Bison History

Great herds of bison once roamed North America between the Appalachian Mountains on the east and the Rockies on the west. It is estimated that around 30 million bison roamed the continent when Columbus landed. The herds were so large that the bison became a symbol of the seemingly endless resources of the continent.

People have hunted North American bison for more than 12,000 years. Early European explorers and settlers killed the bison for the same reasons that Native American tribes hunted them - for their meat and hides. Unlike the Native Americans who utilized virtually all of the bison, however, white hunters became extravagant and wasteful. Taking only delicacies like the tongue, they left tons of meat and hide to rot. Railroad crews decimated what was left of the bison, as railroads cut across the herds' home range.

By 1888, only 541 bison remained in the U.S. Efforts began to prevent the species from becoming extinct. William Temple Hornday (1854-1937), an American zoologist, had a significant influence on the efforts to protect and increase the herds.

A 1905 a census indicated there were 835 wild bison and 256 bison in captivity at that time. Sanctuaries, zoos, and parks were safe havens for bison and helped to increase their numbers. The first national preserve for bison was founded in 1907 near Cache, OK and later became the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Reserve. Subsequent game laws and other protective measures allowed the surviving bison to live and multiply. Today about 350,000 bison live in the U.S., and bison can be found in all 50 states. Large herds can be found in many natural areas, parks, and refuges, but the majority of the bison are found on private ranches.

Learn about the origins of the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve bison herd ►


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