Mini and Maxi, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, United States
Photograph by Jan van den Eijnden
Taken in Yellowstone National Park’s Lamar Valley, this shot shows a Mini Cooper approaching a huge American Bison standing in the road.
American Bison, or American Buffalo as they are commonly called, once roamed much of North America, ranging from Canada’s far northwest, south to the Mexican states of Durango and Nuevo León, and east along the western Appalachian Mountains. Numbering from 30-60 million individuals, these large mammals were perhaps the most numerous large land animals on Earth. By the late 1880s, they had been hunted to the brink of extinction. The Yellowstone Park herd was the last free ranging bison herd in the United States. Yellowstone National Park is now the only place in the United States where bison have lived continuously since prehistoric times.
Many motives led to the slaughter of the American Bison. The US Army promoted the slaughter of bison herds to allow ranchers to range their cattle without competition and to weaken the Native American populations by removing one of their main food sources to pressure them onto reservations. The railroad industry wanted bison herds eliminated as well – huge herds of bison on the tracks could damage locomotives and delay trains for days at a time. Above all other factors, however, commercial market hunting ultimately was the primary reason for the bison’s near-demise.
Bison skins were utilized for clothing and industrial applications like machine belts. Individual market hunters would often kill dozens, even hundreds of bison each day, locating the herd in the morning and stationing themselves 100 meters from it, shooting the bison through the lungs. By the 1870s there were several hundred commercial hunting outfits “harvesting” the bison, killing from 2,000 to 100,000 each day.
By the mid-1870s, there were many who realized that the once great herds of bison were disappearing from over-hunting. Buffalo Bill Cody and others spoke in favor of protecting the species, but such proposals were discouraged since the Plains Indians depended on the bison. The Plains Indians were often at war with the United States and the US government was more than happy to sacrifice the entire species if it meant that the native peoples would suffer. President Ulysses S. Grant vetoed a federal bill to protect the herds in 1874 and a year later in 1875 General Sheridan asked Congress to slaughter the remaining herds to deprive the Indians of food. By the 1880s, the American Bison was close to extinction.
The 3,700 bison in Yellowstone National Park are all descended from a population of 23 individuals that survived the mass slaughter of the species and a captive herd of 21 Goodnight plains bison that was introduced to the park in 1902.