Indian Influence On The Extinction of Bison In Southeast Idaho and Adjacent Areas

With the cultural appropriation of the horse, Indians became effective predators of the West’s bison herds.


It’s often repeated over and over that commercial hunting by white sharp shooters led to the demise of the large western bison herds.

However, there is plenty of evidence that Indian bison hunting led to the demise of the great bison herds and a decline in large mammals elsewhere. A similar decrease in bison occurred in Canada, with herds extirpated by the 1870s.

However, some of the best evidence for Indian extirpation can be found in Southeast Idaho and adjacent regions where by 1840 bison were extirpated. This was long before there was any significant white settlement or commercial bison hunting.

What happened?

Commercial hide hunting in the 1870s was the final nail in the coffin. Still, by that time, bison numbers were already diminished and even extirpated from many areas where they were once abundant just a few decades earlier.

A 1999 New York Times article reported a short overview of bison’s decline. For a more in-depth review, see my piece Indian Culpability in Bison Demise.

The idea that Indian hunting contributed to substantial bison decline is reiterated and documented by other authors like historian Dan Flores in his book American Serengeti who alludes to the decline of bison well before the 1870s bison hide hunting era.

Various other authors also noted the early destruction of bison. These include the following authors: Jim Bailey inAmerican Plains Bison Rewilding an Icon, Andrew Isenberg’s The Destruction of the Bison, Douglas Branch The Hunting of the Buffalo, and Allen Asaphi History of the American Bison all provide background on the bison decline. Richard Keigley goes into some detail about bison in the Yellowstone region, including the demise of bison in SE Idaho.

There were several factors contributing to bison decline, including climate change. The Little Ice Age ended in the 1800s, which resulted in drier conditions across the West. The resulting decrease in moisture led to a reduction in grass production and, thus, bison carrying capacity.

At least one author speculates that diseases introduced from domestic livestock in Texas cattle drives contributed to bison decline, but this was again late in the game, long after bison were already extirpated from numerous parts of their former range. .

Barbour notes in his book that bison decline was already being noted by the 1830s which is long before either commercial hide hunting or Texas cattle drives. He quotes Captain Raynolds, who had done a huge circuit of the prime bison grounds in the northern Plains between 1859-1860 lamented that the bison would be extinct in a generation.


By the 1750s most plains tribes had horses and adopted a mobile bison hunting lifeway. Charlie Russell painting. 

However, perhaps the most crucial factor concerning the tribal contribution to bison decline was the introduction of the horse. By the 1750s, most tribes in the northern Rockies and northern Great Plains had acquired Spanish horses either through trade or by stealing them from other tribes.

With the adoption of the mobile horse lifestyle, many tribes converged on the plains to hunt bison. Despite the assertions that these tribes had lived in their present location since “time immemorial,” nearly all Native American tribes associated with the Great Plains, are recent immigrants from other parts of North America.

The Cheyenne, in the 1600s lived near the Great Lakes, drifted westward, and were fully mobile bison hunters by the 1800s when they colonized a portion of the Wyoming plains. Similarly, the Crow had origins in Ohio but, over time, were living as farmers along the Missouri River in what is now North Dakota. The Shoshone drifted northwards from Mexico to occupy Idaho and adjacent parts of Wyoming and Montana. The Blackfeet originated somewhere on the eastern part of Canada and were living on the prairies of Saskatchewan by the 1700s. The Comanche, an off-shoot of the Shoshone, moved southwards from Wyoming to occupy Texas, Oklahoma and adjacent regions.

Once these tribes obtained horses, they gave up the sedentary lifestyle for bison hunting and moved into the Lower Yellowstone River Valley and adjacent Big Horn Basin. Other tribes, including the Arapaho, Sioux, Blackfeet, and Gros Ventre, all adopted the typical plains Indian bison hunting culture on the northern Great Plains to hunt bison.

The Nez Perce, who resided in the Columbia Basin of Oregon and Washington, made annual trips across the Bitterroot Mountains to hunt bison. The Flathead, Pend d Oreille, Shoshone, Bannock, and Ute from the Intermountain West, also hunted bison locally in Southeast Idaho and later on the plains.

At one point, hundreds of thousands of tribal people converged on the Great Plains and surrounding bison ranges to engage in bison hunting.

Map from William Hornaday in 1889 showing the gradual decline in the distribution of bison in North America. The light pink represents the maximum range of bison, and the concentric darker lines mark the gradual range shrinkage over time.  Note that by 1838 Hornaday says bison were extinct in what is now Idaho, northern Utah and adjacent areas of Wyoming and Montana. 

Although Lewis and Clark reported large herds of bison on their journey up the Missouri River in 1805, once beyond the Three Forks of the Missouri, near the town of the same name in Montana, they did not encounter another bison. From that point on, there were no more bison on their journey west to the Pacific Ocean, including in the Upper Salmon River of Idaho or Bitterroot Valley of Montana. There are various theories on why bison were not found further West, but suffice to say that in historic times, bison were primarily found on the Great Plains, and in a few larger valleys just west of the Continental Divide in Southwest Montana, Southeast Idaho, western Wyoming and northern Utah.


Fort Union at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers became a major focus of the Indian bison hide trade due to the fact that the heavy bison hides could be easily transported downstream on boats. Karl Bodmer painting.

Bison decline was noted by some traders along the Missouri River as early as 1800. Prince Maximilian, who visited Fort Union in 1834 at the junction of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers, noted: “Wild beasts and other animals whose skins are valuable in the fur trade, have already diminished greatly in number along the river, and it is said that in another ten years, the fur trade will be very inconsiderable.”  He says: “There is a park ten miles from Fort Union where I was told there were great numbers of the bones of these animals (bison). On such occasions, the Indians sometimes kill 700 or 800 buffaloes.”

