Friday, October 16, 2020

No More Than 30

The story of the American bison has been documented many places, from books and articles to movies, and I had thought I knew it. But when I was researching for Nothing Short of Wondrous (out next week!), I learned a few things that surprised me.

You may have read that once vast herds of these majestic creatures roamed the Great Plains. Historians estimate there may have been as many as 60 million, and they lived as far east as the Appalachians. Loss of habit, competition from cattle, and overhunting by nonindigenous hunters decimated their ranks.

So, here’s the first thing that surprised me. I tend to think of late-Victorian era hunters as starting the trend in killing massive numbers of bison. The hunting actually began as early as 1830. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Hudson’s Bay Company on the West Coast traded 75,000 buffalo-hide robes in 1844 alone.

Here’s another thing that surprised me: By the 1870s, bison hides were being tanned for leather and their bones were being used in making fertilizer and bone china (that mountain of bison skulls is horrifying!). Because they were becoming valuable, ranchers began picking up stray calves and starting their own herds. Wealthy hunters also moved in for the kill. At one point, 5,000 bison a day were being killed.

As early as 1886, fewer than 350 bison remained in wild herds. The largest single group may have been the one in Yellowstone National Park.

It numbered no more than 30.

That number stunned me. Small wonder my heroine, Kate Tremaine, will do anything to protect them. Kate loves her wilderness home and the others who live beside her.

She may be fictional, but a number of real-life people felt the same way. The turn of the century saw conservationists around the country coming together to protect the bison. By 1910, numbers had increased to more than 2,000 in the US and Canada. Ten years later, that number was more than 12,000.

Today, the Yellowstone herd alone numbers around 5,000, and estimates of other herds on public and private lands are closer to 500,000 total.

Now, that’s a comeback story!

I hope you’ll come back next week when we celebrate the launch of another story, Nothing Short of Wondrous.

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