A turkey buzzard waits for its dinner
Too Many Horses, Not Enough Rain
Horses compete with buffalo, sharing an 80% dietary overlap, making them competitors for the same resources. As Comanches became the Great Plains horse warehouse (the Comanches alone tending an estimated 250,000 animals at the height of their commercial operations), they deprived buffalo of grazing. Other livestock pressures—sheep from New Mexico, freighting animals along the Santa Fe trail—further depleted the available pasturage for buffalo while also introducing disease among the herd. The attrition rate on the buffalo herd most likely increased. A dry cycle from 1845-1850 didn’t help. By 1860, only about 3.5 million buffalo remained on the southern plains.
Such a diminished herd could only sustain 140,000 taken for all purposes. The 15,000 surviving Numunu and allies in the 1850s continued to consume 90,000 animals for internal use, and reports from American trading houses suggest that they continued to kill nearly 50,000 more for trade purposes, and combined with slaughter by Indians granted “rights” by the Comanches would outstrip the Buffalo herd’s ability to sustain its numbers.
Since ancient times, the critical factor in managing buffalo numbers on the Great Plains had been the need to keep the numbers under control in order to keep them from overgrazing their environment. Careful tending had created a delicate balance, and Indians had often been more worried about killing enough of the animals rather than too many. Climate cycles had come and go, and the numbers of buffalo had declined in the past, but so had the numbers of humans hunting them, often for the same reasons. But as rains and cooler weather returned, the buffalo numbers increased, leading to a follow on increase in human population utilizing them as a resource. One number followed another for millennia.
The buffalo crises of the 1840s and 1850s might have appeared to the Numunu at the time to be just another of those period cycles. It was anything but.