The Non-Tragedy of the Bison Commons: Why Bison Were Worth More Dead Than Alive in the 19th Century

North America was once home to massive herds of bison. Approximately 30 million bison roamed the plains during the 19th century, and in 1870, there were still at least ten million bison on the continent. But by the mid-1880s, that figure had fallen to less than 1,000.

Despite the common narrative, the bison were slaughtered not because of a lack of property rights to them, but because there was a higher-valued use of the land on which their massive herds thundered. The plain fact was that, during this period, a bison was worth more dead than alive.

It is clear that once bison numbers dwindled to a small amount, entrepreneurs recognized that each additional bison became more valuable and took steps to preserve them. Once the bison’s value as an ecological curiosity increased, efforts to preserve the species became successful. The National Bison Association reports that there are 450,000 bison in North America, with about 220,000 of those in the United States.

When bison became more valuable as they came close to extermination, and as new amenity values emerged, entrepreneurs established rights to the animals and prevented their demise.

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