The number of bison hides shipped east annually from trading posts throughout the plains was enormous.

For example, between 1874 and 1877, between 80,000 to 100,000 buffalo robes were shipped from Fort Benton in Montana annually, with 12,000 hides were contributed by the Blackfeet tribe alone. This was a period when the northern plains were still in control of the Indians, with only a few white traders living among them.


The acquisition of the horse transformed Indian society. The horse increased mobility and hunting efficiency. The Shoshone, Nez Perce, Flathead, and Bannock tribes were among the first to obtain horses which were obtained originally from Spanish settlements in New Mexico. By 1720 these tribes had horses. Other tribes on the northern plains did not receive the horse until the late 1700s. Lewis and Clark noted Spanish bridles on the horses of the Shoshone Indians they met near Lemhi Pass on the Idaho-Montana border.

Map showing the spread of horses northward with the earliest acquisition by the Shoshone, Flathead, Bannock and Nez Perce in the early 1700s. 

Where formerally, Indians killed bison by luck when the stars lined up right for them to push them over a cliff or when deep snow mired the bison so hunters could approach them to kill them, but bison under attack from hunters usually ran away.

This evolutionary predator avoidance strategy worked when human hunters were on foot but failed miserably when hunters were mounted on a horse that could outrun the bison.

Prior to the introduction of the horse, Indian bison hunting required special circumstances for success. Driving them over cliffs or creeping up close enough to kill them with bows and arrows limited the number of animals that could be effectively slaughtered. George Catlin painting. 

In essence, mounted hunters were a new and effective bison predator. This new predator situation lasted only about a century, from the late 1700s to 1870s, however, bison did not have time to evolve new predator avoidance strategies before they were extinct.

Compounding the new ability of humans to kill bison, Indians preferred to kill cow bison, whose meat was tastier and whose hides were softer and easier to tan. Thus, selective hunting of cow bison disproportionally removed a significant portion of the reproductive segment of the population. As modern wildlife managers know, if you want to reduce the overall population of any game animal, kill the females.

Hundreds of thousands of Indians lived or hunted bison on the plains. It is estimated they needed 20-25 bison per person for teepees, food, and other personal needs.

Bison were killed for food, shelter (teepees) winter bedding, and many other purposes. One estimate is that each individal Indian consumed 20-25 bison annually for these purpoes. Thus across the plains millions of bison were killed for direct Indian consumption and this does not count the bison wounded or simply killed and left where they died.

Bison was not only the principal food item for many tribes, but by the 1800s, bison hides had become a valuable trade item that enabled Indians to obtain goods that they desired and, in most cases, could not produce themselves like metal pots, knives, axes, wool blankets, guns and ammunition, and brightly colored cloth.

Bison hides were also traded among the tribes for horses, even to purchase a slave or wife. In essence, bison hides became the currency of the plains tribes.

Guns and ammo because necessary for survival in the numerous wars between tribes. Warfare was central to many Plains Indian cultures and was the primary way young males achieved stature in the group. In addition, guns were essential for fighting enemy tribes and for the acquisition of slaves that often were traded for other necessities of life.


Steamboats were able to assend the Missouri River by 1832, revolutionizing the hide trade because they could economically transport tens of thousands of hides. 

Geography played a role in the hide market. Bison hides were heavy and could not be transported readily by canoe, as was the standard means of travel in the Canadian fur trade. But with the coming of trading posts along rivers of the plains like the Missouri, Arkansas, and Platte, hides could be moved by water to downstream markets. Trade in bison hides increased after steam-powered boats successfully ascended the rivers starting in the 1830s.

By the 1870s, trade in bison hides increased dramatically with the coming of the railroads that permitted even larger shipments of hides to eastern markets.

Also, in the aftermath of the Civil War (1865), many former soldiers had no jobs or homes to return to and sought a new life in the West. Their sharpshooting skills developed during the Civil War made them effective bison hunters on the plains.

After the Civil War, displaced soldiers, and others skilled in sharp shooting, invaded the Great Plains to kill bison for their hides.


It should be noted that it becomes “common knowledge” that destroying bison herds was a government-authorized activity. Indeed, some military leaders and settlers wished to see bison destruction to break the back of hostile tribes. For instance, General Phil Sheridan, head of US Army troops in the West in the 1870s advocated “destroying the Indian’s commissary.” However, not all Americans agreed with that goal.

A good review of this opposition to any policy of bison extirpation to subdue the Indians can be found in Douglas Branch’s book The Hunting of the Buffalo.

For example, Arizona Congressman R.C. McCormick called the bison slaughter “wantonly wicked” and considered it “vandalism .” As a result, McCormick introduced legislation in 1871 to halt the butchery: “excepting for the purpose of using the meat for food or preserving the skin, it shall be unlawful for any person to kill the bison or buffalo found anywhere upon the public lands of the United States; and for the violation of the law the offender shall, upon conviction before any court of competent jurisdiction, be liable to a fine of $100 for each animal killed”.

Major General Hazen added his objection to the butchery. He wrote: “The theory that the buffalo should be killed to deprive the Indians of food is a fallacy, and these people are becoming harmless under a rule of justice.” Lieutenant Colonel Brackett, another military officer, added his objections, saying: “The wholesale butchery of buffaloes upon the plains is as needless as it is cruel.”

In 1874 new legislation was introduced by Rep. Fort of Illinois, which declared it would be unlawful for anyone, not an Indian, to kill, wound, or in any way destroy any female buffalo of any age found at large within any Territory of the United States.

In the Congressional debate that followed Fort’s legislative effort, another member of Congress argued that killing off the bison was the only means to “civilize” the tribes. Fort bellowed: “I am not in favor of civilizing the Indian by starving him to death, by destroying the means which God has given him for his support.”

