Buffalo

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And buffalo remain fertile in old age. Some of the Texas breeder Charles Goodnight’s cows reproduced until they reached thirty-five. Their fecundity made up for the more than 50 per cent loss in each year’s calf crop, which meant about 7,500,000 small carcasses annually. Late blizzards laid low herds of them, high water along the Missouri drowned them, sweeping their bodies to lodge wherever receding waters left them. Audubon’s party one night slept on “a low island covered with dead Buffalo calves, creating a most unpleasant atmosphere to breathe.” Calves often made the mistake of adopting any nonbuffalo foster parent that happened along, even a man or a horse (calves of domestic cattle will make the same mistake). One adopted Meriwether Lewis, out for an evening walk. It dogged his heels until he regained his canoe and paddled off. Other calves followed less disinterested men, who encouraged them to tag along all the way to camp to make a veal stew; fur trader Alexander Henry’s men brought such innocents to the fort daily. Indians brought little stragglers to camp for their children to play with and, when the playing was done, butchered them. Sometimes the children killed them with their own bows and arrows. And undoubtedly, any calf, away from mother’s protection, unable to keep up with man or horse, became dinner for wolves.

 

Nor did the mother always protect her calf. If she found herself hard pressed by pursuers, she sometimes deserted, running off to leave him to the wolves. Meriwether Lewis observed, “The cows only defend their young as long as they are able to keep up with the herd, and seldom return any distance in search of them.” If a calf found he couldn’t climb a bluff the herd had ascended, his mother would watch awhile as he scrabbled at the cutbank, but then she would turn and follow the others. Men who wanted to begin a buffalo herd found it easy to gain a nucleus by driving a herd through rough country and picking up the calves that couldn’t follow:

Luckily for buffalo survival, calves kept up with the herd amazingly well. Once a newborn calf traveled twentytwo miles by road in a herd being moved, traveled back home again with his mother that night (cross-country in deep snow), and was herded back the twenty-two miles the next day—over sixty miles before he was three days old. And their speed and endurance increased rapidly: the William Hornaday expedition in 1886 chased a five-monthold calf fifteen miles, using a series of three fresh horses to run him down.

Careless cows often swam calves into spring floodwaters too strong for them and clambered out on the far bank without them. Hundreds of other calves died from falling through thin and melting spring ice, vanished to appear again in an ice-free ripple far below, drowned, then floated downstream to join dozens of brown buffalo carcasses that punctuated the riverbank.

Bulls and cows, too, filed out onto rotten March ice only to fall through and drown. Each spring, during the days of the breakup, thousands of buffalo carcasses floated down Western rivers, a continuous line of brown floes. One year on the Qu’Appelle, trader John McDonnell recorded 7,360 of them drifting past before he quit counting; Alexander Henry saw “drowned buffalo drift down the river day and night,” and while traveling one May, the stench from drowned buffalo was so great he couldn’t eat his supper; Maximilian, Prince of Wied, on his Missouri River trip of 1833, heard reports of complete dams formed of buffalo bodies, dams which, others have claimed, caught silt to form islands.

 

These drownings make buffalo appear poor swimmers, yet accounts of riverboat travelers up the Missouri abound with descriptions of them swimming this river, many of them struck by the wheels. Passengers lassoed swimming buffalo. They swam “so close together… as to make it look rather inconvenient”; they hung low in the water, just the top of heads and an occasional hump visible. In such style they paddled about in lakes and crossed the Republican, the Arkansas, and the Missouri, traveling where they pleased. Yet in the spring, four or five buffalo at a time, finding themselves adrift on a floe, would stick with it and ride to whatever crack-up lay ahead, rather than swim a river they’d swum before.

They learned nothing from numberless watery accidents. They rushed into swift waters to be swept over waterfalls. Grizzly bears hung around the Great Falls of the Missouri to feed on carcasses so killed. In mid-winter, crossing rivers on the ice, they would “rush in a dense crowd to one place; the ice gives way. …” In March, 1866, as many as 1,000 buffalo fell through the ice on the South Saskatchewan River but did not drown; they were frozen in and starved.

Deaths from accidental drowning reduced the herds far more than any other accidents. Far more than prairie fire that left herds with “the hair singed off; even the skin in many places is shriveled up and terribly burned, and their eyes are swollen and closed fast… staggering about, sometimes running afoul of a large stone, at other times tumbling down hill and falling into creeks.… In one spot we found a whole herd lying dead.…” Sometimes entire groups mired themselves in boggy mud and died in mass starvation or were eaten alive by wolves or bears. But, mostly, falling through ice did them in. Each spring the stench from carcasses snagged on riverbanks polluted the spring air, and rotting meat polluted the spring freshet.