The building of continental railways in both Canada and the United States provided easy access for anyone who wanted to shoot bison. Shooting a bison from the window or roof of the new trains became great sport. Commercial hunters killed the animals primarily for their hides, used to make highly coveted buffalo coats. In a three year period, starting in 1872, hide hunters killed eight million bison. They left behind carcasses that slowly decayed into piles of bison bones, making the prairie so white some said it looked as if it were covered in snow even in summertime. The bones were shipped back east in large quantities for the making of glue, bone meal, buttons and tools.
In the United States, the decimation of the bison was part of a deliberate, and successful, effort to starve the Plains Indians into submission. Two years later, Congress was advised that bison hunters had done more to settle what they called “the vexed Indian question” than the entire U.S. army. The politicians were urged to continue to support the hunters. “For the sake of lasting peace, let them kill, skin and sell until the bison are exterminated.”
The Canadian government didn’t go after the bison quite so vigorously. But commercial over-hunting to supply the fur trade achieved much the same result. In both countries, the demise of an animal that had dominated the landscape for so long proved astonishingly swift – by 1890, only a few hundred head remained. You really have to wonder how governments could allow the extermination of some 100 million Bison to ever happen! The American’s had motive to solve their so called Indian problem but the Canadian’s had to be driven by pure greed.
That might have been the end of the story but for a handful of individuals who captured odd survivors and started their own herds. Among them were two Montana ranchers, Michel Pablo and Charles Allard, who spent more than 20 years patiently assembling the largest collection of 300 purebred bison. In 1907, after U.S. authorities declined to buy the herd, Pablo struck a deal with the Canadian government and shipped most of his bison northward to the newly created Elk Island National Park. Two years later, all but 45 of the animals were sent to a larger facility in Wainwright, Alta., where they interbred with the larger, and equally threatened, northern wood bison. Most of today’s purebred plains bison, originated with those few dozen animals left behind at Elk Island.