Fort’s legislation passed the House and Senate, but President Ulysses Grant allowed the bill to die in a pocket veto.

As recorded in P. Norris’s Report on Yellowstone National Park to the Secretary of Interior in 1879, the Montana territorial government passed legislation to protect bison in certain counties in Montana Territory.

The legislation held: “that any person who shall willfully shoot or otherwise -kill, for the period of ten years from and after the passage of this act, any buffalo or bison, within the counties of Madison, Jefferson, Deer Lodge, and Lewis and Clarke, Montana Territory, shall be fined not less than one hundred dollars nor more than two hundred dollars, or imprisoned in the county jail not less two months and not more than six months, or both such fine and imprisonment, at the discretion of the court.”

Unfortunately, all of this concern for the fate of the bison was too little, too late.

Unfortunately the destruction of bison by tribal people still goes on. More than four hundred bison have been slaughtered by tribal members thus far this winter just outside of Yellowstone National Park. Photo George Wuerthner 

By 1870s, bison herds were already fragmented, and in many cases, gone from their former habitat. The remaining bison were relegated to the best bison habitat, such as the lower Yellowstone River in Montana and other favorable locations.

With bison more concentrated, locating and slaughtering the relict herds was readily accomplished.

It is essential to pay attention to dates. In the 1860s and 1870s, most of the best bison habitat was in firm control of hostile Indian tribes who presence precluded any significant white exploitation.

White settlement of Montana and Wyoming, for instance, was limited to small mining camps and towns like Virginia City, Helena, and Bozeman. Other than a few trading posts, there was no white settlement on the plains, which was effectively controlled by tribes like the Sioux and Blackfeet (as Custer’s demise in 1876 demonstrated).


The commerical hunting of bison for hides by white hunters accelerated in the 1870s with the coming of the railroads to the Great Plains. Painting Charlie Russell

Yet by the early 1880s, bison were essentially gone from the Montana and Wyoming plains. The railroad, which was essential in bison decline further south, did not reach Montana until 1881. While white hunters may have finished off the last remnants of the Montana herds, it is clear that the vast numbers that once cloaked the plains were largely gone due to Indian exploitation.

In his book The Extermination of the American Bison, William Hornaday provides a glimpse into the final days of free-roaming plains bison. By that the late 1880s, bison were effectively gone from Montana where just a decade earlier tribes like the Blackfeet were still killing thousands for the hide trade annually.

Since many Indian tribes believed that bison came from a hole in the ground, they could not conceive that they could overhunt the animals. Therefore, if bison were no longer found in former haunts, it was assumed that the mobile bison were just over the next ridge in another valley. Nevertheless, by the 1850s, if not sooner, many tribes began to recognize that bison numbers were declining.


Fort Hall was built as a trading post in 1834 near what is now the present city of Pocatello. Originally established for the Indian fur trade, the fort played a prominant role as a resupply hub for travelers on the Oregon Trail. Photo George Wuerthner 

One of the first places in the West where bison were extirpated by Indian hunting was in Southeast Idaho and adjacent parts of northern Utah, western Wyoming and southwest Montana. By 1840, according to Yellowstone Park historian, Lee Whittlesey, bison were essentially gone from this region where they had once been relatively of bison dististribution.

This region West of the Continental Divide was an area controlled and hunted by Flathead, Nez Perce, Shoshone, and Pend d Oreille tribes with occasional intrusions by Blackfeet intent on raiding and killing the before-mentioned tribes.

Since there were no white hunters other than a few hundred fur trappers roaming the entire West, whose primary purpose was to trap beaver, this regional bison’s demise is almost certainly due to Indian hunting.

A number of journals provide some historical insight and first-hand accounts.

Fish Creek Summit near Soda Springs, Idaho. Photo George Wuerthner 

The 1825 Journal of William Ashley has references to bison in the region. For example, on June 20, Ashley writes, “Buffalow have been here a few days past in great number.” And a few days later, he says: “ great numbers of buffaloe have lately been through these hills but now are scarce. They have traveled from the Lake River (Henry’s Fork of today) over to the Green River.”

In 1826, trapper Jedediah Smith and his men camped on the Portneuf River near Soda Spring in SE Idaho for three days to secure meat for a proposed journey southwest that eventually led to California. In his journal, Smith notes: “Here I encamped for the purpose of drying meat as the buffalo were quite plenty and in fine order.” He goes on to say he remained for three days, “during which time the party had dried three horses loads of the most excellent meat.

In 1827 Robert Campbell, David Jackson and William Sublette traveled from Bear Lake in SE Idaho to the Three Forks of the Missouri, following the Snake River and tributaries past the Tetons. They summarized the wildlife situation by declaring “On our trip we were abundantly supplied with buffalo, elk, deer, and bear all the time.

In 1828 Jim Beckwourth hunted bison near Idaho Falls. “On the third day we found buffalo and killed great numbers of them by a surround.”

In 1830 trapper Joe Meek wrote about the decline of wildlife in the western part of the GYE. He noted:” The whole country lying upon the Yellowstone and its tributaries and about the headwaters of the Missouri, at the time of which we are writing abounded not only in beaer, but in buffalo, bear, elk, antelope, and many smaller kinds of game. Indeed the buffalo used then to cross the mountains into the valleys about the headwaters of the Snake (i.e. SE Idaho) and Colorado Rivers (Upper Green River), in such numbers that at certain seasaons of the year , the plains and river bottoms swamred with them. Since that day they have quite disappeared from the western slope of the Rocky Mountains, (i.e. Idaho and western Wyoming) and are no longer seen in the same numbers on the eastern side.”


Another journal published by Warren Angus Ferris, Life in the Rocky Mountains: A Diary of Wanderings on the Sources of the Rivers Missouri, Columbia, and Colorado 1830-1835, provides a great deal of detail about Southeast Idaho and surrounding areas. The Ferris Mountains in the Great Divide Desert of Wyoming are named for him.

