When species have become extinct or populations severely depleted during the 19th or 20th century hunting usually gets the blame. I think in most cases including the buffalo it plays a part in the demise on a species but may not be the primary cause. My friend Dr. David Hunter, who is the Consulting Veterinarian for Turner Enterprises, told me that at the height of the buffalo slaughter there were at most 1.2 million rounds of ammunition sold in St. Louis and Chicago. If you put any credence in the population estimates of 60 million buffalo, then a kill of 1 million would be not only sustainable but the herd would expand given adequate habitat. Dr. Hunterís belief is that while buffalo hunting contributed to the demise of the buffalo, the most significant factor quite possibly could have been the introduction of animal borne diseases originating in the introduced cattle. All of the diseases we have in our livestock today were present at probably even higher levels during the 1800ís and the buffalo had no immunity to these diseases.
Buffalo Hunting Today
There are somewhere around 500,000 buffalo in the US and Canada with the majority of these in private herds. Every state and province has buffalo including Hawaii. Commercial buffalo production has evolved into a viable option to cattle ranching and meat demand continues to rise at a significant pace.
There is free ranging buffalo hunting offered in 6 states and 4 Canadian provinces. The animals taken on these hunts can be entered into the Boone & Crockett and Pope & Young record books. Generally, permits for this hunting are very difficult to draw and may be one-in-a- lifetime. Also, these buffalo hunts are generally a lot of work and butchering is usually done without the aid of modern conveniences like a tractor. It should be noted that Custer State Park in South Dakota is 70,000 acres surrounded by a high fence but the Boone & Crockett organization will allow entry of these buffalo.
Buffalo hunting takes place in many forms on private ranches of all sizes. Shooting a buffalo in the field is by far the most humane and effective way to harvest these animals. The large, trophy bulls are very difficult to handle and are very good at tearing up equipment so it is a lot easier to take these in the field instead of shipping them to a slaughter facility.
A potential buffalo hunter needs to pick a ranch that offers the type of hunt that they are comfortable with. Some hunts are geared more towards a field harvest while some actually end up being more difficult than some people think. We hunt an 800 acre pasture on my 5000 acre home ranch and we offer hunts on an 85,000 acre ranch. Even most of the largest ranches have pastures of different sizes and the pasture that is generally used on the bigger ranch we hunt is 6000 acres. There are some very poor hunts offered on very large tracts of land and some good hunts offered on small pieces so the hunter needs to make their own decision on what they want. Many ranches that offer hunts are not fenced with what we would consider a high fence. A buffalo can go through about any fence there is so ranchers generally try to put up a fence that is effective but not cost prohibitive. Buffalo that behave stay in and the ones that donít go to the hunt pasture. We use a high tensile, five wire fence that is around 5 feet tall and is very easy to get through.
Ranch raised buffalo generally allow a hunter to get within rifle range but anything closer can be a challenge. Many times cows and calves will be leery but you can get wild bulls that become very skittish as well. The most difficult hunt is a big bull out in the open with archery gear. If you have calm winds and crunchy snow, getting close enough to get a shot can take a couple of days and a lot of luck. On the flip side, the ranches we hunt offer wide open spaces and the opportunity for long shots.
Most hunting for trophy bulls or cows with good hides is done from October until mid February. Meat hunts are best when done in the late summer since a buffaloís meat is at its tenderest when the animal is gaining weight. Any animal harvested in the summer should be done during the coolest part of the day and it needs to be opened up to cool as soon as possible. I have killed hundreds of buffalo during the summer and have never had a problem so itís not a big deal to do so.