The American Bison Was Driven to the Brink of Extinction

Millions of bison once roamed North America.

American bison in field
Bison were critical in the lives of the Plains tribes. Scott Suriano / Getty Images

The American bison – North America’s largest land animal and the national mammal of the U.S. – was nearly driven to extinction by habitat loss and hunting. An estimated 30 to 60 million bison roamed North America until the late 1800s, when bison numbers dwindled to fewer than 1,000.

Thanks to conservation efforts, the bison's numbers are now stable, and it is no longer endangered. Today, about 30,000 bison live in conservation-focused herds throughout North America. Another 400,000 or so are raised as livestock on ranches and farms.

Threats 

Historically, the greatest threats to the bison were hunting and habitat loss. Today, with their population numbers so low, they now also face threats from low genetic diversity.

Hunting

Bison were critical in the lives of the Plains tribes. Native Americans used the animals for food and their hides for clothing and to make shelter. They also made tools and ceremonial items from the bison. They relied on the bison for “nearly everything to survive physically and spiritually,” points out the National Wildlife Federation.

In the 1800s, settlers began moving into Native American land. They slaughtered millions of buffalo for food and sport. Recognizing the importance of the animals for the Plains tribes’ survival, they killed the bison “to deprive Native Americans of their most important natural asset,” says National Geographic. By the late 1800s, the bison population had dropped to fewer than 1,000.

Habitat Loss

When bison roamed millions of acres, their grazing kept both the grasslands and herds healthy and diverse, according to the WWF. But in addition to hunting bison for food and sport, early settlers also cleared the land where the bison roamed. They worked to make room for their own livestock, which took away from the bison’s habitat, leaving the remaining bison with little land left.

Bison walking through Black Sand Basin
Yellowstone is the only place in the U.S. where wild bison have lived continuously since prehistoric times. Lidija Kamansky / Getty Images

The largest remaining wild herd of bison consists of about 4,500 animals at Yellowstone National Park. Using fossils and stories from early travelers, researchers believe that Yellowstone is the only place in the U.S. where wild bison have lived continuously since prehistoric times. 

Genetics

There are only about 30,000 bison currently in conservation herds (herds managed by government and conservation organizations). These small herd sizes result in a loss of genetic diversity, as the gene pool for breeding is so small.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, some ranchers who owned some of the dwindling bison population bred them with cattle in hopes of creating healthier livestock and heartier meat animals.

According to the WWF, scientists believe there are only two public bison herds that show no evidence that they’ve been bred to cattle: Yellowstone and Elk Island National Park in Canada. Conservation groups have been working to establish additional non-hybrid herds in other locations. It’s critical to protect the bison’s genetics because a disease outbreak or other key event could threaten those herds.

What We Can Do

Although the bison’s numbers are nowhere near what they used to be, their population is stable and many call the animal a conservation success story.

Various groups are working with national parks, Native American communities, and ranchers to restore bison to their natural habitat.

Co-founded in 1905 by President Theodore Roosevelt and Bronx Zoo Director William Hornaday, the American Bison Society is part of the Wildlife Conservation Society. The group’s goal is the cultural and ecological restoration of bison across North America. (You can donate to WCS for bison conservation.)

The WWF works with several tribal communities throughout the Northern Great Plains to restore bison and other wildlife, including the endangered black-footed ferret, to its original habitats. You can financially pledge to support the effort or symbolically adopt a bison.

Established in 1992, the Intertribal Buffalo Council works with the National Park Service to coordinate transferring bison from parks to tribal lands. The group worked with the National Bison Association to name the bison the national mammal of the U.S. as part of the Bison Legacy Act of 2016. You can donate to the group to help move bison to tribal plains.