Ferris was a member of several fur trapping brigades that traveled Southeast Idaho and adjacent regions in the first part of the 1830s decade, and his journal is meticulous in detail.

His account contains references to bison throughout the region he roamed, though, like with any mobile animals; there were also locations where they did not see any bison. But taken as a whole, he makes numerous references to bison in the region.

For instance, in early April 1831, near what is now Pocatello, Idaho, Ferris recorded: “we camped this evening near the sources of the South Fork of the Porteneuf (his spelling) having seen along our route great numbers of buffalo, and many with calves.” Later he notes: “large herds of buffalo were driven over to us before the Flathead.”

Fur trappers like Warren Ferris reported numerous bison herds in and around the Blackfoot River in eastern Idaho during the 1830s, but by the 1840s, they were all but gone. Photo George Wuerthner 

Near the mouth of the Blackfoot River by today’s Fort Hall Indian Reservation north of Pocatello, Ferris notes, “we found this valley covered with buffalo.”

On January 3, 1832, Ferris and his party of trappers camped with some Flathead Indians on a tributary of the Salmon River and noted that he and the Indians “killed up to a hundred bison, which were numerous for sometime after we arrived.”

Traveling across the Snake River Plains north of what is today known as “Big Southern Butte,” he noted, “we saw large herds of buffalo during our march.”

While traveling across Gray’s Hole near what is now Gray’s Lake NWR in eastern Idaho, Ferris says, “we saw great numbers of buffalo running all directions.”

Pierre’s Hole below the Tetons near present-day Driggs, Idaho. Pierre’s Hole was the site of the 1832 Fur Rendezvous. Photo George Wuerthner 

In June of 1832, Ferris’s party joined with some Indians to hunt bison in Henry’s Fork (near present-day Ashton, Idaho) below the Tetons. In preparation for the 1832 rendezvous gathering at Pierre’s Hole (by Driggs, Idaho), his men and the accompanying Indians killed “hundreds daily during our stay on Henrie’s Fork.”

In 1833, Ferris and his party were camped along the Salt River on what is now the Idaho-Wyoming border. “On the 1oth, a party of us went up to the Boiling Kettles to procure buffalo meat: we found the valley quite covered with them (bison) but killed a few bulls only.”

On the 25th, Ferris was in the Upper Green River Valley near the New Fork River, where he saw “immense herds of bison were seen in every direction.”

And so it goes, Ferris continuously observes large herds of bison throughout the region.

Though the fur trappers killed bison, it was primarily for food. At the time of Ferris’s engagement as a trapper, he estimated there were no more than 300 men and their camp keepers roaming the northern Rocky Mountains. And while they killed bison for food, their impact on bison numbers would have been negligible.

By comparison, there were hundreds of thousands of Indians of various tribes whose territory overlapped the same region or like the Nez Perce of eastern Washington, who made annual migrations across the mountains to hunt bison. Not only were the tribes killing bison for food, but as part of the hide trade. Records of trading posts like Fort Union and others on the Missouri River and Yellowstone rivers document that hundreds of thousands of bison hides were traded annually by various tribes.

By 1835 Ferris was aware that bison were in steep decline. He wrote, “Beaver and other kinds of game become every year more rare; and both the hunter and the Indians will ultimately be compelled to herd cattle, or cultivate the earth for a livelihood, or in default of these starve. Indeed, the latter deserve the ruin that threatens their offspring, for their inexcusable conduct, in sacrificing the millions of buffalo which they kill in sport for their skins only. The robes they obtain, in the latter case, are most frequently exchanged for whiskey with the traders at their establishments on the Missouri, Arkansas and Platte rivers.”


Traveling in the same general region of the Rocky Mountains from 1834-1843 was fur trapper Osborn Russell. Like Ferris, his book Journal of a Trapper presents a reasonable account of wildlife and Indian encounters in the region. Russell traveled west in 1834 with Nathaniel Wyeth who founded the Fort Hall trading post near what is now Pocatello, Idaho.

Russell encountered numerous bison in S.E. Idaho. He writes: “fell on to a stream called Portneuf. Here we found several large bands of buffaloe.

On the Salt River on the Idaho-Wyoming border he recorded seeing “thousands of buffaloe carelessly feeding in the green vales contributing to the wild and romantic splendor of the surrounding scenery.”

Traveling down the Blackfoot River near Fort Hall Indian Reservation just north of Pocatello, Idaho, at the end of May 1835, Russell notes his party “found thousands of buffalo bulls and killed a number of them.”

The Tetons as seen near Driggs, Idaho, and on the edge of Pierre’s Hole. Photo George Wuerthner 

Traveling to Pierre’s Hole below the Tetons, Russell noted: “This beautiful valley consisting of a smooth plain intersected by small streams and thickly clothes with grass and herbage and abounds with buffaloe, elk, deer, antelope, etc.

Near Camas Lake on the edge of the Snake River Plain, by what is now Dubois, Idaho, Russell was “full of buffaloe.”[i]

In the same area, south of Camas Lake, Russell “came upon several large bands of buffaloe.”[ii]

A few days later, Russell wrote: “The next day being the 4th, I lay all day and watched buffaloe which were feeding in immense bands.” And the next day he traveled about 5 miles and observed that: “The buffaloe were carelessly feeding on the plain as far as the eye could reach.

Near what is now Idaho Falls, Idaho, Russell observed the slaughter of several thousand bison in a single day by the Bannock Indians. Russell described the scene: “I walked out with the chief to a small hillock to watch the view of slaughter after the cloud of dust had passed away in the prairie which was covered with the slain several thousand cows were killed without burning a single grain of gunpowder.”

