Ari Armstrong, Exclusives, Politics, Uncategorized

Armstrong: The American Buffalo rebounds under capitalism

The Christmas Eve, 1873 edition of the Rocky Mountain News well-summarized the plight of the buffalo, the American bison:

“The buffaloes of the plains have met their fate. Encroaching civilization has sealed their doom; and the inordinate greed of man has swept them from the face of the earth. Where years ago the mammoth herds of bison roamed the plains and were hunted only by the Indians as necessity demanded, now lie the bleaching bones of millions of these noble animals sacrificed simply for their hides.”

The only problem I see with that text is the use of the word “civilization” to describe such wholesale slaughter.

Recently in horror and sadness I watched the Ken Burns PBS film “The American Buffalo,” which offers extensive details about the near-extinction of the bison. Hunters killed these magnificent beasts for their hides, which found a market for robes and industrial belts; sometimes for their tongues as a delicacy; sometimes to make room for imported cattle and sheep, sometimes just for “sport.”

In 1874, the Rocky Mountain News mocked a planned outing by English tourists, led by twenty scouts and accompanied by a “vast retinue of servants, cooks, grooms, valets, etc,” aiming to “slaughter the lively bison by thousands.”

You’d think the U.S. government might have tried to prevent this wanton destruction of wildlife. Indeed, as J. Weston Phippen reports for the Atlantic, “Congress passed the bill to protect buffalo in 1875, but President [Ulysses S.] Grant refused to sign it.” Why? As Burns’s film points out, many in government either turned a blind eye to the destruction of the buffalo, even by those invading Native American reservations, or else actively encouraged it. Phippen quotes one Army colonel, “Kill every buffalo you can! Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.”

The same 1874 Rocky Mountain News article satirized common racist attitudes of the day: “Some philanthropic people, including the Indian peace commissioners, may be expected to enter a protest against this wholesale slaughter of the game in our national preserves; but after all it is at least an open question whether it would not be better to have the last buffalo destroyed. The animal is of no special benefit to the white race, and so long as the Indian can find abundance of buffalo he will follow the chase in the pleasant months of the year, make war upon the white settlers at all other seasons, and successfully resist all efforts to civilize him. Even should the Indian disappear with the buffalo we shall not be inconsolable.”

Bluntly, the destruction of the buffalo was an aspect of genocidal campaigns against the native population.

An indictment of capitalism?

We could take the discussion of this near-extinction event in many different directions. One thing that occurred to me while watching the Burns film is that, to many, events will seem to beg for a critique of capitalism.

Here were new Americans, either immigrated from Europe or descended from recent immigrants, seeking in their “inordinate greed” to make a quick buck by selling hides while letting carcasses rot, or by guiding tourists looking to massacre wild animals, or by driving native peoples off their lands to set up (often illegal) homesteads and ranches. The Burns film also touches on the discoveries of gold that made many of European origin even less inclined to respect the rights of native peoples, whether ancestral or recognized by treaty.

Is not such destructive greed the very essence of capitalism?

If by “capitalism” we mean simply an effort or inclination to collect money or amass wealth, then a slave trader, a hit man, a Soviet dictator, and a Mafia crime lord, no less than a buffalo hide hunter, is a “capitalist.” But that’s a bizarre way to use language.

If instead by “capitalism” we mean, as the Objectivists say, a system of individual rights, then none of those things is capitalism. Slaughtering buffalo without regard to others’ ancestral claims to them and even in violation of legal treaties is not capitalism but simply looting.

I was struck by the “tragedy of the commons” regarding buffalo herds. Because no one had enforceable title to the buffalo, and anyone could kill as many buffalo as they wanted usually without consequence, that set up the dynamic for the rapid near-extinction of the species.

To a large degree the U.S. government created this tragedy of the commons by refusing to recognize traditional native tribal rights to the land and to the buffalo, often even after signing treaties partly recognizing such rights.

However, contrary to popular mythology, the Europeans did not invent the tragedy of the commons or violent conflict over resources. As the University of Colorado’s Douglas Bamforth writes for the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, “Intertribal warfare was intense throughout the Great Plains during the 1700s and 1800s” and earlier. Predictably, he writes, often “violence resulted from competition for food, probably due to local overpopulation and climatic deterioration.” Among “nomadic Plains hunters . . . nomads were attacking farmers on the edges of the Plains by at least the 1500s. By the eighteenth century, war was common among the nomads, apparently largely because of conflicts over hunting territories.”

True, as Burns’s film relates, the native tribes revered the bison (even as many native individuals participated in the global trade of buffalo products), whereas the European settlers tended to view the “wild West” as a place to be subjugated, and the bison be damned. We can only speculate how North America would be different had European immigrants consistently recognized tribal rights to lands and resources and thought more carefully about native ecologies.

Bison rebound under capitalism

Today we rely heavily on government to manage many wilderness areas and wild herds. People can hunt wild animals only by government license.

As Rocky Mountain PBS reviews in its “Return of the Buffalo,” the city of Denver manages a herd of bison, which you can sometimes see from I-70 driving into town. Denver gives away some of its bison to Native American tribes to help restore their own herds. The federal government also manages a bison herd at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge.

As Rocky Mountain PBS notes, the number of bison in North America, once numbering in the millions, was reduced to just a few hundred in the complete absence of enforced property rights and government protection. Now, in addition to the herds managed by governments and native tribes, private ranches have build up their own herds.

To a substantial degree, bison have rebounded under capitalism. Now some half-million bison again roam the prairies. Rex Moore of Rock River Ranches, which maintains bison herds around the Colorado towns of Wray, Hudson, and Hartsel, as well as in Wyoming, hopes to eventually see a million bison.

Government protects Moore’s rights to his bison, and Moore sells bison products to finance his operations. “We eat bison to restore bison,” Moore told Rocky Mountain PBS. Moore sells bison meat to individuals and supplies such businesses as the American Indian restaurant Tocabe in Denver. Although not everyone is happy with treating buffalo as livestock (or with government management of buffalo), undeniably ranching has contributed to the restoration of the species.

We can lament the near-total destruction of the American buffalo during the 1800s even as we draw inspiration from the perseverance of this magnificent creature. In their short-sighted foolishness and meanness people nearly silenced the mighty thundering of hooves forever. Thankfully people are able to learn the lessons of the past to work toward a better future. Whether we do so is up to us.

Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.


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