For millennia, tens of millions of bison, also known as buffalo, roamed the North American continent, which is vital to the Great Plains ecosystem and the cultural and spiritual life of Native Americans. But not long after white settlers arrived, bison hunters were taking advantage of the bison population for meat, hides, and other products. By the late 19th century, the American bison population had been reduced from a high estimate of 60 million to just a few hundred animals.
In 1905 the New York Zoological Society, now called the Wildlife Conservation Society, founded the American Bison Society (ABS) with conservationist and avid hunter Theodore Roosevelt, who was made Honorary President. The ABS bred bison until 1907 and transported them in boxes by railcar to the west in order to cultivate small, protected herds from scratch. With these efforts, the population reached 1,000 by 1910.
“The American Bison Society went dormant when people felt that extinction was no longer imminent,” said Cristina Mormorunni, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s US Field Conservation Programs. “But we discovered about 100 years later that there is still a great need to ecologically and culturally restore buffalo.”
To do this, Mormorunni requires an entirely new approach to conservation that corrects how Native American communities have previously been excluded from US conservation talks. The groundbreaking Buffalo contract of 2014 laid the foundation stone. It was the first formal effort to recognize and elevate the importance of the bison to Native Americans and the First Nations peoples. When it was ratified, 13 nations from 8 reservations formed an intertribal alliance for the reintroduction of wild bison in the USA and Canada. New signatures on the contract will be added.
“I think it’s kind of a rebirth of the old Indian way of doing things. Our people come together to find a common cause to work on, ”said Dr. Leroy Little Bear, professor emeritus of Indian Studies at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, told Windspeaker News about bison recovery in the northern Great Plains and the Blackfeet Elders‘ Guiding the process at the time. “We know that the buffalo is not the only aspect of culture, but it is a very important part of culture. It is used in religion and in sacred societies. Stories revolve around the buffalo. If we could bring the buffalo back into our midst, if the children could see the buffalo regularly, that part of our culture would be brought back to life. “
In the spring of 2016, this progress and the urgency to continue the work was recognized at the federal level when President Obama signed law making the bison the first national mammal in the United States. The Wildlife Conservation Society and its partners such as the Blackfeet Nation are now focused on restoring bison to the wild. Today, about 20,000 bison live wild in tribal, state and federal states, and nearly half a million more are found in privately owned herds.
Where can you see bison?
You can see these bison in the wild in more than 20 different Home Office-administered areas, as well as a number of Native American reservations and other private properties. We have compiled a list of eight places you are most likely to see bison roaming free with the stories of how they got there in the first place.
Before You Go: In the fall and winter, you can see bison on the trail, or they can take shelter from the cold in wooded areas. Bison calves can be seen between March and May. The bison rutting or mating season is at its peak in July and August.
The sightings of these massive animals are exciting, but don’t forget to give them plenty of space for their and your safety. The American Prairie Reserve in Montana encourages guests to keep a minimum of 300 feet from a bison, reminding us that bison can run up to 35 miles per hour. Be sure to follow other wildlife safety guidelines, including never approaching or attempting to scare or scare away the bison.
Yellowstone National Park
Idaho, Montana, Wyoming
Yellowstone National Park is perhaps America’s most famous place for bison viewing. The park is home to the largest population of free range non-commercial bison. Today, nearly 5,000 purebred animals live free in Yellowstone. According to the National Park Service, this is the only place in the country where bison have lived continuously since their extinction and rehabilitation. Yellowstone Guidelines run private tours of the park to spot large wildlife, including bison.
American Prairie Reserve
Since 2004, American Prairie Reserve, a nonprofit wildlife sanctuary in northern Montana, has been gradually buying and leasing prairie to reconnect 3 million acres of public land and bring it back into the unfenced, undeveloped wilderness of the plains. A herd of bison roam free on the 31,000 acre Sun Prairie property. If you visit in the fall, the bison herd usually gathers in large groups.
Antelope Island State Park
The 42 square mile Antelope Island Reservation in the middle of the Great Salt Lake is separated from mainland Salt Lake City by a 7 mile dam. The herd of up to 700 bison is easy to spot. The ancestors of this herd have lived freely on the island since 1893, making them the second oldest publicly owned bison herd in the nation after Yellowstone. Every year in October, the park hosts an annual bison round-up, with riders populating the herd. However, due to COVID-19, viewers have been prevented from attending this year.
In 1924, 14 bison were brought to Catalina Island off the California coast, supposedly to make a western film. Regardless of their origin, these bison number around 150 today. If the number has been exceeded in the past, bison have been relocated to native countries, including those of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, and elsewhere. Catalina Island Conservancy, a non-profit land foundation that protects nearly 90 percent of the island, offers eco-tours to see bison and learn about the history of Catalina Island. The Catalina Island Company is also conducting a two-hour off-road bison expedition to spot the herd from a safe distance.
Today, between 300 and 500 wild bison live in the Henry Mountains in southern Utah. You can see them from the low grassy plains to the flat plains of the mountains at altitudes up to 10,000 feet. The managers of this herd have also begun sending bison to seed herds elsewhere, including the Book Cliffs in eastern Utah, where a new herd is being formed along with bison sent from the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservations.
Grand Canyon National Park
The Grand Canyon National Park covers an area of approximately 1,900 square kilometers. The bison that live there are most concentrated on the Kaibab Plateau and near the motorway that leads to the northern edge. In 2017, park officials began looking for ways to responsibly reduce the numbers of bison there in order to avoid overpopulation through coraling, relocation, and controlled hunting. Bring binoculars and look for the herd on the northern edge.
Wind Cave National Park
An estimated 350 bison roam freely in the 33,851 acre grassland prairie of Wind Cave National Park above the protected cave formations. The herd comes from a handful of bison donated by ABS from 1910 onwards. You don’t have to go far to spot the herd: they often hang on the park roads or within sight of the forest edges.
National Bison Range
This nature reserve near Flathead Lake was founded in 1908 by Teddy Roosevelt with an initial herd of 40 bison from the ABS. The National Bison Range now has a few hundred bison who farm almost 19,000 acres of grassland and wood in addition to elk, pronghorn, bighorn sheep and Rocky Mountain goats. Ride the 11 km long Prairie Drive to see the area’s wildlife in their natural habitat.