In the 19th Century, about 50 million bison were killed by the settlers either for their meat or fur, or as a sport. Sometimes, the settlers even wiped out thousands of herds so as to deprive the Native Americans of their meat and fur, or indirectly their livelihood. Due to this, the once enormous population of the bison reduced to a mere few hundred. The government and people of North America stepped forward to save the beast from becoming extinct.
Today, there are about 200,000 bison in North America living in sanctuaries, preserves, and ranches.
How about that for a comeback.
The government sponsored people going out and killing the bison. This was directly related to cutting off Native Americans’ access to the bison. For many tribes, particularly the plains tribes, the bison were everything to them. As Francis Rains put it, the bison were like the people’s Walmart. They were a main source of their food, clothing, shelter, tools, utensils, etc. They also played a large part in many tribes’ spiritual practices. To kill the bison would be devastating for tribes.
During Civil War a general went through towns and villages burning the crops and cutting people off from their food sources. For him, this was a successful tactic which lead him to victory (regardless of it being an utterly horrific tactic). Given the tactic’s success, the government put it to use in the “Indian Wars.” They knew that if they killed off the bison, they would be able to kill off Native Americans, move the remaining off their land, put them onto reservations, and open land up for settlers to claim land and settle it.
With the railroads now crossing the plains, railroad companies advertised being able to ride the trains and shoot the bison as they pass. This became a popular “sport” for people. Many people also began trying to gain notoriety by killing as many buffalo as possible. Buffalo Bill himself had gained his name by the tremendous amount of bison he had killed. While it’s true that sometimes when bison were killed, they were killed for their hides/fur and tongue (which had become a delicacy) over all, when bison were killed, their whole bodies were left to rot in the fields where they were shot. It was said that the stench of rotting bison could be smelled from miles and miles away.
People also began making an industry out of selling bison skulls.
Above is a photo of one of the many large mounds of bison skulls. To give you an idea of how large the mounds were, at the bottom of the photo stands a man with his foot on one of the bison skulls. They were HUGE.
Within two years, two years, the number of bison in North America were hunted down to 12 bison. This last herd of 12 bison were moved into the Yellowstone National Park where they would be protected.
As the OP said, the number of bison now in North America has grown quiet a bit. Tribal Nations have played a roll in both protecting the bison, as well as working to create new herds and spaces for them to grow and roam. Bison as also been taken up as a live stock animal in many places around the United States (and are sometimes sadly made to breed with cows… so now there is a cattle/bison mixture idk… that’s a whole other topic though). They are also present in other sanctuaries and preserves.
However, the bison are not yet in the clear. Today there is a large herd of bison in Yellowstone National Park. Although they are protected within the boundaries of the park, they are not once they cross out of Yellowstone. Bison are free roaming migratory animals and have historically migrated north and south feeding on the grasses of the plains region. In the past decade farmers/ranchers around the area of Yellowstone accuse the Bison of carrying diseases & spreading them. In reality, no such diseases have been found among the bison yet. However, ranchers/farmers have been waiting until the bison cross the boundary line of the park and have been shooting/killing the bison. This has been devastating to the Yellowstone bison population and organizations have been formed to try to protect the bison, however, more efforts could be made.
When Bison, unlike cows, feed off the grass, they eat just the tops of it, leaving the roots intact. This allows for the grasses to come back a new. Cows, however, eat both the tops of the grass and the roots when they eat it, destroying the grass.
Throwing down another fact: Because of the near extinction of American Bison, we will never, EVER, be able to get back the same prairie that existed pre-contact, because several species of plant have gone extinct because their germination cycle required the seeds to pass through a bison’s digestive system.
The more you know and are bitter about.