A few years later, along the Portneuf River near present-day Pocatello, Idaho, Russell noted: “In the year 1836, large herds of buffalo could be seen in almost every little valley on the small branches of this stream: at this time the only traces which could be seen of them were the scattered bones of former years, deeply indented in the earth, were overgrown with grass and weeds.”

In the appendix of his journal, he makes a gloomy prediction about the future of the bison. He wrote: “The vast numbers of these animals which once traversed such an extensive region in North America are fast diminishing. The continual increasing demand for robes in the civilized world has already and is still contributing in no small degree to their destruction, whilst on the other hand the continual increase of wolves and other 4 footed enemies far exceeds that of the buffaloe when these combined efforts for its destruction is taken into consideration, it will not be doubted for a moment that this noble race of animals, so useful in supplying the wants of man, will at no far distance period become extinct in North America. The buffaloe is already a stranger , although so numerous 10 years ago, in that part of the country which is drained by the sources of the Colorado, Bear, and Snake Rivers and occupied by the Snake and Bannock Indians.


In 1843, John Fremont, known as the “Pathfinder,” traversed the same general part of  SE Idaho as Ferris and Russell had traveled. Fremont was a meticulous note-taker and was guided by Kit Carson.

On the North Platte River of what is now Wyoming, Fremont reported bison as “abundant.” And he goes on to say the “surrounding country appears to be well stocked with buffalo.” However, he notes his party decided to kill some bison to stock up on their food supplies as the region they were entering (over South Pass and Continental Divide) “was said to be nearly destitute of game.” [i]

As Fremont moved up the Sweetwater River towards South Pass, he noted they encountered a “few straggling buffalo bulls.” [ii]

This is the Green River country of Wyoming which in the previous decades was well known to host large herds of bison.


The Upper Green River below the Wind River Range was prime bison habitat, and numerous fur trappers noted extensive herds here, but by 1840s when John Fremont traveled through this valley, he found no bison here or anyplace else west of the Continental Divide. Photo George Wuerthner 

Once he left the east side of the Continental Divide, he does not mention encountering any bison at all, including in the Upper Green River of Wyoming, then the Smith’s Fork and Thomas’s Fork, which are tributaries of the Bear River country of Idaho, and adjacent areas.[iii]

This is the same area where Ferris, Osborne Russell and other trappers, a decade earlier, repeatedly recorded abundant bison herds.  

On August 30, in the Bear River country of SE Idaho, he encountered a Shoshone Indian village and tried to obtain some roots from them to vary their diet.

He notes that the villagers “had no game of any kind; and it was difficult to obtain any roots from them, as they were miserably poor, and had but little to spare from their winter stock of provisions. Several of the Indians drew aside their blanks, showing me their lean and bony figures: and I would not any longer tempt them with a display of our merchandise to part with their wretched subsistence when they gave as a reason that it would expose them to temporary starvation. A great portion of the region inhabited by this nation formerly abounded in game; the buffalo ranging about in herds, as we had found them on the eastern waters, and the plains dotted with scattered bands of antelope, but so rapidly have they disappeared within a few years that now, as we journeyed along, an occasional buffalo skull an a few wild antelope were all that remained of the abundance which had covered the country with animal life.” [iv]

Fremont goes on to write: “The extraordinary rapidity with which the buffalo is disappearing from our territories will not appear surprising when we remember the great scale on which their destruction is yearly carried on.” [v]

A few lines further, he notes: “… the Indians deriver their entire support from them (killing bison) and slaughter them with thoughtless and abominable extravagance.” [vi]

Fremont then recounts how abundant the bison were in the region a few decades before he traversed the region. “Our knowledge does not go farther back than the spring of 1824, at which time the buffalo were spread in immense numbers over the Green River and Bear River of the Gulf of California, and Lewis’s Fork (now South Fork of the Snake) of the Columbia; the meridian of Fort Hall then forming the western limit of their range. The buffalo then remained for many years in that country, and frequently moved down the valley of the Columbia on both sides of the river as far as the Fishing Falls (just west of Pocatello, Idaho.) Below this point, they never descended in any numbers. About the year 1834 or 1835, they began to diminish very rapidly and continued to decrease until 1838 or 1840, when, with the country we have just described, they entirely abandoned all the waters of the Pacific north of Lewis’s Fork of the Columbia. At that time, the Flathead Indians were in the habit of finding their buffalo on the heads of the Salmon River and other streams of the Columbia; but now they never meet with them farther west than the Three Forks of the Missouri or on the plains of the Yellowstone River.”

Fremont goes on to say: “In the course of our journey, it will be remarked that the buffalo have not so entirely abandoned the waters of the Pacific, in the Rocky Mountain region south of the Sweet Water, as in the country north of the Great Pass (South Pass).”

Fremont recounts: “In traveling through the country West of the Rocky Mountains, observation readily led me to the impression that the buffalo had, for the first time, crossed that range to the waters of the Pacific only a few years prior to the period we are considering and in this opinion, I am sustained by Mr. Fitzpatrick and the oldest trappers in that country. In the region West of the Rocky Mountains, we never meet with any of the ancient vestiges which, throughout all the country lying upon their eastern waters, are found in the great highways, continuous for hundreds of miles, always several inches and sometimes several feet in depth, which the buffalo have made in crossing from one river to another or in traversing the mountain ranges.”[vii]

Fremont summarizes these observations by saying: “The extraordinary abundance of buffalo on the east side of the Rocky Mountains (on the Great Plains) and their extraordinary diminution will be made clearly evident from the following statement: At any time between the years 1824 and 1836, a traveler might start from any given point south or north in the Rocky Mountain range, journeying by the most direct route to the Missouri River; and during the whole distance, his road would be always among large bands of buffalo, which would never be out of his view until he arrived almost within sight of the abodes of civilization.”[viii]

However, it was not just west of the Rocky Mountains that bison were declining (see my overview of bison decline here), as early as the early 1800s, traders along the Missouri River and elsewhere on the plains noted that bison were declining in the northern Great Plains region.

