Should Oregon Have a Bison Range

Should Oregon Have A Bison Range
– Special Collections and Archives Research Center Oregon State University Libraries and Press
by William L. Finley Feb. 1944


The history of the bison or American buffalo and its practical extermination as a wild animal reads like a tragedy. It was the largest and at one time the most important of all America’s big game. The American buffalo has a considerable hump. It is a large, massive animal, a fine adult bull measuring, eleven feet from nose to tail, and five to six feet in height at the shoulders. Its average weight is about 1800 pounds, but a large specimen has weighed as much as 2190 pounds. The females are considerably smaller than the males.

In the early days, no one had ever reported seeing any bison in Oregon. However, in 1826, over a hundred years ago, Peter Skene Ogden, in charge of a party of trappers, reported that buffaloes had been living around Harney Lake, as he had seen the remains of them, and this was the westernmost record of bison in the United States. But no one had ever reported seeing a buffalo alive in Oregon or mentioned when the last one passed away.

In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt established Malheur Lake as a federal wild game refuge. Later the local interests were using all of the water north and south, and Malheur Lake was dried up. When the farmers began plowing- this lake bed, the buffaloes had long ago roamed Malheur and Farney Valleys. Had they fallen before wanton hunters? Their bleached skulls and bones not long since were unearthed by the plows of farmers on the grassy prairies. All this proved that in early days the buffalo was a resident of Oregon.

Certain naturalists have suggested that since this region was originally a bison range, we ought to have a refuge for bison in Oregon. They proposed that the upper part of the Malheur Bird Refuge should be turned into a buffalo range, instead of being used as a cattle range.

 The first discovery of the bison or American buffalo was over four hundred years ago by a Spanish conqueror of Mexico. The buffaloes then lived in the fresh pasturage all through the central part of this country, moving southward in the fall three or four hundred miles, and returning north in the spring. It was reported that innumerable herds of bulls were seen without a single cow, and other herds of cows without bulls. For the next two or three hundred years until the early pioneers began working west, little history of these animals was published. It was estimated that about 60,000,000 buffaloes were living in the vast central regions at this time, although they ranged originally from the Atlantic Coast to eastern Oregon, and from the Great Slave Lake to the Gulf of Mexico.

As the population of the country increased, the buffaloes started to go down rapidly, so that in 1850 it was stated that there were still about 20,000,000. In the earlier days according to Catlin, from 150,000 to 200,000 buffalo robes were marketed each year, which meant a slaughter by the Indians of 2,000,000 or perhaps 3,000,000 animals. Twenty years later, there were only about 5,500,000 left. Eighteen years after that in 1888, the bisons were killed off so rapidly that there were only about 1300 in the country. In 1895, it was reported that about 800 remained. It seemed that this most important big game animal would be exterminated.

In the early days, naturalists thought they had a big problem to prevent this very disaster. They decided the only chance to save the buffalo was to have government refuges. However, in these restricted areas the numbers have to be limited according to the amount of natural food available. Yellowstone National Park and the Montana Bison Range have turned out to be excellent refuges for the bison. The wardens in these refuges have to regulate the numbers of wild animals the same as a farmer controls the cattle on his ranch. These animals do better when they hunt their food in their own environment, instead of having it provided for them.

In a recent report from Newton B. Drury, Director of National Park Service, he says: “There is attached a very brief summary of the history of the American bison, particular attention being given to the record of the preservation of the species in Yellowstone National Park. You will note that our plan calls for the elimination, eventually, of the so-called “buffalo ranch” in the Lamar Valley. As a step toward this objective, it is planned that 400 bison will be killed this winter and turned over to several Indian agencies. This will leave some 350 bisons in the Lamar Valley end approximately 300 in Hayden Valley. Pelican Creek, and Fountain Flats, a total of 650 bisons in Yellowstone National Park. With these several small herds we shall conduct a carefully controlled study and establish a long-time plan for the return of the species to its proper place in the Yellowstone fauna.” 

“Through the efforts of the American Bison Society, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and many other Federal. State, and private organizations and a few far-seeing individuals working quite alone, the number of bisons in the United States today is more than 5,000. With a herd of more than 200 in Alaska, and some 15,000 in Canada, it would appear that the
American bison as a species is secure.”

“Several of the national parks are now confronted with overpopulations of certain animals, especially the grazing and browsing species, The problem is especially acute in Yellowstone National Park because of the complex pattern presented by the varied herbivorous forms — deer, antelope, elk, moose, mountain sheep, and bison — which inhabit the area, and
the necessarily limited winter range for all these species.