North American Buffalo saved from extinction — two Manitobans played a major role

by Bruce Cherney

The threat of global warming has some scientists and authorities questioning whether or not Churchill’s polar bears will be able to survive the warming trend in Manitoba’s Far North. Warmer weather is melting the ice pack earlier than usual in the spring and causing it to freeze later in the winter than in the past, limiting the bears’ ability to spend enough time on the ice to catch seals, their major prey species. 

Over 100 years ago, the survival of another large land mammal was also being called into question. When their demise appeared imminent, steps were taken just in the nick of time within Manitoba to preserve the species.

Dr. John Christian Schultz, the MP for Lisgar in Manitoba, rose in the House of Commons on March 26, 1877, asking that a resolution be adopted by the House of Commons to preserve the remaining herds of wild buffalo (technically a bison).  He said that the North West Mounted Police could be used to enforce a licensing system on the prairie.

Schultz warned that unless drastic action was taken to prevent their wholesale destruction, buffalo would merely become a distant memory on the prairies.

Supporting his resolution was fellow Manitoba MP Donald Smith, who also called for a licensing system in Canada’s North West instead of the then existing situation of allowing hunting with “full liberty.”

Both Schultz and Smith stressed the importance of the buffalo to the Plains aboriginals, a point further expressed by MP Joseph O’Connell Ryan, who represented the riding of Marquette in Manitoba.

Ryan said relations with the aboriginals of the North West Territories (then the land in Western Canada outside the postage-stamp-sized province of Manitoba) had been satisfactory, but that the friendly relations could be compromised as buffalo numbers diminished and “Indians would be thrown on the country for support,” according to a report in the April 7, 1877, Manitoba Free Press. 

“He believed they would have to prohibit the trade in buffalo robes and buffalo meat, besides endeavour to induce the buffalo Indians to turn their attention on some manner of agriculture.”

This was a position maintained by Father Albert Lacombe, a Catholic missionary among the aboriginals. Schultz said that Father Lacombe felt “the best means of preserving the buffalo was to require that none should be killed from the 1st of November to the 1st of May.”

Such a prohibition would be contrary to existing practice in the North West where large parties of Metis had traditionally hunted buffalo during both the spring and in the fall (occasionally three times a year), journeying to the Cypress Hills region of Saskatchewan and across the border into the Pembina Mountain and Grand Coteau regions. The hunts were so important that they were extensively reported in local newspapers, though not always favourably.

A fall hunting expedition was reported  on November 15, 1860, in the Nor’Wester, Winnipeg’s first newspaper established just a year earlier: “Generally speaking the hunters have been very successful ... Some hundreds of young men and old jaunt out west ... to provide themselves with meat provisions. What they do not actually use, they dispose of for clothing, groceries and other necessities.”

The newspaper editor complained of the apparent waste involved in the hunt since “... they (up to 1,200 men, women and children involved in each hunt) use, or rather misuse, as much as would suffice for six or seven thousand in Great Britain, France or Germany.

“Our hunters ought, as soon as practicable, to relinquish their present method of gaining a livelihood. It is a very precarious one at best, and cannot be expected to last for ever. Either the Minnesota authorities will put a stop to these gratuitous excursions into their territories, or the ruinous annual slaughter will exterminate the buffalo.”

But, it wasn’t just the Metis or, to a lesser extent, aboriginal people who were responsible for the slaughter. The nobility of Europe journeyed to the North-West to bag their share of the beasts.

The Nor’wester reported on one such excursion involving Lord Dunmore and Lord Milton as well as a party of British officers, led by James McKay, a local Metis guide who operated a Red River cart freight business and later became the speaker of the Manitoba Legislature. Despite contributing to the near-extinction of the buffalo, McKay would later play a part in the humped beast’s preservation.

“At the (Grand) Coteau, they met in with immense herds of buffalo — thousand on thousands of them — and here the (British) Grenadier and Fusilier ‘ran’ to their hearts content. The sport was new, and greatly enjoyed.”

Chief Redstone met up with the party and told the men through an interpreter that their hunting was impoverishing his people.

“See here, this is all that I have in the world, all that I have to cover me, and it is a hard struggle to feed my poor children; and you who have plenty, come out here and shoot down the animals on which we depend — you take the food out of the mouths of our children ...”

Another report from The Manitoban on July 27, 1872, summed up the attitude of aboriginal people: “We don’t want Canada money (when making treaties). We can’t eat money. We can eat buffalo. All we want is the white man to keep away with his money and leave us the buffalo.”

