Where the Buffalo Roam

Buffalo (American Bison) in Custer State Park, South Dakota

In in the 19th century, over a span of just 40 years, Americans hunted the Plains buffalo from a seemingly endless sea of 60,000,000 animals down to fewer than 100. Here are some facts, figures, and a bit of background on the American bison.

Buffalo in Custer State Park, South DakotaThe 1,200 head of American bison in South Dakota's Custer State Park is one of the largest free-ranging herds of buffalo left in America.

When we first saw the buffalo, it was scratching its rump on a post at an overlook in Badlands National Park.

It was a bull: enormous and shaggy, with big black marble eyes, a massive hump of muscle and bone atop its shoulders, and twin horns of ivory twisting out of its matted chocolate mane.

"I'm gonna get closer," said Stew, my suicidal buddy. We were in a big white van with half a dozen Boy Scouts in the back, all scrambling for their cameras. Stew slowly rolled up to within about 15 feet of the beast, who stopped scratching for a moment, regarded us, then went back to his itch.

I decided it was an excellent time for a lesson in just why it was unwise to get this close to a buffalo. I started reeling off some of the buffalo facts and figures i'd recently gleaned from my guidebooks and the informative placards I'd seen in Custer State Park .

At up to 2,200 pounds and six feet tall, the buffalo is by far the largest land mammal in North America.

It has been clocked doing more than 40 m.p.h. and can outrun a horse in a sprint.

You know phrase "turn on a dime?" It was coined to describe a buffalo's agility (though wouldn't "turn on a nickel" have been more appropriate?).

Buffalo bulls can bowl over one-ton opponents like dominoes.

Wussy domestic livestock turn away from storms; badass buffalo turn to face right into storms.

In other words, one of these things could pulverize you without blinking. Which is why you should never, ever approach one, certainly not during mating season (July-August) when the bulls get aggressive. Which is why we, creeping up on a full-sized bull the first week of August, were very, very stupid.

A buffalo bull in Badlands National Park, South Dakota.The buffalo bull whose patience we tried in Badlands National Park, South Dakota.

After a minute of us clicking pictures and whispering excitedly, the buffalo huffed and ambled forward a few yards.

Stew slowly crept the van forward to keep pace.

This happened twice before I said, "OK, I think it's time to stop annoying the nice buffalo."

The beast turned his shaggy head to look at us. "He's taking aim!" Stew laughed nervously. "If he starts doing the bull thing, pawing the ground, I'm out of here!"

A few seconds later, the buffalo let out an big, breathy annoyed grunt, lowered his head, and—deliberately, once with each hoof—flicked up clouds of dust.

Like a good little stupid tourist, I have all this on video, and at that moment you can hear the van erupt with a chorus of "Oh shoot, oh shoot!" (only we weren't saying "shoot") and on the screen the big bull suddenly starts receding into the distance rapidly as we speed away.

That which we call a buffalo by any other word...

...Would actually be an American bison. The word "buffalo" is derived from the French "les boeufs" (meaning any cattle that provides beef), and it was indeed originally applied to the shaggy Titans of the American Plains and prairies.

In zoological terms, however, it properly refers only to the sort of buffalo they have in Asia and Africa (you know, short hair and long horns, unlike what we call "buffalo" in North America, which are the other way around).

What roam the Great Plains are properly termed American bison (though don't tell that to the ones living in Canada). Technically, taxonomically what we have in North America are Bison bison (did we finally run out of Latin animal names or something?).

For the record, Zoologists aside, I'm mostly going to refer to them how everybody refers to them: incorrectly, as "buffalo."

After all, "Oh, give me a home where the American bison roam" just doesn't have the same ring to it.

Tatanka the provider

Actually, we could do like Kevin Costner's character in Dances with Wolves and call buffalo by their Sioux name, tatanka —which actually just means "great big thing," an apt description even if you don't put your fingers by your temples to make little horns as you say it.

It may be a cliché to say that the Native American tribes of the Great Plains made use of every part of the buffalo and let nothing go to waste, but it also happens to be true.

There was the meat, of course: high in protein, low in cholesterol and calories. Then the buffalo hides for robes, tipi material, and blankets; the rawhide for crafting everyday objects (knife sheaths, baby cradles, boots, and drumheads); the sinews for sewing and for bowstrings; the horns (which can be black or white, and are sported by cow and bull alike) to make spoons and cups; and the bones to make tools and jewelry.

You probably could have figured all those out yourself. But when they say the Indians wasted no part of the buffalo, they mean that the Indians wasted no part of the buffalo.

Native Americans used buffalo tails for the same purpose they served on the animals originally: as flyswatters.

Buffalo bladders became canteens for water, buffalo ribs were turned into tools that helped straighten arrow shafts, and buffalo testicles, well, turns out they made a great baby's rattle.

Even the buffalo chips were useful: dried buffalo dung was an excellent fuel for fires in the tree-poor Plains, and when crushed the dried manure served as a kind of baby powder.

