How the Free Market Saved the Bison


american-bison-mammalDespite the screams from hardcore environmentalists and socialists that capitalism is killing off species and destroying the planet, the free market has actually saved a few species from extinction.  The most notable animal saved was recently named the official mammal of the United States: the bison, which is also the official state animal of Oklahoma.

Almost a century ago, the majestic animal almost went extinct.  Throughout the 19th century the United States Army, in an effort to control Native American populations, started to kill off thousands of American Bison, and thousands more were killed by railroad workers because they were blocking trains and conductors had to be fed.  By 1884, the total population of wild bison was reduced to only three hundred twenty-five.

So, what saved the species from extinction? There are several reasons.

Much of the great population growth in the American Bison was due to the growing market for bison meat.  Their meat has many benefits over traditional beef, including high protein, low fat, and low cholesterol, among others. Bison meat also has a very good taste to it.  When I go to the Big Texan in Amarillo, for example, and I do not feel like getting a steak, I usually get their Buffalo Quesadillas.

The role of government should not be completely ignored regarding the replenishment of buffalo herds. Conservation efforts were started by states where the bison population had already reached zero.  In 1864, Idaho’s state legislature became the first state to pass a law protecting the animal, even though no bison roamed that state’s plains. Most of the remaining bison lived in Yellowstone National Park, where it was illegal to hunt them.

Despite the scarcity of the American Bison, people were allowed to capture and keep them in their very own private herds.  In 1866, Charles Goodnight was able to capture live bison calves and began a herd in Texas. By 1889 the number of privately owned bison increased to two hundred fifty-six.  In 1902, the number of privately held bison totaled seven hundred while the public herds numbered only two hundred.  In 1910, the population had increased to two thousand.  By the end of the 20th Century, the bison population increased to twenty-five thousand in government herds and over two hundred fifty-thousand in private herds.  Today, the total bison population stands at over five hundred thousand with thirty thousand belonging to the federal government and four hundred seventy thousand belonging to the private sector.

Another reason bison populations remain high, is that entrepreneurs want to conserve them.  Billionaire Ted Turner bought twenty-six thousand acres of land for $10 million in 2007 on which to preserve not only his herd of bison, but packs of wolves and schools of cutthroat trout.  His herd of fifty-one thousand bison makes it the largest bison herd in the world, far exceeding the thirty-thousand the federal government owns. Despite accusations that he was doing it just for profit, Turner’s spokesman, Philip Evans, has said that he wants to conserve wildlife.

One reason publicly held bison populations are low is that federal land cannot sustain large populations.  In January of 2016, Yellowstone had to cull over six hundred bison to keep the population under control in the park, as record bison populations exceeded the sustainable limit (8).  Due to fewer restrictions on private land ownership, the free market was able to save the bison from extinction better than the government could.  Private citizens can buy more land to preserve their herds if they reach unsustainable levels.

* Dalton Burlie is a conservative libertarian studying criminology at the University of Oklahoma.

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