Posted by: Jeremy Fox | February 3, 2012

How international trade almost wiped out the North American bison

Economics, even ecological economics, isn’t something I’d ordinarily write about on the Oikos Blog–it’s not really the blog’s purpose, and it’s not something I’m really qualified to write about. But I’m making an exception to plug a very interesting exercise in ecological economics by my Calgary colleague M. Scott Taylor.

From 1870 to the late 1880s, the American buffalo (bison) population declined from about 10-15 million to 100. The decline itself isn’t a shock–settlers were spreading west, and hunting buffalo and grazing cattle as they went. But the decline was much less steep before 1870. Why the sudden crash? Various explanations have been proposed, to do with things like changes in Native American hunting practices, hunting by the US Army, and the expansion of railroads. None of these explanations are especially convincing.

In a new paper in the Dec. 2011 issue of American Economic Review, Scott uses a combination of theoretical modeling, empirical time series analysis, and historical research to develop a much more convincing explanation, to do with technological innovation and international trade. It turns out that, just before the crash began, tanners in England came up with a way to tan buffalo hide into leather, which previously had not been possible. This instantly created a massive new international market for buffalo hides; previously there wasn’t a big market for any buffalo product. Scott uses old trading records to infer that around 6 million buffalo hides, representing a kill of about 9 million buffalo, were exported from the US from 1871-1873. The combination of a technical innovation, a huge international market, open access buffalo hunting, and fixed world prices (buffalo weren’t a large enough fraction of the world leather supply for their decline to drive up prices) appears to be what ultimately drove the American buffalo to the brink of extinction.

The echoes of this crash still reverberate today. The buffalo slaughter of the 1870s was widely deplored at the time as wanton and wasteful. Some of those who witnessed it first hand, including Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir, and William Hornaday, founded the conservation movement in the US. One of the first and greatest successes of that movement was the creation of the national park system, including Yellowstone and its tiny remnant buffalo herd. And there’s a lesson for today as well: when small countries worry that the combination of technological innovation and global markets will decimate their natural resources, Americans ought to be willing to listen–because the US was once in the same boat.

I’ve seen Scott give a talk on this work, and can attest that it’s a really nice piece of science. I really like the fact that Scott put in the effort to develop every possible line of evidence, including combing through historical records and building a theoretical model, rather than just relying on those bits of evidence which he found easiest to access or develop. Too often in ecology, and probably every field, investigators follow the path of least resistance and focus narrowly on whichever lines of evidence which they find most convenient or congenial to work with. And then ignore or argue with people who’ve come to different conclusions based on different lines of evidence. I also like Scott’s effort to be as quantitative as possible, for instance by estimating how many buffalo hides were exported. It turns what otherwise would’ve been a theoretical model plus suggestive historical anecdotes into a quite convincing story.

See also further discussion at Conversable Economics (on which this post is based).




  1. I’ve read a fair bit of history from the latter 19th century and I think it’s fair to say that the 30 year period from the end of the Civil War to about 1895 was easily so the most corrupt, lawless, stupid, and dismal in American history. It’s a wonder anything survived.

    From Hornaday (1889) pp. 494-5:

    “During the years 1871 and 1872 the most wanton wastefulness prevailed. Colonel Dodge declares that, though hundreds of thousands of skins were sent to market, they scarcely indicated the extent of the slaughter. Through want of skill in shooting and want of knowledge in preserving the hides of those slain by green hunters, one hide sent to market represented three, four, or even five dead buffalo. The skinners and curers knew so little of the proper mode of curing hides, that at least half of those actually taken were lost. In the summer and fall of 1872 one hide sent to market represented at least three dead buffalo. This condition of affairs rapidly improved; but such was the furor for slaughter, and the ignorance of all concerned, that every hide sent to market in 1871 represented no less than five dead buffalo.”

    There are parts of his account that I can’t read without getting either furious or sick or both, and other parts that I can’t read at all.

  2. […] It was international trade that wiped out the bison. […]

  3. […] It was international trade that wiped out the bison. […]

  4. […] Scaling up did for the bison. […]

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