All tribes of the Plains and prairies hunted and used buffalo, but they're most closely associated in the American mythos with the various Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota-speaking peoples we group together and call the Sioux.

From the time in the 17th century when the Sioux migrated from Minnesota to the prairies (though in their own mythology, they were born of the Black Hills in what is now South Dakota), they achieved a kind of perfect symbiosis with the buffalo. As John Fire Lame Deer put it:

"The buffalo was a part of us, his flesh and blood being our own flesh and blood. Our clothing, our tipis, everything we needed for life came from the buffalo's body. it was hard to say where the animal ended and the man began."

All that was to end with the coming of the white man, the rifle, and the railroad.

"The plains were black and appeared as if in motion"

In the 1840s, there were approximately 60 million buffalo roaming the Plains in great herds ranging from Canada to Texas.

By 1886, there were fewer than 100.

Blame fashion, a fashion for buffalo skin coats and hats brought on by an era enamored of the mystique of westward expansion and the homesteading of the Plains. Buffalo fur was a way of tapping into the romance of the Wild West and the wagon trains—which means bison were slaughtered by the thousands, then quickly skinned and de-tongued (another fashion: buffalo tongue as delicacy). The rest of the buffalo corpse—piles of them, strewn across the prairies in the hundreds—was left to rot.

Blame the economy. The 1870s saw a severe depression, and the $3 a man could earn from a buffalo hide (a price that was to spike to $22 at the height of buffalo frenzy) was more than he could working a full day at a factory.

This was especially true if he was armed with the buffalo hunter special, the .40 caliber Sharps rifle, with its 1.25-inch long lead bullets. It could drop a bison in its tracks—or at least slow him down enough to squeeze off several more rounds and finish the job. An average hunter could harvest 60 buffalo a day, a decent one 100 a day; one even claimed to have massacred 300 bison in a single afternoon.

Hunters realized that, if you approached a herd from downwind and quickly took out the leaders, the rest of the buffalo would simply stand there, unfazed, as you picked them off one by one. Men learned to carry two rifles with them because you could kill buffalo with the speed and efficiency of an assembly line, shooting and shooting without pause until the rifle barrel became so hot you couldn't touch it. Then you'd switch off to the second gun.

Blame the transcontinental railroad. The rifle and railroad dealt a crippling one-two punch to the buffalo. The east-west rail line divided the great North American herd in two, and railroad companies hired hunters to massacre buffalo as a potential track hazard (and certainly the cause of many delays). By 1873, the southern herd had been nearly exterminated.

Buffalo by the millions still roamed across the tracks. Hired exterminators or no, trains had little choice but to stop and wait for them to pass. Favorite pastime of passengers delayed by a migrating herd? Shoot as many buffalo as possible from the windows of the train, slaughtering from the comfort of your seat, leaving the bodies to putrefy in the sun.

Blame the U.S. government. Washington encouraged the wholesale slaughter of the buffalo as a means of driving the Native Americans off the Plains and onto reservations. With the Plains Indians lifestyle and economy so tied up in one animal, it was far easier for the government to cut off their livelihood than fight them in battle.

General Philip Sheridan, a brutal hero of the Civil War (in the Shenandoah Valley campaign, he pioneered the infamous scorched earth tactics Sherman would later use in Georgia), was sent to "pacify the Plains" in 1867, which he proceeded to do with genocidal glee.

This was the man who commanded Custer in his illegal, treaty-breaking forays into the Black Hills. This was the man who famously quipped that 'The only good Indian is a dead Indian.' (What he actually said, in response to one Comanche Chief "Silver Knife" Tosawi promising "Me good injun!," was: "The only good Indians I ever saw were dead").

Sheridan—whose only decent characteristic was being an early champion of turning Yellowstone into a protected park—neatly summed up the unofficial government position on the buffalo (and Native Americans) in 1875:

"The hide hunters will do more in the next few years to settle the vexed Indian question than the entire regular army has done in the last 30 years. For the sake of a lasting peace, let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated."

They very nearly succeeded.

The last of the wild buffalo

By the 1880s, the only large buffalo herd left was the 50,000 to 80,000 head up in Montana's Powder River country. In 1882, a new rail line to the area allowed hunters to pour in and exterminate the lot. With buffalo hides becoming scarce, people finally turned to start making some use of the other parts of the animals.

The buffalo carcasses were poisoned so that the winter wolves that scavenged them would die and their pelts could be easily harvested. The vast boneyards of buffalo left stinking on the Plains were plundered to manufacture buttons and grind into fertilizer. Still, that only fetched $5 a ton—far from the heady days of $22 a hide.

In 1887 the American Museum of Natural History sent an expedition West to obtain some buffalo specimens. They spent three months scouring the Plains and prairies where, 40 years earlier, tens of millions of buffalo had roamed. They could not find a single one.

An 1889 census found fewer than 85 bison roaming wild in the United States. Another 200 were in Yellowstone, ostensibly protected. A few hundred more lived in zoos and on ranches.

In 1897, poachers killed two bulls, a cow, and her calf in Lost Park, Colorado.