But, the greatest slaughter occurred through American government policy and railway collusion south of the border. As the railways were being built to link east with west in the United States in the 1850s and 1860s, buffalo hunters were hired to provision the thousands of workers constructing the lines. In the American Wild West, great reputations for felling the mighty buffalo with a Sharp’s rifle were earned in Eastern newspapers and dime novels by such hunters as William “Buffalo Bill” Cody.

Cody was hired by the Pacific Railroad to provide meat for its crews. It is estimated that he killed 4,200 buffalo in his best year. J.A. “Dad” Gaff claimed to have bested Cody by killing 5,200 buffalo in Kansas in one year.

In the West, the American government adopted what is best called total war with the Indian tribes on the Great Plains. It was a scorched earth policy that intentionally targeted the destruction of the vast herds of buffalo to deprive aboriginals of their sustenance. 

Congress had actually passed a bill to protect the buffalo in 1873, but U.S. President Ulysses Grant refused to sign it. The president and his cabinet believed the end of the buffalo on the plains would end the conflict at the time raging between the U.S. Cavalry and native tribes.

General Philip Sheridan, a U.S. Civil War friend of Grant and Indian fighter, speaking in the Texas legislature in 1875, said the buffalo hunters had done more to settle “the vexed Indian question than the entire army has done in 35 years.” 

Sheridan told the legislators “... for the sake of a lasting peace, let them (buffalo hunters) kill, skin and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated. Then your prairies can be covered with speckled cattle and the festive cowboy, who follows the hunter as a second forerunner of an advanced civilization.”

Sheridan also told the American Congress that a medal should be struck for the buffalo hunters with a dead buffalo on one side and a dead Indian on the other.

“A cold wind blew across the prairie when the last buffalo fell,” said Sioux Chief Sitting Bull, “a death wind for my people.” 

What the Americans proposed was in sharp contrast to the direction taken in Canada by its politicians.

During the 1877 debate in the Canadian House of Commons, David Mills,  an Ontario MP and the minister of the interior for the Alexander Mackenzie Liberal government, indicated that he didn’t doubt the coming calamity. He noted that many buffalo were being hunted chiefly for their tongues, which were pickled and considered a delicacy in eastern restaurants, or for their skins, which were used for robes. Mills noted that the Blackfeet and Blood Indians were becoming annoyed with “the wanton destruction of the buffalo.”

The motion was passed in the House, as was a similar motion by the Northwest Council in the same year. The latter motion forbid hunters from driving buffalo into ravines or pits, to kill them for amusement, simply to kill them for their tongues, or to slaughter females and young buffalo under two years of age during a closed season between November 15 and August 15.

The resentment for the restrictions was so great among the Metis and aboriginals that the new regulations could only be enforced near Mounted Police posts, so the slaughter continued virtually unchecked.

It has been estimated that from 20-million to 70-million buffalo may have inhabited the plains of North America between Canada and Mexico when Europeans first arrived. During the 1850s, 3.5-million buffalo were being killed annually and in 1870 about two-million suffered a similar fate. In 1872, about 1.5-million buffalo hides were shipped east as was a similar number the following year.

The Manitoba Free Press warned people in June 1876 to ensure they had a good supply of buffalo robes on hand since the animals would probably be exterminated within 12 to 14 years.

The near-extinction actually happened sooner than expected. The buffalo vanished within a few years of the above prediction and what remained of the mighty creatures were their sun-bleached bones scattered upon the prairie. The bones were so numerous that Regina was first called Pile of Bones until renamed when the CPR came through in 1882.

In the 1890s, buffalo bones pulverized into fertilizer was the prairie’s greatest export. Dealer W.H. Duncan of Saskatoon shipped 10 carloads of bones east in 1890 which represented 750,000 individual buffalo carcasses. The boom only ended in 1893 when a depression hit and the chief importer, the Northwest Fertilizer Company of Chicago, went bankrupt.

The last wild buffalo reported in Manitoba was a forlorn bull sighted grazing in the outskirts of Souris in November 1883.

Isaac Cowie of Winnipeg reported in 1912 to the federal government that the last buffalo hunt he was aware of occurred in July 1888 in the Red Deer River Valley when five animals were killed.

Manitoba’s role in preserving a remnant of the formerly vast herds was related in 1925 by Charles Alloway, a Red River cart freighter and later a banker.

