One of the greatest "back from the brink" stories is that of the American Bison. Conventionally known as buffalo, the bison is an incredibly robust creature with the ability to survive in a wide variety of regions. While many think of the "wild west" when they think of the bison, the animals once thrived throughout the bulk of the United States.
In the 1500s bison roamed across the United States, from New York down to Florida and across to Texas and into Mexico. They spanned as far west as California and as far north as the Yukon. At that time their numbers were close to fifty million. Native Americans helped to shape the land to encorage the growth of the Buffalo herds as they were used for food, clothing and a variety of other goods. European settlers changed the balance and pushed the herds west as they converted grazing land to farm and displaced bison with their own livestock.
By 1870 the bison had been pushed back to two areas seperated by the intercontinental railroad and their numbers had dropped to 20 million. Unfortunately, two key factors would drive their numbers even lower. First was the fact that bison often damaged railroad tracks. The railroad companies paid rewards for the killing of buffallo to reduce damage. At the same time, William Frederick Cody became known as "Buffalo Bill" for his success in killing 4280 bison. Mostly, though, the massacre of the bison was a result of their value to the Native Americans. A large scale effort to either eliminate or "civilize" the natives led many to the conclusion that the elimination of one would facilitate the elimination of the other. So the slaughter continued, and in 1889 the bison's numbers had been reduced to fewer than 1000.
Today, thanks to recovery efforts, there are around 200,000 bison. They are raised for the same purposes as cattle. Their hearty nature and leaner meat makes them a better choice than traditional cattle in many ways, with herds as far flung as Haiwaii. There is still one wild herd and many others in captivity. Most of the bison today are the offspring of 77 buffalo in five different herds. The Bronx Zoo was instrumental in the recovery because many of their exhibits came from a variety of herds. Luckily the animals were already on the road to rapid recovery by 1900 which allowed them to escape the risk of problems arising from inbreeding.
Today many fine restaraunts carry buffallo steaks. Eating one is a bittersweet experience, knowing that they were nearly wiped off the face of the earth, yet understanding that with every steak sold thier survival is ensured.