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Dan Flores lives a long way from Buffalo, but he's coming to the right city.

From his home in the Bitter Root Valley and his office at the University of Montana, Flores has spent the last several years researching the decline of the American bison -- or, if you will, the buffalo.

He'll present the results of that research Sunday at -- where else? -- the Buffalo Museum of Science.

If that all fits together nicely, the revised story of the decline of a symbolic American creature doesn't.

"It was a lot more complex than the story we've been telling in the history books," Flores said this week.

"It's not nearly so simple as 10,000 hunters going West after the Civil War and wiping them out in a matter of 10 to 15 years," he explained.

Flores, the A.B. Hammond Professor of Western History at the Montana university and a former Texas Tech teacher, will outline his complex network of causes that conspired against the majestic plains creature. His talk on "What Really Happened to the Buffalo?" will be presented at 3 p.m. Sunday, as the first of this year's Hayes Lectures.

He's also working on a book with the Yale University Press and is among the revisionist theorists challenging the standard view of bisons hunted to near-extinction.

That view still has major proponents. In a slight variation on the wholesale-hunting theory, for example, naturalist Valerius Geist's new book -- "Buffalo Nation" -- claims the U.S. government used its army to kill millions of buffalo as part of an all-out war to exterminate Native American tribes.

Geist notes that the number of bison plummeted from 30 million in the early 1800s to fewer than 500 animals at the turn of this century, before rebounding to more than 250,000 today on ranches and sanctuary ranges throughout the United States.

Flores has seen estimates of the peak number of bison that range up to 75 million, but he and his colleagues see reality as a much smaller number.

"We don't think the Great Plains, even during the Little Ice Age when rainfall was higher in the West, was capable of supporting more than somewhere between 22 (million) and 28 million buffalo," he said.

"Even during the period from 1865 to 1884, which may have been the final blow, we only have records of 10 million hides being sent East by the hide hunters. If there were 30 million buffalo, what happened to the other 20 million hides?"

Hunting helped polish off the great herds, Flores agrees, but the bison was suffering long before that.

There was increasing hunting pressure from Native Americans long before the Civil War. There also were climate changes, competition from other animals, and outbreaks of diseases.

Things may have turned sour for the king of the plains when the Pueblo tribe revolted in 1680 and pushed the Spanish out of Mexico for a dozen years. The Pueblo also captured the Spanish stock herds, and the horses Spaniards had taken to the New World were traded extensively throughout the West.

"Indian acquisition of horses drew population to the Plains," Flores noted. "There are a lot more people hunting buffalo by about 1710, 1720."

The use of horses increased hunting efficiency on the plains, and enticed groups living on the fringes of the plains to begin living off the bison.

By the 1820s, too, native peoples were no longer hunting bison only for subsistence. Even before whites and modern firearms attacked the herds, natives were being "gradually incorporated into the market economy" and were trading buffalo robes to the East, Flores noted.

By the 1840s and 1850s, 36 tribes hunted bison.

"In addition to that," Flores said, "there's the effect of the end of the Little Ice Age. The 400 years from 1450 to 1850 brought increased rainfall to the West, ensuring bumper crops of grass on the Plains year after year. All of a sudden, there were droughts."

The dry weather and sparse grass of the 1840s couldn't have come at a worse time for the herds. Not only was hunting increasing, but the hunters' horses were competing with the bison for the grass -- reducing the carrying capacity of the region by an estimated 15 percent.

And then there were the settlers moving along the Overland Trail, their wagons pulled by even more "exotic" grazing animals. For the first time, bison were exposed to anthrax, tuberculosis and other European bovine diseases.

The majestic bison was hunted nearly to extinction in the 19th century, as settlers spread westward, Easterners sought buffalo robes for winter sleighing and buffalo hunters slaughtered entire herds to feed the crews building railroads across the land. But, Flores argues, the final hunts that all but exterminated the animal aren't the sole cause of the bison's demise.

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