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American buffalo doomed by international trade

By Grady Semmens

taylorIt’s not often that thoughts inspired by Hollywood western movies germinate into full-blown academic theories that gain international attention, but that’s exactly what happened when U of C economist M. Scott Taylor decided to look into the near extinction of North America’s once vast buffalo herds.

While watching the movie Wyatt Earp—Kevin Costner’s biopic about the legendary wild west lawman—several years ago, Taylor wondered how more than 10 million plains bison could have be killed in only a decade on the sparsely populated frontier of the United States in the late-1800s.

“It was a pretty boring movie, but Wyatt Earp was a buffalo hunter, and it got me thinking,” Taylor recalls. “They couldn’t have killed off that many buffalo just because it’s fun. Somebody must have been making money off of the hunt and I wanted to find out who it was.”

Trying to solve this economic “murder mystery” became a pastime for Taylor, who holds a Canada Research Chair in International, Energy and Environmental Economics, as he gradually began piecing together international trade data and information from historical accounts of the U.S. bison hunt during the 1870s and 1880s. He found that the explosion of bison hunting during the 1870s coincided with the European development of a cheap and easy method of tanning buffalo hides into useable leather. This innovation led to a booming demand for thick buffalo leather that was used for shoe soles and machinery belts.

In a working paper for the prestigious National Bureau of Economic Research, Taylor argues that the insatiable European market led to a slaughter that was virtually unregulated by a U.S. government distracted by rebuilding efforts after the country emerged from the Civil War.

“It is somewhat ironic that what must be the saddest chapter in U.S. environmental history was not written by Americans; it was instead, the work of Europeans,” Taylor says. “People have always said that it was greed that killed the buffalo but greed has a price, and up until now, the source of that greed has been a mystery.”

Taylor’s paper has caused a stir in academic circles and in the media, leading to invitations to present his findings at numerous universities including Harvard, Stanford and Princeton. News stories have appeared around the world in news outlets, including the Atlantic Monthly magazine, the Globe and Mail and MSNBC.com.

Taylor says the study provides modern-day lessons for developing countries that rely on their natural resources to the detriment of the environment.

“This is just one case study of how international trade can affect our use of the world’s resources, but it happens to be a great one,” Taylor said. “I think it’s a wonderful example of the power of economics as a discipline to understand the world around us because it has solved a mystery that others haven’t been able to solve in the last 130 years.”

>> Read Dr. Taylor's paper


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