By Jim Robertson

During the 1800s, a serial killer known as Buffalo Bill terrorized the American West, shooting and skinning his victims who numbered in the thousands. But no special agents from the FBI headquarters in Quantico, Virginia, were sent out to stop Bill or the procession of copycat killers joining in the mayhem. The carnage was endorsed and encouraged; the targets, though gregarious, caring and benign, were nonhuman after all.

Over 60 million bison were massacred in a shameful era that nearly brought an end to them, along with elk, grizzlies, wolves and every other species hunters could get a bead on.

Compared to the human world, the bison nation is a shining pillar of civilization. Herds of bison never waged war or decimated their fellow mammals. The embodiment of gregariousness, bison are much like elephants in character and culture. Dignified breeding-aged bison bulls travel in small groups–nearly always in threes, for companionship and to watch each others’ backs–only joining the herd during the summer mating season. For the rest of the year, the main herd, led by an experienced matriarch, consists of several generations of mothers with their young, cousins, aunts and males up to three years old.

Photo copyright Jim Robertson

Bison form lasting bonds in and outside the family, between cows cautiously escorting their calves, siblings and also between unrelated individuals who grew up, traveled and learned about life together. Selfless and protective, juveniles help mothers look after the youngsters and will gladly lend a horn to keep prospective predators away from the calves. I have seen this kind of cooperation among bison families many times in the years I’ve spent observing and photographing them. I’ve also witnessed them mourn over the bones of their dead and even put themselves in harm’s way to defend other species, such as elk, from ambitious wolves.

It’s fitting that bison became the symbol of our national parks, since Yellowstone, the first ever established, has a history linked with theirs. Not only was it the last place in the country to harbor the besieged buffalo, but on either side of Yellowstone one can visit the shrines that stand as dark reminders of how bison have been exploited by voracious, over-consumptive humans since time immemorial.

Seventy miles northwest of Yellowstone (and 70 miles beyond the allowable range of bison now or in the foreseeable future), the river passes an area designated a Montana state monument commemorating the Madison Buffalo Jump. In a ritual far more atrocious than Spain’s “Running of the Bulls,” aboriginal people–glorified as ecological stewards and fabled for their “special relationship” with the animals they killed–ran terrified bison over cliffs, laying waste to far more than they could ever use. The broken bones of these unfortunate animals–many of whom suffered for hours while their assailants butchered one after another of their herd-mates–still lay 30 feet deep at some of these sites.

The buffalo “jump,” as it’s flippantly referred to, was a common hunting practice for tribes along the Rocky Mountain front. In a May 29, 1805 entry of the journals of Lewis and Clark, Meriwether Lewis described the following scene: “Today we passed…the remains of a vast many mangled carcasses of Buffalow which had been driven over a precipice of 120 feet by the Indians and perished; the water appeared to have washed away a part of the immence pile of slaughter and still there remained the fragments of at least a hundred carcases…they created a most horrid stench. In this manner the Indians of the Missouri distroy vast herds of buffaloe at a stroke.”

With the advent of buffalo jumps, the bison’s adaptation of fleeing to escape human predators–a response that had served them well in earlier times–was turned against them. Around a million years ago in Eurasia, the bison line branched off the bovine family tree that included the ancestors of the cattle that made Ronald McDonald the wealthy clown he is today. Having adapted to the northern climes, a pioneering species, the Steppe bison, crossed the Bering land bridge from Siberia to Alaska during an interglacial period roughly 600,000 years ago. They gave rise to several other bison species, including the giant long-horned, the ancient and the Asian bison (from which today’s species, known as the American bison, is the direct successor). Like the American, the Asian bison had upward-pointing horns and lived by the flight rather than fight strategy when faced with their most feared predators: humans. The other early bison species had forward-pointing horns, with which they defended themselves while holding their ground.

But any species who exercised this defensive strategy found it ineffective when they encountered the first humans to reach the New World via a much later land bridge around 12,000 years ago. Those people brought along stone-bladed spears which they hurled (from a safe distance, of course) at any large mammal they met. At least two early species of bison around at that time were quickly eliminated by human hunters. They, along with many other species who evolved on this continent, such as mammoths, mastodons, horses and camels, found their horns, tusks, hooves or bulk were no match for the weaponry of these new super-predators. This “American blitzkrieg” (as Jared Diamond, author of “The Third Chimpanzee,” put it) marked the tragic, catastrophic end of 75% of North America’s indigenous large mammals, including giant species of beaver, armadillo, ground sloth, and bear, as well as the American lion, dire wolves and saber-toothed cats–none of whom were prepared for humans’ hunting tactics.

