History, Department of


Profit, Preservation, and Shifting Definitions of Bison in America

David A. Nesheim, Chadron State College

Document Type Article

Copyright © 2012 David A. Nesheim. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. Used by permission.


In the first decades of the twentieth century, populations of North American bison increased following the creation of several government herds while economic demand for bison decreased. Early preservationists believed that the animals would never return to a position of economic value, and those few individuals attempting to profit from the species found limited markets for their product. The experience of Custer State Park in South Dakota blurs the distinctions between profit and preservation as the managers of that herd attempted to generate revenue from their bison, first through live sales and later by slaughtering some animals for meat. Limited demand for buffalo meat as an exotic addition to Christmas dinners continued, but by the 1930s mainstream economic demand for bison all but disappeared. Faced with growing buffalo populations, federal government officials created tribal herds on the Crow and Pine Ridge reservations. The entry of the United States into World War II resulted in a domestic rationing of meat that led to the expansion of operations at Custer State Park and the elimination of the Pine Ridge tribal herd. The story of bison’s recovery in the first half of the twentieth century shows that environmental factors and economic considerations of animal preservation are far from antagonistic; they are inseparable.