Fremont notes: “In 1842, I found the Sioux Indians of the Upper Platte demmles, as their French traders expressed it, with the failure of the buffalo; and in the following year, large villages from the Upper Missouri came over to the mountains at the heads of the Platte, in search of them. The rapidly progressive failure of their principal and almost their only means of subsistence has created great alarm among them; by which they see a good prospect for escaping starvation: one of these is to rob the settlements along the frontier of the States, and the other is to form a league between the various tribes of the Sioux nation, the Cheyenne, and Arapahoe, and make war against the Crow nation, in order to take from them their country, which is now the best buffalo country in the West. This plan they now have in consideration, and it would probably be a war of extermination of the Crow.” [ix]

It is important to note that this was written decades before the coming of the railroads and significant white commercial bison hunting that began post-Civil War in the 1870s, which many assert led to the extirpation of bison in the West. In fact, bison were in steep decline long before there was any white settlement or hunting.


Further credence to this decline is found in the meticulous journal notes of Captain William Franklin Raynolds. Raynolds was accompanied by the famous mountain man Jim Bridger as guide and Dr. Ferdinand Hayden as the chief scientist. Hayden would later become famous for his explorations of what is now Yellowstone National Park. In 1859-1860 they traversed through the heart of the bison ranges on the northern plains and mountains in what are now the states of South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and North Dakota.

It is important to remember that except for a few trading posts like Fort Benton and Fort Union, and the occasional white man who was married to an Indian woman, there were no white settlers, trappers, or other non-native people living or traveling through the entire region Raynolds explored. Therefore, any bison decline in this region can only be attributed to Indian hunting.

Beginning at St Louis on May 28, 1859, the Reynolds Expedition traveled by steamer up the Missouri to Fort Pierre (present-day Pierre, South Dakota), where he embarked and began his expedition by horse travel. He proceeded across South Dakota, through NE Wyoming to the lower Yellowstone in what is now Montana, and thence south along the Bighorn River to the North Platte River, where his party wintered. From there, in the spring, they circled up around the Wind River Range, into Jackson Hole, over Teton Pass to Pierre’s Hole (present-day Driggs, Idaho), up the Henry’s Fork to Henry’s Lake, over Raynolds Pass (named for him) down the Madison River to Three Forks, Montana and onward down the Missouri past Great Falls, past Fort Benton, and on the rest of the Missouri to its confluence with the Yellowstone River at Fort Union on the North Dakota-Montana border. From Fort Union, he completed his circuit of the region, arriving back in Fort Pierre on September 7, 1860[x]

In traversing South Dakota, he did not see one live bison, and this was the heart of the plains bison country in previous decades. He did note some tracks near the Black Hills but did not observe any live animals.

On July 20, 1859, on the Little Missouri River, they encountered the first bison on the border of western South Dakota and NE Wyoming. Raynolds wrote: “We are now in the buffalo region and small herds are to be seen in all directions.”[xi]

Indeed, he enthusiastically noted the fact that they finally had fresh meat. “Bridger and some of the soldiers also went out after encamping and returned having killed three cows each. We are, therefore, abundantly supplied with choice bits of this celebrated game, and roast ribs and hump are the order of the day in camp.[xii]

On July 21, Raynolds describes the Little Missouri country and says, “Naked hills describe the country through which we have passed today, the latter having been apparently once covered with grass, since eaten off by the buffalo which have been today seen in large numbers upon all sides.

The Raynold’s party first encountered bison along the Powder River in NE Wyoming. Photo George Wuerthner 

By July 27, Raynold’s party entered the Powder River of NE Wyoming and reported, “When we did reach the valley (Powder River), it was found to be filled with buffalo.”

On July 28, the abundance of bison is confirmed when Raynolds found, “This scarcity of grass has become the leading feature in the country and can, of course, be partially explained by the presence of the buffalo in such large numbers.”

He attributes the abundance of bison to the absence of Indian hunting. “The presence of these animals in such large numbers in this barren region is explained by the fact that this valley is a species of neutral ground between the Sioux and the Crows and other bands nearer the mountains, or more correctly speaking, the common war ground visited only by war parties, who never disturb the game as they would thereby give notice to their enemies of their presence.”

Similar observations by early travelers of the region, including Lewis and Clark, noted that the largest herds of bison were found in the no-man’s land between the enemy.

On August 14, Raynold’s party reached the Yellowstone River Valley, where he saw incredible numbers of bison. “Our first view of the Yellowstone valley itself, of which over 50 square miles was visible, literally black with buffalo, grazing in an enormous herd whose numbers defy computation, but must be estimated by the hundreds of thousands.” [xiii][xiv]

Despite this abundance, once the party began to follow the Bighorn River southward into what is now Wyoming, they did not encounter any more bison that season. Finally, on October 6, they reached the Platte River Valley. Again, there were no bison, though Raynolds did note that there were buffalo chips in the region, indicating that at some point in the past, bison had visited the area. [xv]

After wintering for seven months on the North Platte River, on May 10, 1860, the expedition continued its westward explorations. On May 15, east of the upper North Platte River near today’s Alcova Reservoir, Raynolds met some Arapahoe Indians who reported that they had seen and killed bison not far in advance of the Raynolds party. Moreover, Raynolds wrote, “numerous tracks and sign show that they been here recently.” [xvi]

A few days later, Raynolds says Hayden spotted some bison at a distance with Indians watching them for a chance to kill them. Then near the headwaters of the Wind River near Dubois, Wyoming, Raynolds again notes “sign” of bison which he indicated that the Shoshone Indians kept “penned up” in the mountain valleys so they could kill them when necessary.

