Bison Population in North America: Then and Now

May 1, 2019

Bison Population in North America: Then and Now
Roy V. Cuellar

In 1876, the Cartographer Joel Allen designed a thematic map for the Kentucky Geological Survey. Illustrating change over time had been a reoccurring challenge for mapmakers of the day. Allen incorporated data from isothermal charts collected by the Coast Survey with geological and paleontology discoveries gathered in the field from scientific explorations. Seven shades of color illustrated the historical North American ranges of the bison. The first five colors illustrated the previous 76-years from 1800, the last two shades covered represented ancient habitats that extended outwards over the four cardinal directions.[1]

“Allen’s bison map was a reminder of the complex legacy of western development,” says the historian, Susan Schulten, “ the map also had implications for contemporary debates about Native Americans, for no viewer could have missed the obvious connection: as the bison shrank during the nineteenth century, so too did the Native populations, accelerated by the advent of reservations.” A decade later, the Kentucky project inspired the map contained in the Report of the National Museum, 1886-87, by William T. Hornaday that began a nationwide effort to save the bison.[2]

Allen’s original 1886 map was georeferenced to the NAD 1983 projected coordinate system in the Boise State University GIS lab using the Esri ArcGIS program. Once the georeferencing was complete, the National Bison Association list of public bison herds with their corresponding populations and coordinates was added giving Allen’s original 19th-century map a seventh, 21st-century layer of information.[3]

[1]Susan Schulten, Mapping the Nation: History and Cartography in Nineteenth-Century America
(Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 178-79.
[3] North American Datum of 1983 is a network of control points for the US, Canada, Mexico, Greenland, Central America, and the Caribbean.


Bison Population in North America: Then and Now

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