The Bison Commons Was Not a Tragedy After All

The Bison Commons Was Not a Tragedy After All

North America was once home to massive herds of bison. Approximately 30 million bison roamed the plains during the 19th century, and in 1870, there were still at least 10 million bison on the continent.

Bison commons photo
Bison commons Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Midwest Region

But by the mid-1880s, that figure had fallen to less than 1,000. Entire herds were wiped out in a matter of years. “In 1880, the country was practically uninhabited,” wrote early rancher Granville Stuart, describing the plains of Montana. “One could travel for miles without seeing so much as a trapper’s bivouac. Thousands of bison darkened the rolling plains.”

How the slaughter of the bison occurred has been well documented. The question of why, however, has received less attention.That all changed in just a few years. “In the fall of 1883 there was not one bison remaining on the range” in Montana, according to Stuart.

The story of how this massive “slaughter on the plains” occurred with such speed and ferocity has been well documented. The near extermination of bison and the massive harvesting of them by white hunters continues to hold great interest among historians of the American West. The species has recently garnered renewed interest: in May, President Obama signed a bill designating the bison as the U.S. national mammal. The question of why the historic bison slaughter happened, however, has received less attention. And the explanations that exist often lead to incorrect conclusions about this era.

Bison commons – An Alternative Explanation

The usual explanation of this rapid depletion of the bison – at least among economic historians – was the lack of ownership of them. Because no one owned the bison, the story goes, no one had an incentive to protect them, resulting in a “tragedy of the Bison commons.”

Although some Indian tribes had loosely defined claims to certain areas to hunt the animals, those claims were virtually extinguished as settlers moved westward. In essence, bison were taken on first-come, first-served basis, with no incentive to account for the future of the population. Anyone could kill bison on the plains as rapidly as they wished.

This lack of well-defined and enforced property rights is the root cause of virtually all environmental problems. But upon closer examination, it does not adequately explain the demise of the bison during this period. In a recent academic article, published in the Independent Review, I offer an alternative explanation: the bison were slaughtered not because of a lack of property rights to them, but because there was a higher-valued use of the land on which their massive herds thundered.

In other words, even if property rights could have been established to the bison herds, settlers would likely have slaughtered them anyway. The plain fact was that, during this period, a bison was worth more dead than alive.

Even if property rights could have been established to the herds, they would have been killed anyway. They were worth more dead than alive.The most valuable resource on the plains at the time was not actually the bison, but the grass beneath their hooves. The prairie grasses on the Great Plains were the bison’s primary food source. As railroads ventured westward, however, that grass became increasingly valuable for another purpose: meat production. But not just any meat – specifically beef, which would require grazing lands to run cattle.

Bison, of course, are also a source of meat. But for a variety of reasons, bison meat was extremely expensive to deliver to market during this time period. Domesticated cattle, on the other hand, could produce beef from the grasses of the plains much more efficiently. Since bison were in direct competition with cattle for space, their demise was inevitable. The result was a massive slaughter of bison over little more than a decade.

A second factor fueled the slaughter: growing demand for bison hides as a result of technological innovations in tanning. Economist M. Scott Taylor of the University of Calgary recently documented this phenomenon, arguing that English and German tanners were the first to discover a workable process for tanning bison hides. By 1871, technological change in tanning meant that bison hides had become almost identical to cattle hides for commercial use. Demand for bison hides boomed over the next decade as a result.

With bison hides fetching between $3.00 and $3.50 apiece at railheads, thousands of hide hunters outfitted themselves with wagons, rifles, and crews of skinners. These groups could kill several hundred bison in a day. The hides were stacked, bundled, and hauled to railroads where they were shipped east for tanning.

The hide trade sped up bison harvesting remarkably. The Western Kansas herd was eliminated in less than four years (1871-1874), the herds in western Texas were exterminated in five (1875-1879), and the bison of eastern Montana were killed off between 1880 and 1883.

If bison represented a viable form of production over the long run, either for meat or for hides, one would expect to see efforts to establish rights to bison and attempts to raise them for market. Yet there is no record of ranchers attempting to do so during this period.

The Bison Commons

After 1870, with the railroads expanding and the gradual pacification of Native American tribes, ranchers began to exert a new set of economic values upon the western landscape – one that did not include millions of bison roaming the plains. In fact, the bison herds presented a challenge for ranchers in the West: bison consumed grass and disrupted cattle production, so their removal was virtually an economic necessity, not necessarily a tragedy or waste of resources.

In this sense, the true economic cost of having bison around was rising dramatically. Herds of bison meant less room for cattle, and less grass for them to eat.

The major problems with bison had to do with production – they are difficult to confine, difficult to raise, and difficult to bring to market.Compared to cattle, bison were not a practical means of converting grass to meat. This was not because the meat was unpalatable. Railroad crews depended heavily on bison for their sustenance, and early residents of forts often engaged in meat trade with Indians. The major problems with bison had to do with production – they are difficult to confine, difficult to raise, and difficult to bring to market.

Bison cannot be gathered and trailed like cattle. “Bison is nothing at all like a cow critter,” as one participant in a 1906 roundup put it. “A bison ain’t afraid of nothing and don’t stick with the herd like a cow will.” Ten cowboys could easily trail 3,000 head of cattle. But ten cowboys could hardy herd ten bison to a common point.

Even if there would have been well-defined and enforced property rights to bison, it is likely that cattle would still have replaced them.Indeed, bison are one of the large animal species that Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, lists as incapable

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