Nevertheless, despite the occasional “sign” of bison, the expedition did not actually see any or kill any since leaving the Platte River. After going into Jackson Hole and over Teton Pass into Pierre’s Hole (present-day Driggs, Idaho), Raynold’s commented on the paucity of game. “Notwithstanding the beauty and fertility of the valley, we have seen no game, squirrels being the largest animals that have crossed our path, while of birds, only a few curlew and others of the smaller variety have been visible. These circumstances are to be regretted as with our limited stock of provisions, a constant supply of fresh meat is very desirable.[xvii]

On June 25, the expedition traveled over what is now Raynold’s Pass to the Madison River and the headwaters of the Missouri River. Raynolds notes they have seen one band of buffalo.

Fort Benton was a major trading post on the Upper Missouri River in 1846 by the American Fur Company. Photo George Wuerthner

The party encountered more bison along the Missouri River on July 28, when they were below Fort Benton and near the Musselshell River, a distance of hundreds of miles in what was formerly the prime bison range. [xviii]

On August 3, as the expedition continued its travel down the Missouri River, Raynolds notes, “we halted early with the hope of securing game. In this we were disappointed, however, as the Crows are just south of us, and the Assiniboines to the north, it is probably that we shall obtain no more fresh meat, as these tribes scour the hunting grounds most thoroughly.”[xix]

It was not until they were east of Fort Union on what is today the Montana-North Dakota border that he again noted the presence of “small and scattered bands of bison.” [xx] Raynolds does not mention encountering any more bison on the rest of his journey to Fort Pierre.

In his 1855 treaty talks with tribes of the Columbia River Issac Stevens, it was noted that “Stevens told you that the Blackfeet said the Buffalo were not as plenty as they were once; it is but a few years since there were a plenty of Buffalo at Fort Hall. Mr. Craig here has seen many of them there and probably others of you have; where are they now? all gone.”


Further evidence that bison were extirpated from Southeast Idaho and adjacent areas is the fact that by the 1840s, all the tribes who had previously hunted bison in the area, including the Nez Perce, Flathead, Shoshone, Bannock, and Pend D’ Oreille, traveled further to the east to access the remaining bison herds on the plains.

Nez Perce Creek in Yellowstone National Park. Tribes traveling to hunt bison on the plains often went through Yellowstone NP on the Bannock Trail to avoid the hostile Blackfeet who guarded access to Montana buffalo fields. Photo George Wuerthner 

The Bannock Trail across what is now Yellowstone NP out to the Big Horn Basin and lower Yellowstone Valley was a major route used by these tribes to avoid encounters with the hostile Blackfeet, even though there were more direct routes to the bison herds further north.

It is logical to ask why these tribes would make an arduous journey through the mountains with thousands of horses and tribal members if they could obtain bison closer to home and avoid encounters with hostile tribes like the Arapahoe, Sioux, and Blackfeet who jealously guarded access to the bison herds on the plains.

Part of the answer to why bison were eliminated from the mountain valleys of Idaho, SW Montana, and northern Utah, while they remained in large numbers on the plains for a longer period of time, may have to do with topography. For one thing, these valleys typically have deeper snow than on the plains, making survival more difficult for bison. The region could never support massive herds of bison.

Second, the basic “island geography” of small populations. As hunting pressure increased across the mountain valleys, bison herds were increasingly fragmented and extirpated from local areas.

As each small herd was eliminated, the ability to “recolonize” the habitat from adjacent bison herds became less and less likely. Furthermore, as bison numbers declined, hunting pressure on the remaining small pockets of bison likely increased as tribal hunters focused hunting on those herds.

By contrast, on the plains, beyond the fact that the habitat was better for bison (more continuous grasslands, less snow, and nutritious summer warm-season grasses), the natural landscape did not concentrate animals in valleys, so when there was human hunting pressure, the herds could move to other habitats.

By the 1850s, bison were extirpated from much of western Wyoming, eastern Idaho, southwest Montana, and even large portions of the Great Plains. This was all before any significant white settlement or commercial hunting.

As noted by Raynolds, as bison herds declined, intertribal warfare increased as each group of Indians sought to control the best-remaining bison habitat of the region. Ironically this led to even more bison slaughter since guns and ammo essential for warfare could only be obtained by trading bison hides to traders.

While the commercial hide hunting by white hunters finished off the last significant bison herds in the central and southern plains, for the most part, this was only successful because bison numbers were already fragmented and headed towards extinction as a consequence of Indian hunting.

Although this article focuses on Southeast Idaho, similar evidence of the contribution of Indian hunting towards bison extirpation can be found in various narratives and historical accounts. A good review of the relationship between Indians and bison in the southern plains and the ultimate decline of bison in the region can be found in Pekka Hamalainen’s book Comanche Empire.

What all these historical accounts demonstrates is that even in the absence of commercial hunters, on-going Indian predation contributed to bison decline. It is likely that bison would have vanished from the plains or at least have been greatly diminished within a few decades as a consequence of Indian exploitation.

[i] Osborne Russell Journal of a Trapper page 34

[ii] Osborne Russell Journal of a Trapper page 35

[i] John Fremont. Fremont’s First Impressions. The Original Report of his Exploring Expeditions of 1843-184. Page 131.

[ii] John Fremont. Fremont’s First Impressions. The Original Report of his Exploring Expeditions of 1843-184. Page 133

[iii] John Fremont. Fremont’s First Impressions. The Original Report of his Exploring Expeditions of 1843-184. Page 142.

[iv] John C. Fremont. Fremont’s First Impressions. The Original Report of His Exploring Expeditions of 1843-1844. Page 155.

[v] John C. Fremont. Fremont’s First Impressions. The Original Report of His Exploring Expeditions of 1843-1844. Page 156.

