The History and Decline of Buffalo in Iowa

by Matt Clark

In 1886, a census estimated the bison population was around 15 million in 1867. By 1885, only 500 to 800 were remaining in the United States. William Hornaday, chief taxidermist at the United States National Museum, educated at Oskaloosa College and Iowa State Agricultural College, had conducted the survey by writing ranchers, hunters, army officers and zookeepers to prepare for the expected extinction.

Hornaday travels to collect specimens to be preserved and displayed for the future. The American bison, also called Buffalo, were survivors of the last Ice Age. Their range at one point covered most of North America. Bison traveled through Iowa, often contained to the north central and western part of the state. Iowa Dragoons, under the command of Stephen Kearny, described a herd of 5000 near the future site of Northwood Iowa.

As more settlers made their home in Iowa, they cleared prairies and oak savannas for farmland, limiting the bison space to roam and find the food they came to Iowa seeking. The harsh winters of 1844 and 1860 dealt another blow. This contributed to overhunting, so much so that by 1860 the bison herds were rare sights, reduced to mere stragglers being hunted down.

In 1870, the last pair of wild bison were spotted west of Spirit Lake, briefly before officially disappearing from Iowa.

John Lacy, a congressman from Oskaloosa, worked to pass the Lacey Act in 1894. Also called the Yellowstone Park Protection Act to allow the Department of the Interior to protect Yellowstone lands and wildlife within the park from human destruction. The work of Hornaday and Lacy helped set in place programs and laws that would save bison from vanishing from the United States.

Today, 500,000 bison remain in North America. Less than 30,000 are pure wild bison, and only 5,000 are unfenced. While we will probably never see the return of bison herds crossing Iowa, there are several captive herds that you can visit, including Neil Smith National Wildlife Refuge near Prairie City, and Broken Kettle Grasslands Preserve north of Sioux City.

Interested in learning more about bison in the United States? Watch The American Buffalo by Ken Burns, on demand via the PBS App. 


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