They were the last of the wild buffalo.

"All round us, as far as we could see, the plains were black with buffalo. The prairie seemed to be moving."
—Norbert Welsh, The Last Buffalo Hunter

Back from the brink of extinction

As dire as all that sounds, the buffalo are not gone.

They came close, but bison have made a remarkable comeback from the couple hundred that were left at the close of the 19th century.

Starting in the 1880s, parks (which at the time meant Yellowstone) began offering some protection, though poaching continued to be a problem.

Bison preservation groups began springing up in the early 1900s, and Teddy Roosevelt even got behind the idea, serving as honorary president of the American Bison Society, which in 1907 slipped 15 Bronx Zoo buffalo to Oklahoma to start a population at the newly created Wichita Reserve Bison Refuge.

The society's subsequent releases into the wild of ranched or zoo-bred animals resulted in several other new "wild" herds on the Montana National Bison Reserve (www.fws.gov/bisonrange/nbr), South Dakota's Wind Cave National Game Preserve (www.nps.gov/wica) , and Nebraska's Fort Niobrara (www.fws.gov/fortniobrara).

There are currently about 500,000 bison in public and private herds spread across North America. Most of those, however, are merely a form of exotic cattle: industrial, ranched bison intended for the dinner plate (Americans eat about one million pounds of bison meat a year).

That may sound horrid, but bison breeders and ranchers have done a lot to preserve the buffalo. Many bison farmers have pointed out that, while a harsh winter out West will kill conventional cattle by the thousands, the buffalo do just jim dandy. They stoically turn to face the storm, then use their giant heads as pile drivers to uncover grazing material buried under the blanket of white.

So these guys are bison boosters. Besides, it's only a boutique industry. About 30,000 to 40,000 bison are slaughtered each year for meat. Compare that to the 100,000 conventional cattle killed each day.

Only about 20,000 bison exist in noncommercial "wild" herds. To put that in perspective, that's less than half as many as just the 46,000 Ted Turner—yes, that Ted Turner—has on his 15 ranches.

(Actually, Turner's a pretty big conservationist—just the sort that's cast from a pragmatic mold—and truly seems to be devoted to the preservation of native species. Sure, he sells his buffalo meat at his Ted's Montana Grill chain, but he also gave development rights to his Flying D Ranch to the Nature Conservancy. Well, he can afford to. Turner is the largest private landowner in America. His 1.9 million acres make his private fiefdom bigger than Delaware or Rhode Island.)

Where to find the buffalo

You can now admire (relatively) free-ranging herds on several public lands, particularly at Yellowstone National Park (technically speaking, home to the only group of wild, free-roaming bison to have survived since the Ice Age; its numbers have fluctuated wildly, dipping as low as 25 beasts in 1901, though are currently at a more comfortable range of 3,900 to 5,000), Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park (www.nps.gov/wica) in South Dakota.

There are smaller herds on the National Bison Range in Montana (www.fws.gov/bisonrange/nbr), in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota (www.nps.gov/thro), and at Nebraska's Fort Niobrara (www.fws.gov/fortniobrara).

I'm particularly attached to the Custer State Park herd, the kernel of which were five calves captured near Grand River in 1881, ranched for a few generations, then acquired by the park in 1914.

They're the first wild bison I ever saw massed as a herd. In fact, Custer is one of the places you're most likely to run into the beasties (Yellowstone is so huge its herd can easily hide).

Also, in the fall of 2006, I got to participate in Custer's Great Buffalo Roundup. If you see a photograph of hundreds of bison roaming across golden grasslands—and it's in color—ten to one it was taken during this exciting annual event.

Back in the cross hairs

So the buffalo are back—not in the tens of millions, of course, but half a million is quite a success story for a species that a century ago was reduced to just a few hundred specimens.

That doesn't mean we've learned our lesson.

The modern, unfolding story of the American bison is complicated, but let me focus on one aspect of one herd: that last, truly wild herd of Yellowstone.

There hasn't been a single documented case of any bison anywhere spreading brucellosis—a bacterial disease imported along with some European cattle in 1917—to domestic cattle.

Still, pressure from Montana ranchers who fear escaped buffalo might infect their herds has in recent years led authorities at Yellowstone—home to one quarter of the world's remaining wild bison—to slaughter annually between 900 and 1,100 of the animals who dare to stray over (or even just too close to) the park's borders.

In 2005, Montana started granting bison-hunting licenses: 50 that first, rising to 140 in 2006 (and 45 of those were for cows and calves).

While hunting might offer a better alternative the standard response to any buffalo that wanders outside Yellowstone—ship it back or ship it to the slaughterhouse—it's still astounding that, barely a century after we nearly wiped out the glorious beasts, we're right back to where we started in the 1870s.

The government is once again encouraging the slaughter of wild buffalo.

For more info...

Tours Under $995 G Adventures

Related Articles



This article was by Reid Bramblett and last updated in June 2012.
All information was accurate at the time.

about | contact | faq

Copyright © 1998–2013 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett.