When bison roamed Glacier National Park

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Bison, similar to this one at the National Bison Range, will be returned to their native range on the Blackfeet Insian Reservation in April.

Archaeologist Brent Rowley has seen more than his share of bison bones.

Rowley gave a brown-bag lunch presentation in Glacier National Park recently describing the history of bison hunting in the Glacier area. He got involved with the research when a soil-sampling trip to the Belly River in 2015 turned up tons of bison bone eroding out of the banks. He also noted that the Reynolds Fire in the St. Mary Valley revealed even more skeletons, proving that bison definitely have a history in Glacier.

North America was colonized by humans about 12,000-13,000 years ago, during an ice age when sea levels were 200 feet lower than they are today and a land bridge was exposed. The area that is now Glacier National Park was positioned right at the edge of the ice-free corridor, Rowley noted, and was an unrecognizable landscape dominated by mammoths, giant ground sloths, and bison twice the size of the extant bovid. Horses also evolved in North America originally, and later migrated to Asia. The North Fork still hosts rare horse fossils.

The Wally’s Beach site in Alberta also has evidence of early, unique mammals - archaeological remnants suggest that it’s a 12,000-year-old giant camel and horse hunting site.

The early Americans hunted by thrusting spears into their quarry at close range. Typically a group would corner an animal in wetlands and spear it to death.

“That’s a pretty intense way to hunt,” Rowley noted.

About 10,500 years ago, the large megafauna died off, and human hunters switched to the smaller traditional bison we see today. Although only about 2 percent of Glacier has been surveyed for archaeological significance, Rowley said that the region can be compared to similar sites to get an idea of bison hunting in the past. Experts can also carbon-date campfire ash, and they perform serum analysis on proteins from the points of projectiles like arrowheads to determine the species of animal killed by the weapons.

As they evolved technologically, hunters began to use Atlatl and dart weapons, which allowed them to hunt at longer range. Bows and arrows were introduced even later.

Prehistoric bison ranges in the Glacier area are estimated based on extant populations in Yellowstone. It’s believed that on the east side of the Park, bison inhabited the valleys and side drainages up to about 7,500 feet. They exhibited high density in the Rocky Mountain front because of the diverse habitat, Rowley said, which allowed them to move to the plains if the mountains were dry, and vice versa.

Bison hunting tools were often made of fine-grained and glassy stones like obsidian, chert, argilite, basalt, and dacite - some of these are local to Glacier, and others were traded for from as far away as Utah. Trading routes were extensive, and many native tribes relied solely on human or dog-powered transport, as domesticated horses weren’t introduced to the region until the late 1770s.

For early hunters, bison jumps were the most effective way to catch their dinner. Hunters hazed bison to jump off cliffs collectively, sometimes by waving hides to elicit panicked herd behavior.

The Head-Smashed-In site in Canada is a World Heritage Site dedicated to bison hunting, and has evidence of a jump site, a butcher site, and a processing area near a campground.

In Glacier, bison jumps tended to be smaller in scale, since there are no good valley-bottom cliffs toward which hunters could have driven bison. Glacier inhabitants more often used a corral system, Rowley explained, which takes advantage of bison’s herd mentality since solid barriers make them feel safe. Hunters also drove bison herds toward mud, open water, gorges, or, in the winter, snow or ice.

Every part of the bison was used, Rowley noted. Hunters tanned the hides from the bison’s brain materials to make waterproof shelters, clothing, or lining for food-boiling pits. They crushed the bones to extract marrow, turned the sinew into cord, and smoked or roasted the meat or pounded it with berries to make pemmican.

They didn’t roast meat on a spit, though, much to the contrary of conventional “wisdom.”

Rowley was exasperated by this romanticized view of rustic cooking.

“From a caloric point of view, that is by far the least efficient way of cooking meat,” he said.

When horses were introduced in the late 1700s, the bison hunt was drastically altered. Individual animal kills increased, and roundups for bison jumps incorporated many more animals.

Sadly, the arrival of Europeans in the 1840s put an end to the native tribes’ methods, Rowley said. The settlers slaughtered bison to extract calcium from their bones, often burning the meat rather than utilizing it. They later slaughtered all the bison in the Great Plains, in a brutal attempt to force the Native Americans into starvation and compliance with the reservation system.

Bison were also afflicted by cattle disease.

The last bison in the Park was seen in 1884, Rowley said.

But excavation sites reveal a plethora of evidence about bison history and hunting, down to the post holes for the corrals. There are also remains from stone tool making.

Don’t go looking for artifacts, though.

“The site locations are kept confidential to keep people from digging up arrowheads for their home collection,” Rowley said.

Bison could soon return to the east side of the Park. The Blackfeet are working on a project to restore native bison back to Glacier — an effort that could happen in the next few years.

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