In the greatest achievement of his political career, junior Senator Mike Rounds helped make the bison our national mammal. In his important statement on this important issue, our important Senator notes, “As we all know, the tens of millions of bison roamed freely before settlers came to the West, overhunting them to the brink of extinction in the 1800s.
Gadfly Jim Kent takes exception to Senator Rounds’s superficial grasp of history and the empire’s responsibility for the near-extermination of the bison:
In the eyes of the federal government and the politicians who comprise it, acts of omission are a matter of course. Failing to offer complete information on any topic probably won’t send you to jail but, more often than not, will land you a seat in Congress.
The reality of the “brink of extinction” status of the American buffalo by the late 1800s can be traced directly to U.S. Army leaders like William Tecumseh Sherman who realized that one path to solving “the Indian problem” was to destroy their food source. “Slaughter the buffalo, destroy the tribes” was a government-condoned and encouraged post-Civil War precursor to the “kill the Indian, save the man” mentality that would later be used in government and Christian boarding schools.
…I’m sure a Westwardbound settler – or 50 – may have taken the opportunity to kill one or more in order to feed themselves and their family. But their impact on the, literally, millions of American buffalo slaughtered across the Great Plains in less than a century was less than negligible [Jim Kent, “Honoring Our National Mammal—by Killing One,” Lakota Country Times, 2016.05.19].
We may dispute whether extermination of the bison was an official policy. American University’s Inventory of Conflict and Environment excerpts Robert Wooster’s 1988 The Military and United States Indian Policy 1865–1903:
Some scholars suggest that in order to make migration to the west easier, the US government, through the Army, adopted a policy to exterminate the buffalo. Extermination of the buffalo would inevitably mean the demise of the Indians who so relied on them for almost every aspect of their existence.
“Although the army was plagued by strategic failures, the near extermination of the American bison during the 1870s helped to mask the military’s poor performance. By stripping many Indians of their available resources, the slaughter of the buffalo severely reduced the Indians’ capacity to continue an armed struggle against the United States. The military’s role in this matter is difficult to asses. Sheridan and Sherman recognized that eliminating the buffalo severely reduced the Indians’ capacity to continue an armed struggle against the United States. The editors of the Army and Navy Journal supported the proposition, comparing such an effort with Civil War campaigns against Confederate supplies and food sources. Forts provided de facto support for hunters, who used the civilian services often found near army bases. Officers and enlisted personnel also killed buffalo for food and sport, though the impact of their hunts was minute when compared to the organized efforts of the professionals.” (The Military and United States Indian Policy, p. 171) “In 1874, Secretary of the Interior Delano testified before Congress, “The buffalo are disappearing rapidly, but not faster than I desire. I regard the destruction of such game as Indians subsist upon as facilitating the policy of the Government, of destroying their hunting habits, coercing them on reservations, and compelling them to begin to adopt the habits of civilization.” (The Military and United States Indian Policy, p. 171) Two years later, reporter John F. Finerty wrote that the government’s Indian allies “killed the animals in sheer wantonness, and when reproached by the officers said: ‘better kill buffalo than have him feed the Sioux.'” Although Sheridan added that “if I could learn that every buffalo in the the northern herd were killed I would be glad,” some indications point to a groundswell of military opposition to the killing. (The Military and United States Indian Policy, p. 172) In 1873, the Secretary of War was forwarded a letter from Major R.J. Dodge, endorsed by [General] Pope and Sheridan, that addressed the problem. The Secretary of War also approved Sheridan’s request which seemed to indicate the general’s own ambivalence on the subject, to authorize Col. De L. Floyd Jones “to put a stop to their wholesale destruction.” Several officers protested the wanton destruction to Henry Bergh, president of the America Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The army, while anxious to strike against the Indians’ ability to continue their resistance, did not make the virtual extermination of the American bison part of its official policy; in some cases, individual officers took it upon themselves to try and end the slaughter. (The Military and United States Indian Policy, p. 171)
While evidence seems to point to the existence of an official policy, the debate about whether one actually existed still continues (as noted in the above paragraph) [ICE Case Studies, “The Buffalo Harvest,” American University, 1997.12.18].
This David D. Smits article from Autumn 1994 further emphasizes the responsibility borne by Sherman, Custer, and the U.S. Army (which had lots more disposable ammunition and spare time than the typical homesteader) in wiping out the Great Plains bison herds.
So come on, Senator Rounds: you’re an anti-government Republican, right? Instead of blaming regular citizens just trying to make a living on the plains, wouldn’t you serve your political ideology better by emphasizing the federal government’s blame for nearly exterminating the bison?