“As railways began to build across the United States, contractors hired hunters to supply buffalo meat for the workers and this was the beginning of the end for the magnificent beats,” he said. “So that by the 1870s hunters noted that as the years rolled on, instead of finding buffalo not very far from places now known as Winnipeg, Emerson and Portage la Prairie, they had to go further west. It was back in 1873 that I conceived the idea that the day was dawning when the vast herds would be depleted. I had bought as many as 21,000 buffalo hides from a single brigade if Indian hunters, paying $3 for the average and $4 for the large ones. It didn’t take any higher mathematics to realize that this rate of killing them off couldn’t go on forever, especially as there were dozens of brigades out hunting at a time.”

Alloway and James McKay accompanied one brigade to Saskatchewan in 1873 with the goal of obtaining a few buffalo calves. A man was sent ahead to obtain a domestic cow to provide fresh milk for the three calves they were able to capture.

“It took all summer to get them home,” said Alloway. “... that cow got pretty tired before we were through with her.”

The calves were taken to McKay’s home at Deer Lodge in Winnipeg and placed in an enclosure.

The two men repeated the process the next summer, obtaining “two little heifers and a husky little bull,” although one died en route to Deer Lodge.

“In 1877 there was a pronounced shortage of buffalo,” said Alloway, “and (in) ’79 they were practically unknown in Manitoba. By the spring of 1878 our little herd had grown from five calves to 13 animals purebred and three crossbred to domestic cattle. We realized we had something of value, although at the time we didn’t know the buffalo was practically extinct.”

A year later McKay died and Alloway turned all his attention to the banking business with his brother, William. The small herd was sold for $1,000 to Col. Samuel Bedson, the warden of Stony Mountain Penitentiary. The purchase price was borrowed by Bedson from Smith, the same MP who in 1877 had called upon the Canadian government to help preserve the buffalo.

“The morning after Warden bedson bought my 13 buffaloes,” said Alloway in 1925, “a cow dropped a calf. That same day the herds was moved 22 miles by road from Deer Lodge to Stony Mountain, round by Winnipeg. The same night they got away and came back, 18 miles in a beeline, to Deer Lodge, the one-day old calf and its mother, trampling through the deep snow.

“The third day they were moved back again to Stony Mountain, 22 miles, a total distance of 62 miles covered by a three-day old buffalo. No domestic calf could do a quarter of that at the same time.”

Bedson was noted for having a collection of many wild animals, including bears, wolves, badgers, deer, moose and geese. It was his boast that he could tame them all. In fact, he tamed two moose to the point that they pulled a toboggan.

Bedson did not have the same success with his buffalo.

In a 1957 newspaper interview, his daughter Menatoh told a story of a Christmas afternoon when her father hitched a two-year-old buffalo bull to a toboggan to pull his eight guests.

“They all sat down on the toboggan. My sister Tanis and I were told to stand far back. Five or six prisoners held onto a long rope around the buffalo’s neck. He stood for a long time, 15 or 20 minutes. I heard the men joking with each other: ‘Well, goodbye if I don’t see you again, old chap.’ All of a sudden that buffalo took a terrific leap into the air. The rope broke and the prisoners and quests scattered far and wide in  the snow. The animal started to run and gallop out of sight.”

Her father received a letter from a North Dakota man the next spring asking if the buffalo with a rope around his neck was Bedson’s. The buffalo that had wandered so far afield was fetched from south of the border and returned to Stony Mountain.

The animals were kept on land near the jail until they were sold again in 1888 with 27 purebred buffalos returned into Smith’s care in repayment for the original loan. The remaining 83 were sold to “Buffalo” Jones, a Kansas rancher who had also saved a few buffalo from the devastation, for a reputed $50,000. Jones only kept the herd for a few years before selling them to Charles Allard, a French-Canadian, and Michael Pablo, a Mexican, who had established a buffalo ranch in Montana.

Five of Smith’s herd were given to the city of Winnipeg. The descendants of these five buffalo still reside in Assiniboine Park Zoo. He sent others from his small herd to Banff.

The fate of the Allard and Pablo herd was in jeopardy until the Canadian government stepped in  and offered to buy the 716 buffalo for $245 a head. These animals were transported back to Canada. They can now be found at Wood Buffalo National Park, a tract of land straddling the Alberta-Northwest Territories border.

Besides the buffalo found in national — Riding Mountain has a herd of wood bison — and provincial parks in the West,  it is estimated that today there are about 225,000 buffalo in private herds in Canada, 85 per cent of which are in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

What started as such small conservation efforts by Alloway and McKay and a handful of others has brought the North American buffalo from the brink of extinction to the point of once again flourishing, though in far less numbers than the millions that had once populated the plains.