In North America, the only herbivores to survive the late Pleistocene megafauna extinction were bears, elks, moose, and bison. However, all these species underwent further rapid decline due to subsequent human transformations of habitat and predation. Like the war on fur animals, the mass slaughter and near-extermination of the North American bison is a particularly striking example of the momentous changes in society-nature relations brought on by capitalism in the early modern era.
Bison belong to the same family as modern cattle. They are ruminants with cloven hoofs and hollow, unbranched horns. A typical bull stands 6 feet high and is 10 feet long, weighing over a ton. The average life span is about 30 years. Migrating seasonally, often following the same routes year after year, bison always sought the easiest paths around obstacles and across terrain. Their trails were later used as the basis for most of our railroads and modern highways. Prized for their meat and hides, as well as for their symbolic value as trophies, bison were hunted almost to extinction. By 1891 the bison population in the United States had been reduced to a mere 541 animals.
When the Europeans first arrived, some 40 million to 75 million bison roamed over a third of North America. Commercial hunting of bison for meat began in the 1830s and soon reached 2 million animals a year. After 1870, when bison hides began to be made into commercial leather, it rose to 3
million. The Union Pacific Railroad, completed in 1869, divided the bison into northern and southern herds, making them easier to hunt. The southern herd was largely exterminated in the early 1870s. After completion of the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1880, the slaughter of the northern herd proceeded at a rapid pace. As the environmental historian William Cronon notes, the bison met their end "because their ecosystem had become attached to an urban marketplace in a new way."63
Moreover, the mass slaughter of bison was "a calculated military strategy designed to force the Native Americans on to reservations."64 Professional hunters like Buffalo Bill Cody shot the animals for their "entertainment" and often left the carcasses to rot. About 2.5 million buffalo were killed annually between 1870 and 1875. Amerindians quickly perceived the arrival of Europeans in North America not just in terms of conquest, brutality, and enslavement, but as a threat to their very way of life. Many Plains Indians, for example, understood that killing off the bison herds constituted a serious threat to their survival. At the end of the nineteenth century, both the free-roaming Amerindians and their animal counterparts were no more, and the destruction of the North American environment continued into the next century.
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