Brian Yablonski, adjunct fellow of PERC:
Western orthodoxy suggests the white man’s irresistible drive for wealth led to the bison genocide. Reality, however, proved more complicated. Their near extinction was due to a host of factors ranging from adverse climate issues, introduction of the transcontinental railroad, emergence of a horse culture on the plains bringing more efficient hunting, the advent of the Sharp’s rifle known for its deadly accuracy and distance, as well as government policy that promoted the end of the bison as a means of calming hostilities with the Native Americans.
One underlying factor, however, may have contributed more than any other. The tragedy of the bison was one of the starkest examples of the tragedy of the commons. No one owned the bison. Those who were not the first to capture the economic benefits of a bison lost those benefits to someone else. This created a race to the finish—a bison derby. Recreation magazine captured the essence of the situation in 1901: “A wild buffalo is looked on as a small fortune walking around without an owner.”
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Just as enterprising men helped hasten this environmental calamity, so too did individual entrepreneurs, private ranchers, and charities help bring the bison back from the brink.