Valerius Geist, for 27 years a Professor of Zoology, Program Director of Environmental Science at the University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and author of Buffalo Nation: History and Legend of the North American Bison — estimates that all Plains Bison originated from 88 bison calves captured between 1873 and 1889, plus 23 Yellowstone survivors—for a total of 111.
Geist says the Woods Buffalo of Canada survived back then in somewhat larger numbers than Plains Buffalo.
“In the 1890s, the herd of northern Bison in what is now Wood Buffalo National Park, Alberta, may have shrunk to 300 to 500 animals. It is even possible that as few as 250 survived,” he writes.
“Allowing for the fact that we do not know how many of the captured calves grew up to reproduce, all North American bison alive today are likely descended from fewer than 300 individuals, including northern Wood Bison, the 88 captured bison, the 23 in Yellowstone, and a few in zoos.”
Of these, only the 5 Plains Bison calves rescued by the Duprees in South Dakota did not contribute to the genetics of the Plains Bison assembled by the Canadian government by 1914 in Buffalo National Park near Waianwright and Elk Island National park near Edmonton.
The Duprees did not sell South Dakota buffalo from their herd, but let them multiply, running free on the Great Sioux Reservation.
When that herd was purchased by Scotty Phillip, he did engage in some buying and selling, as he built it up to 1,000 head or more—a tourist attraction.
The various herds in private hands were soon mixed, since Buffalo Jones participated in a great deal of buying and selling from herds far and wide.
“The Pablo herd contained bison captured originally in Montana or Alberta, Saskatchewan, Texas, and probably individuals from Kansas and Nebraska,” states Geist.
Some of the pure Canadian Mckay herd went to Sir Donald A. Smith, who donated 13 of them to Banff National Park. They were joined by 3 Texas bison donated from Goodnight’s herd, brought to Banff in 1887.
Geist reports that in the 5 years between June 1, 1907 and June 6, 1912, Pablo delivered to Canadian authorities 716 bison. Of these, 631 went to Buffalo National Park and the remaining 85 to Elk Island National Park.
All were multiplying greatly, he says. Beginning on June 25, 1925 some 6,673 Plains Bison—4,826 yearlings, 1,515 two-year-olds, and 332 three-year olds—were shipped to Wood Buffalo National Park from Buffalo National Park. (Buffalo Nation: History and Legend of the North American Bison, by Valerius Geist, published by Voyageur Press, Stillwater MN.)
Francie M Berg
Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog