compunction about killing a bison for his own solitary meal (June 14, 1805). Nevertheless, within only a few years following the end of the expedition, other observers saw and deplored needless and wasteful killing. George Catlin predicted in 1832 that the buffalo's doom was sealed. Another naturalist-artist, John J. Audubon, said it again in 1845. Others spoke of the need for laws to protect the species, and a few gutless statutes were enacted in western states and territories during the 1860s and 70s.
In the first year after its founding in 1866 by American reformer Henry Bergh, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals helped pass the first anti-cruelty law in the United States. The ASPCA continued to receive complaints about the treatment of bison in the West, including letters from army officers at distant outposts.
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.