Often romanticized as a match made in heaven, the relationship that developed between Indians and bison was more like that of a stalker and the object of his obsession. Just as the trout is an unwilling participant in the fly fisherman’s sport, bison were forced to play host to the cravings of parasitic humans. Driving bison off cliffs may have helped support a way of life, but to those plummeting headlong into the abyss, the intentions or beliefs of their assassins were irrelevant.

So unpredictable was human predatory behavior, that American bison would not stand and allow people to get too close. On the other hand, healthy adult bison, surrounded by their fellow herd members, felt safe and didn’t stampede when wolves approached and moved among them. Ever the innovators, primitive hunters devised a clever strategy to creep up within shooting range of their bows and arrows: they concealed themselves and their murder weapons under wolf hides.

When Spanish explorers inadvertently reintroduced horses to the continent, Indians learned to use them to overtake herds of bison and selectively shoot their prey on the run. Having the luxury of choice, they went after the cows for their tender meat and supple hides. Soon, the ratio of bulls to cows was skewed 10 to one. Fewer cows meant fewer calves. With the tenuous equilibrium between bison and Indian thrown off track, the American bison, too, were edged toward the precipice of extinction.

Photo copyright Jim Robertson

Photo Copyright Jim Robertson

The next people on the scene were even more reckless and ever more numerous, bringing with them devastating firepower in the form of 50 caliber rifles that would quickly spell doom for the species. Death followed these pale riders who saw bison only for their market value. First, they killed them simply for their tender tongues, which sold as a gourmet treat. Then, with bison fur carriage robes the latest fashion in New England, buffalo skinner became one of the most popular, if temporary, occupations. Later, as the industrial revolution surged ahead under full steam, toxic tanning solutions were developed to better utilize bison skin as a source of leather for machinery belts.

These new immigrants sought not only the riches they could extract from bison, but ultimately to replace them with the species they had long-since domesticated. Neat lines of taught barbed wire bear witness to this new orderly world, while dust bowls and chemical fertilizers hint at the absurdity of efforts to dominate Mother Nature.

Due east of Yellowstone lies the town of Cody, complete with a museum honoring its namesake, serial bison killer “Buffalo Bill” Cody. Bill earned his nickname in 1868 after winning a twelve-hour bison contest hunt. He scored 69 kills to his opponent’s 48. Although he murdered thousands of bison over his lifetime–killing 4,280 in 17 months alone–in the years to follow, his dubious achievements would be outdone by an unending procession of copycat killers.

The flesh of some of Buffalo Bill’s victims–those who weren’t merely skinned and left to rot–was fed to the cavalry (fueling the war against the Indians) and to Kansas Pacific Railroad workers (fueling the war against the environment). One of the first industrial-scale atrocities wrought by the newly constructed railroad was the haulage of boxcar after boxcar of bailed hides back East. For a short time, a railroad dividing the plains marked the delineation between the northern and southern bison herds and any animal near the tracks became a target. But the southern herd was completely annihilated by 1879. The commercial hunt on the northern herd (despite the participation of tribal members from Montana territory, who had long since abandoned bows and arrows for rifles) presented greater logistical and geographic obstacles, so the bison there managed to linger for another decade.

In the end, gunners from across the country converged, stationing themselves at every available watering hole to lay in wait for the remaining herd of 10,000. Within a matter of a few days, those bison, too, were no more, and the final solution to the bison problem was all but realized. As in Nazi Germany, railroads played a key role in the hide-hunting holocaust. Infinite loads of bleached bones–the last reminder of the species which once symbolized the plains–were hauled away to fertilizer and sugar processing plants.

With all those serial killers after them, it’s a wonder that any bison survived to see the 21st Century—especially now that there are new sport and tribal hunting seasons on them and the State of Montana is trucking thousands of others off to slaughter. But that’s another ongoing story for a future issue…


(This article includes excerpts from the book, Exposing the Big Game. Text and photos by Jim Robertson.)

Please visit Jim’s website:


Jim Robertson is the Author of Exposing the Big Game: Living Targets of a Dying Sport.  All photographs are copyrighted.

Photo copyright Jim Robertson


Contact Us

Committee to Abolish Sport Hunting / C.A.S.H.
P.O. Box 562
New Paltz, NY 12561