As a Western conservationist, I have spent more than 30 years looking at the American bison - or buffalo, as it is popularly known - through the lens of modern science and historical research. I am continually amazed at the many ways this animal shaped the American identity, even as our actions led to its near demise. Grazing by great buffalo herds for thousands of years stamped out trails that facilitated travel and exploration, while bison hides provided leather for the belts that drove steam engine flywheels at the dawn of the machine age.
At the time of our nation's founding, the American bison numbered more than 30 million. They could be found from California to the Atlantic and from Mexico to Canada. And yet by 1900, industrial slaughter, unregulated hunting and disease had reduced the population of this tenacious Pleistocene relic to fewer than 1,200 animals, bringing it to the very edge of extinction. As future president and avid hunter Theodore Roosevelt put it, "Never before were so many large animals of one species destroyed in so short a time."
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