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A member of the ox family, native to North America. Buffalo have barely managed to avoid extinction. At the time of the Louisiana Purchase, it's estimated that anywhere from 10-100 million of the animals roamed the grasslands of the Far and not-so-Far West in what Peter Matthiessen says were "almost certainly the greatest animal congregations that ever existed on earth"
An Indian fighter, Colonel R.I. Dodge sets the scene in Arkansas in the early 1870's - "From the top of Pawnee Rock I could see from six to ten miles in almost every direction. This whole vast space was covered with Buffalo, looking at a distance like a compact mass".
The Plains Indians used to set the prairies on fire to drive the buffalo into ambushes; they stampeded the beasts off steep cliffs. But until the white man came with firearms and railroads, little dent was made in the buffalo population.
They were then hunted for their hides, wantonly shot by "sportsmen" from the platforms of moving trains - and sometimes killed just for their tongues which were considered a delicacy.
The Army wanted the buffalo killed precisely to starve out the Plains Indians.
Well over a million head were shot each year between 1872 and 1874. William "Buffalo Bill" Cody alone killed 4,280 buffalo in twelve months for the Union Pacific Railroad.
At one stage it was estimated that there were only about 30 buffalo left in all, and it wasn't until 1909, that conservationists established the National Bison Refuge, near Moiese, Montana, and today about 15,000 buffalo roam an 18,000 acre range there. More areas are planned.
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