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The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History, 1750-1920

Author(s):Isenberg, Andrew C.
Reviewer(s):DePolt, Richard

Published by EH.NET (June 2003)

Andrew C. Isenberg, The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History, 1750-1920. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. xii + 206 pp. $40 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-521-77172-2; $18 (paperback), ISBN: 0-521-00348-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Richard DePolt, Department of Economics, Wake Forest University.

We know that over-hunting for the robe trade and the hide market during the nineteenth century nearly exterminated the bison from the Great Plains. But, according to Andrew C. Isenberg, this is an insufficient explanation for such a dramatic ecological event. To fully comprehend what happened, Isenberg presents the destruction as the outcome of an integrated dynamic process involving the volatile natural environment of the Great Plains, the ecological and economic invasion of the Euroamericans, and the culture and economy of the nomadic Plains Indians.

Isenberg argues that the natural volatility of the bison population is key to understanding the near extinction. Extended drought and other natural causes of death — fires, drowning, wolves, falls, blizzards, competition from other grazers — affected the carrying capacity of the plains, the growth rate of the population, or both. The result was that during certain periods, natural mortality may have exceeded the natural increase of the herd, raising the possibility of a catastrophic decline in the population. Any additional mortality due to hunting for subsistence or the market during these episodes would further deplete the stock of bison.

Isenberg’s objective is not to remove blame from the Indian and Euroamerican hunters but to emphasize the role of a dynamic natural world in which those hunters were operating. While Indian arrows and hide hunters’ bullets were sufficient on their own to ultimately destroy the herds, they were assisted by a volatile natural environment.

In addition to volatility of the natural environment, Isenberg seeks to integrate — and implicate — the nomadic equestrian hunting societies of the Great Plains into the explanation for the destruction of the bison. He attributes the development of these nomads to the ecological invasion of the Euroamericans, principally horses and Old World crowd diseases. The first increased the mobility of the Indians and pulled them onto the plains where they could follow the herds. The second pushed them from their horticultural villages and the security of their diversified resource use strategy. (Dispersion was but a temporary solution to the spread of disease. Eventually, visitors to Euroamerican trading posts diffused the pathogens throughout the plains.) The Indians adapted to the invasion, indicating they were not a passive and static element, and adopted a new resource use strategy that tied their fate to that of the bison.

Based on the ultimate outcome for the nomadic Indians, Isenberg is critical of this decision. He asserts that prior to the eighteenth century, “the Indians’ resource diversity was a conscious land use strategy … that protected them from both random environmental shock and overexploitation” (p. 39). Contrary to the security of self-sufficiency, the transformation required a total reliance on the bison and trade, and left the Indians vulnerable. While he suggests this was a necessary adaptation, he also allows that it was “a rational economic adjustment (that) yielded greater wealth at less expense” (p. 47). He points out that many Indians were already semi-sedentary and hunted bison on foot when the opportunity presented itself but they risked starvation when the bison were not to be found. Thus, the arrival of horses can be seen as removing a constraint on food production. Furthermore, the diversification may have been necessary due to the low productivity of hunting and gathering activities. Specializing in bison hunting and inter-tribal trade with horticultural villages was a lower cost way of providing goods for Indians located on marginal lands.

The economic invasion of the Euroamericans further affected the nomadic societies and the natural environment. The nomads participated in the fur trade, first in beaver pelts and later in bison robes. Both trade activities altered the ecology of the plains and influenced the behavior of those human societies that interacted with that environment. However, in contrast to the trade in beaver pelts, which was peripheral to the nomads’ main activities of hunting and processing bison for subsistence and intertribal trade, the robe trade utilized for commercial purposes the resource upon which their survival depended. Isenberg estimates that during periods with a favorable natural environment, the nomads’ harvest for consumption and intertribal trade was sustainable. However, the increased hunting for the market coincided with adverse environmental conditions to deplete the herds during the first half of the nineteenth century.

Isenberg identifies two factors to explain why the nomads exploited the bison for the robe trade. First, the social changes associated with nomadic society removed constraints upon individual economic behavior and the accumulation of wealth. A decline in the cooperative ethic, redistribution, and the centralized control of trade enhanced the individual reward and thus the incentive to increase commercial hunting effort. Also, to maintain mobility, wealth and status were measured by the number of wives and captive women. Second, the new resource utilization strategy eliminated the independent economic activities of women in horticulture and gathering and relegated them to processing robes. Import-competing activities were replaced by export-oriented activities as “men sought to advance their status by relying on the labor of socially subordinate women who dressed robes for trade” (p. 97). These factors were self reinforcing as larger family units could process more robes and thus generate more wealth for the male head.

According to Isenberg, a third factor — consumerism — was “not the cause of the robe trade but a symptom of it.” (p. 98) However, it seems plausible that to maintain their access to Euroamerican trade goods after depleting the beaver population, the nomads simply introduced a different article of trade into the existing trading system. While this ultimately proved not to be sustainable, in an environment without property rights in bison or centralized control over individual effort, it was a rational response by each individual hunter.

Following the Civil War, the scope and scale of the slaughter increased dramatically. Given that many recognized this as unsustainable, Isenberg explains why it was allowed to proceed. He offers two explanations. First, a new tanning process, more powerful rifles, the expansion of railroads, and a large supply of hunters and skinners combined to integrate bison hides into the industrialization occurring in the East. Thus, the bison were part of the nineteenth-century pattern of an industrial society exploiting the abundant natural resources.

Second, the destruction of the bison was also an integral part of Euroamerican expansion onto and domestication of the Great Plains. Some saw it as necessary for the advance of a superior resource utilization strategy — cattle ranching. Others saw it as a way to force the Indians to reservations where they could be civilized or tamed. This later view was supported by the Army, which encouraged hide hunters to violate treaties protecting the Indians’ hunting territories and deplete their food supplies. The result was the exhaustion of the bison from the southern plains during the 1870s and the northern plains between 1880 and 1883.

Isenberg concludes the book with an analysis of the late nineteenth-century and early twentieth- century efforts to preserve the bison from extinction. Two very different motivations are examined. The first was an effort by easterners to preserve the bison as a symbol of an “imagined masculine frontier culture” (p. 175). The second was an opportunity for western ranchers to profit from the species via private bison herds for viewing, sport hunting and meat production. This discussion highlights some interesting ironies. Isenberg attributes the rise of industry in the nineteenth century as the “monumental primary cause” in the destruction of the bison (p. 196). However, it was the wealth generated by industrialization that financed the preservation effort. The “wealthy (and) socially prominent” easterners were willing and able to provide private donations to preserve the species. Furthermore, while the market created very powerful incentives to exploit the resource, it was the lack of property rights that determined the nature of that exploitation. And it was the defining and enforcing of private property rights by ranchers that ensured the survival of the species. Such an interpretation may alter Isenberg’s message that the unsustainable exploitation of natural resources is not a viable development strategy.

The traditional explanation — overhunting — still explains the destruction of bison during the nineteenth century. Isenberg’s well-researched and very readable environmental history provides a more compelling explanation that acknowledges the interaction between a dynamic natural environment and the human societies that inhabited it.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century