As a child in a good elementary school in the small town of Owego, New York, in the early 1960s, I learned dozens of old folk songs. Among them was “Home on the Range,” which I, like many of my fellow students, loved to sing, feeling all romantic about life on the range—ridin’ your faithful horse, sleepin’ under the stars, shootin’ rattlesnakes, tamin’ wild horses, herdin’ cattle, and singin’ ’round the campfire. Of course, none of us had ever seen the range, other than in cowboy Westerns, but that didn’t quench our sentimentality.
O give me a home where the buffalo roam,
where the deer and the antelope play,
where seldom is heard a discouraging word,
and the skies are not cloudy all day.
Home, home on the range! …
We all loved to sing that—I especially because my maternal grandfather had been a cattle rancher in Wyoming and had lived just that life before he was caught in a stampede that broke “practically every bone in his body”—from which he was expected never to recover, though by true grit he did, even learning to walk without a limp though one leg was left three inches shorter than the other. (He also became a marshal nicknamed “Sundance Kid” when he lived in Sundance, Wyoming, where my mother was born.)
I had a particular passion for the buffalo, those lumbering giants of the old American west, even though later, in middle school, fellow students taunted me by calling me “Buffie Bison”—playing on the pronunciation of my last name, BICE-ner, which they figured sounded at least a bit like bison. (Why they thought that should be a taunt I never could understand.)
I was sad that the bison had been hunted nearly to extinction. Like most people, I thought their near disappearance was largely because of what I would later learn to call “the tragedy of the commons”—they were a valuable resource to which nobody had property rights and therefore everybody had an incentive to consume as much as possible as quickly as possible lest it be consumed by somebody else first.
Well, that explanation, however intuitively attractive, isn’t true.
The truth is that because cattle converted grass to meat so much more efficiently than buffalo and could be herded, harvested, and therefore brought to market so much more cheaply, the buffalo—so long as they remained in the massive numbers of the early 1800s (estimated at 30 million at the height and still 10 million by 1870), were a negative economic value. They were more valuable dead and rotting than alive and chewing up grass that otherwise could feed cattle.
My old friend Dr. P.J. Hill summarizes the story here and develops it more fully here. He brings much-needed correction to common perceptions about ecological harm in the old west. And he also explains why, once they became sufficiently rare that they had value as an ecological curiosity and an aesthetic amenity, private investors gained incentive to establish property rights in them. The result? Their numbers have grown from a few hundred to 450,000, of which about 220,000 are in the United States.
Meanwhile, I have the pleasure of actually liking something President Obama has done. He designated the bison the U.S. national mammal back in May.