[vi] John C. Fremont. Fremont’s First Impressions. The Original Report of His Exploring Expeditions of 1843-1844. Page 156

[vii] John C. Fremont. Fremont’s First Impressions. The Original Report of His Exploring Expeditions of 1843-1844. Page 157

[viii] John C. Fremont. Fremont’s First Impressions. The Original Report of His Exploring Expeditions of 1843-1844. Page 157

[ix]   John C. Fremont. Fremont’s First Impressions. The Original Report of His Exploring Expeditions of 1843-1844. Page 159

[x] William Franklin Raynolds. Report on the Exploration of the Yellowstone River. Brig. Gen. W.F. Raynolds communication with the Secretary of War, in compliance with a Resolution of Senate, February 1866 Washington, Government Printing Office 1868.

[xi] William Franklin Raynolds. Report on the Exploration of the Yellowstone River, page 33.

[xii] William Franklin Raynolds. Report on the Exploration of the Yellowstone River, page 33

[xiii] William Franklin Raynolds. Report on the Exploration of the Yellowstone River, page 45

[xv] William Franklin Raynolds. Report on the Exploration of the Yellowstone River, page 69

[xvi] William Franklin Raynolds. Report on the Exploration of the Yellowstone River, page 79

[xvii] William Franklin Raynolds. Report on the Exploration of the Yellowstone River, page 96

[xviii] William Franklin Raynolds. Report on the Exploration of the Yellowstone River, page 112

[xix] William Franklin Raynolds. Report on the Exploration of the Yellowstone River, page 113

[xx] William Franklin Raynolds. Report on the Exploration of the Yellowstone River, page 115


  1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
    Jeff Hoffman

    What this shows is that HUMANS are the problem, not certain groups of them. Of course the colonizers created much bigger and worse problems, starting with the virtual genocide of the Natives, destruction of the land, and killing of entire species. But as some Natives now admit, it Natives also caused extinctions when they came here 25-30,000 years ago.

    Some cultures are Earth-friendly and the people in them live lightly on the Earth, don’t overpopulate, and don’t take what they don’t need. Those people are called hunter-gatherers, and there are only 2-400,000 of them left because of civilized people. But as the extinctions caused by humans when they left Africa 60-90,000 years ago, and the Native-caused extinctions of species here show, even hunter-gatherers can be a problem if they don’t limit their hunting to what they need at the moment. (The reason that this is a problem is because humans use technology to hunt, unlike all other species who use their own bodies only.)

  2. Maximilian S Werner Avatar
    Maximilian S Werner

    Another detailed and highly informative article from Dr. Wuerthner. I think it has less to do with pointing fingers at “groups” and more to do with understanding the reality–past and present–of bison management. Thus, more than anything else, I appreciate the article’s attempt to get at the truth (or to at least raise questions about) this complex and ongoing issue.

  3. Jerry L Thiessen Avatar
    Jerry L Thiessen

    Lots of good reference material and documentation. I appreciate the effort to explain based on the written evidence.
    There are some gaps in the essay however. Grasslands west of the Rockies, comprised of bunchgrass species, were not suited nor capable of carrying bison in densities comparible to those found on the Great Plains. Modern bison west of the Rockies were virtual new-comers, arriving in just the past few thousand years. After they arrived, they had to make the best of surviving in a less than favorable environment, but they did not thrive. They were always living on the edge of demise and susceptible to stressor unlike those on the Great Plains. It’s no wonder they lasted only about one hundred years after the natives acquired the horse and only about 20 years after the arrival of fur traders. Marginal habitat was as much to blame as Indians riding Buffalo ponies. Bison on the Great Plains, an intrical part of
    Great Plains ecology, lasted another 50 years until the great white swarm finally did them in.
    In the scheme of things, bison west of the Rockies were more visitors than an integral part of the ecology, but were artificially supported by natives burning bunch grass ranges to improve carrying capacity and maintain them in a more attractive condition for bison. But it ultimately was not enough because conservation ethics, or practices, were never part of the equation for Indians or whites.

  4. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    IDK, nobody or habitat made a deliberate attempt to eradicate them by government policy. Isn’t that true? It’s what I have always heard. Changes to the native culture after European colonization is a factor, but prior to that, for thousands of years, there was co-existence? Building of the railroads across the country, tourists shooting bison (like fish in a barrel) for fun from the train stops.

    There’s no denying the overwhelmingly negative impact from colonization, and it is indefensible.

    It’s quite shocking to realize that it only took 100 years to nearly destroy it all.

    1. Jerry L Thiessen Avatar
      Jerry L Thiessen

      The slaughter you are referring to happened on the Great Plains years after the bison had already been extinguished in what is now Idaho.

      1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
        Jeff Hoffman

        But there weren’t that many bison west of the plains to begin with. I’m not saying that it was OK to make them extinct, but bison were generally plains animals.

    2. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
      Jeff Hoffman

      Well, Natives did drive bison off cliffs before the colonizers got here. That was immoral and wrong, because most of the bodies were left to rot. To be clear, Natives were nowhere near as a big of a problem as the colonizers, but they committed some harms too.

      When Natives first came here across the land bridge, they caused extinctions, just as humans did 60-90,000 years ago when they began leaving Africa. This clearly shows that This is a HUMAN problem, though obviously some humans are much worse than others.

  5. Martha S. Bibb Avatar
    Martha S. Bibb

    Humans have driven all large mammals to extinction everywhere on the planet. Here, there and everywhere. The introduction of the horse by the Spanish colonizers just hastened he demise of buffalo.

    1. Jerry L Thiessen Avatar
      Jerry L Thiessen

      Horses evolved in North America and went extinct shortly after the arrival of man. However, bison endured. Ironic?

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner