Part II. American Serengeti—Let’s take Another Look

Part II. American Serengeti—Let’s take Another Look

Interview with Marko Manoukian, Phillips County Extension Agent, Malta, Montana.

In our BLOG of June 23, 2020, we published “American Serengeti—What is going on in Montana?,” which discusses the enormous wildlife project that is shaking the foundations of community development and progress in Phillips County, Montana, and Malta, its county seat, and nearby communities.

The American Prairie Reserve—APR, or simply the Prairie Reserve–on the upper Missouri River is a plan to develop a huge grazing unit—the largest nature reserve in the continental United States.

American Prairie Reserve buffalo graze along Telegraph Creek on Sun Prairie. Photo by APR, Dennis Lingohr.

On this land APR aims to turn back the clock and restore the wildlife that roamed here two centuries ago, along with its large predators—grizzly bears, packs of wolves, mountain lions—and great herds of wild buffalo.

The idea grew from casual roots when this Montana area was “discovered” in 2000 by a group of environmentalists who proclaimed it critical for preserving grassland biodiversity.

One year later, in Silicon Valley, San Francisco, a member of that group, a biologist named Curt Freese, teamed up with a Montana native named Sean Gerrity and together they formed the American Prairie Reserve (APR).

Gerrity, a Silicon Valley consultant, says the idea was to “move fast and be nimble,” in the manner of high-tech start-ups.

They would remove the thousands of cattle grazing public land, stock it with 10,000 buffalo, tear out divider fences, restore native vegetation, and add missing wildlife in a pristine natural setting. This would be much appreciated by their wealthy donors from all over the world who could visit occasionally, staying in opulent yurts.

In the 19 years since, the Prairie Reserve group has moved ahead, raising $160 million in private donations, nearly all of it from out-of-state high-tech and business entrepreneurs across the U.S. and Europe.

They have acquired 30 properties—cattle ranches—totaling 104,000 acres. To this they added about three times that—more than 300,000 acres—in grazing leases on adjacent federal and state land—as owners are allowed when they purchase land with grazing rights.

Plans are to purchase about 20 more ranches.

In this American Prairie map of the proposed area, blue areas depict lands purchased and leased by the American Prairie Reserve in the last 19 years. The plan is to connect these with Federal lands, including the Charlie Russell National Wildlife Refuge (dark green) and the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument (light green) and other state and federal and perhaps Indian lands (brown). APR Map.

The properties purchased are all strategically located near two federally protected areas: the 1.1 million-acre Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and the 377,000-acre Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, according to National Geographic (Feb.2020, p69-89), which partners with Prairie Reserve in the Last Wild Places initiative. Other Federal and State lands intersect as well. Most of these lands are managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a division of the Department of Interior (DOT).

Other environmentalists, such as The Nature Conservancy, have long purchased lands for conservation, but none have done it in the large-scale APR proposes, according to National Geographic. Few have had the ambition as the Prairie Reserve does, of retaining long-term ownership and management authority of that land as well as adjoining publicly-owned lands.

Needless to say, cattle ranchers and many local townspeople—who have been watching the inevitable disintegration of formerly close communities, as one rancher after another sells out to APR, and families and businesses leave—are not pleased with what is happening.

We invited Marko Manoukian, Phillips County Extension Agent, of Malta, Montana, representing the Philllips County Livestock Association, to give us the cattle ranchers side of this Montana controversy.

Below is our interview with Marko Manoukian.

Marko Manoukian, Phillips County Extension Agent, of Malta, Montana, surveys the irrigation system in his county. He represents the Philllips County Livestock Association in presenting the cattle ranchers side of Montana controversy over APR. Photo submitted by M Manoukian.

Francie Berg: What is the American Prairie Reserve (APR) doing that upsets the local ranchers so much?

Marko Manoukian: Principally, they are crowding out the ability of ranchers to compete economically for agricultural land—in this case grazing land.

Because APR pays a premium for the property—more than a neighboring rancher could pay off with cows—this doesn’t allow for young people to come back and be engaged in livestock production.

Francie: Do you disagree with APR’s statement that they pay the regular, going price for land?

Marko: Correct, principally because, they are a 501C3 charitable organization so they get tax-free dollars to compete.

The tax code under charity is reserved for those things related to health or education. APR getting that designation is far outside the scope of the tax code.

But they got it somehow.

Francie: So they have already got from the BLM what they want?

Marko: Well, competition for the land is one issue.

Malta is losing its population of 2,000, say ranchers. They worry that each ranch APR acquires is one lost to the community, draining taxes from the county treasury, children from schools, and business from stores. Photo by maltachamber.com.

Another issue is that they’ve made application to BLM for year-around grazing and to alter the fence perimeter.

Neighboring ranchers or permitees are required to make application through the BLM and have been denied those things.

Francie: Denied what?

Marko: Year-around grazing and fence altercation. There’s supposed to be an environment assessment made by the BLM to be approved before any fences are changed.

None of that has happened—and I suppose in Phillips County alone they’ve probably altered 100 miles of BLM perimeter fence already.

Some neighboring operators are angry because now the fences are electric and that’s a hazard for them and their cattle.

Francie: Why is that a hazard?

Marko: Well as a neighboring rancher, yes it is. Because you’re not in charge of energizing the fence. They are.

So if your cow somehow got across the fence you might not know how to turn the fence off to get to the other side.

This would be the same for recreation, crawling around hunting—hunters may not know how to turn the fence off or even know that it is electric before they get zapped.

Francie:  You’re saying electric fences are a problem for recreation?

Marko: Yes. Electric fences are a limitation to recreation.

Francie: The BLM land is supposed to be open for recreation, isn’t it?

Hand Lettered sign objects to federal decisions overriding local input. Photo by Shawn Regan.

Marko: Correct. That’s not multiple use. We’ve argued that electric fence is not multiple use.

Francie: So you think the BLM is treating the cattle ranchers unfairly.

Marko: Yes, they are.

Francie:  And what course do the ranchers have?

Marko: Two actions that ranchers have taken.

BLM has said we’re going to change the allotment from cattle to bison. And the ranchers have objected to that. One is to object to change grazing from cattle to bison.

Francie: Can they just change it without consulting anyone?

Marko: True. Well they haven’t changed it yet. But early on the neighboring permitees could see that there is favoritism going on. So they’ve challenged everything that BLM has done.

Francie: You’ve done this in a legal way?

Marko: Yep. We’ve hired an attorney to review and represent us in that process.

I think there are 5 allotments now. Originally it was 18 allotments that they wanted to change to year-around grazing and bison grazing only. But now they have requested permits for just 5 allotments.

Francie: The ranchers are challenging this?

Marko: Yep.

Francie: What will happen next?

Marko: Eventually BLM will provide a document suggesting the best management alternatives they see under that request. So we’re just waiting for that environmental assessment document to come forward. Or they can deny the request all together.

Francie: So they can deny APR s request—or your request?

Marko: Yes, either of them.

So then the other action the livestock operators have taken. The citizens of the county have passed an ordinance that bison must be handled like livestock.

The citizens have said all bison have to be managed like cattle. This means owners have to do disease testing and some identification of their animals.

Signs in Malta oppose bison ranging free. “What APR really wants is a takeover of Federal land and control of how it’s managed,” says Deanna Robbins, a rancher in Roy.

But APR has asked for a variance from that ordinance So we’re working through that process.

Francie: I also noticed—BLM is saying that the bison are fine with just 1 single fence around the outside. In our area BLM is telling the ranchers they have to build inner dividing fences and rotate their cattle quite frequently.

Marko: Yes, all BLM pemitees are required to rotate their animals on BLM Land.

It’s the biggest change that BLM has taken on over the course of its existence. And now they want to go back to one giant pasture and keep the same animals in there all year around.

Francie: I read that the APR goal is to get 10,000 bison in their one large, single pasture. Do you think 10,000 would be fully stocked for that amount of land?

Marko: Yes, that’s more than a full load.

Francie: So won’t they graze it down even faster if they do it without rotation?

Marko: Yes, that’s our claim.

Francie: Montana is a big producer of cattle, right? So if this happens to that big chunk of grazing land, it will cut Montana’s beef production. Any speculation on this?

Marko: Oh, Yes. APR is planning on taking productive land and turning it into no production. That hurts our economy. Both regional and local economy are impacted. Also they are impacted because the APR operations aren’t buying fuel, fertilizer, net wrap and tires.

Francie: And it seems kind of deceptive that these people are outsiders from Silicon Valley, but making a case that they are Montanans, even placing their so-called national headquarters in Bozeman.

Marko: That’s their story, yes. Well some of them are, I guess.

Francie: What about the luxury yurts they are advertising for their donors? Are they available for use by everyone?

Marko: Well, it does appear that the preserve is used mostly by the upper class. Some of their packages are priced at $2,500 occupancy per person—that doesn’t include their traveling to get here.

Yurts on the plains may look as simple as granaries. But according to photos in Prairie Reserve’s advertising material the luxury is all inside. They are draped in opulent hangings and furnished with exotic items for lavish living in the manner of Arab tents awaiting Lawrence of Arabia. David Grubbs, Billings Gazette.

Francie: What about local people? Do they have a lower price for ordinary people to stay overnight?

Marko: I don’t know if they advertise a local or lower price.

Francie: They say they don’t charge people to come onto their lands. Is it free to come into their refuges?

Marko: They don’t have any legal authority to regulate how people enter the BLM land, which is the majority of their holdings. I’m suspicious that on their deeded land—some people may be charged and some not.

Francie: Right now do they only run bison on their purchased land, not BLM lands?

Marko: I believe they do have 1 BLM permit licensed for bison, but no other bison as yet on BLM land.

Francie: Sounds as if they are trying to totally change the livestock from cattle to bison. I also heard a complaint that this will give APR long-term power about how the bison pastures are handled.

Marko: I don’t know that they’re going to have a lot of repeat customers to come out to the prairie. We haven’t had rain on the prairie for most of the summer. So the grasshoppers are horrible.

I know there are going to be ranchers who have to adjust the livestock they have on BLM land.

Francie: So how are they going to adjust the bison numbers in a dry year if they already have too many head? If there are too many grasshoppers and too little moisture—have they planned for that?

Marko: No they don’t plan for those kinds of environmental impacts.

Like in 2010 and 2011 we had 100 inches of snow. APR didn’t have any hay. The buffalo broke out. Left their property, traveled a long ways, and had to be brought back by helicopter.

Francie: Why did they break out?

Marko: The buffalo broke out because they were hungry! 

Hopefully long-term BLM will stick to the rules.

Francie: Do you have a good case?

Marko: I think we do. And hopefully the rules of management of our public land will hold. Congress hasn’t overturned the Taylor Grazing Act. So if they stick to the rules, they’ll have to make application and not be allowed to run free-range.

Francie: So they won’t be able to just run freely under 1 big fence. You’re saying that most of the cattle ranchers agree on this?

Marko: Yes—they would be against changing the rules.

Francie: Doesn’t APR plan to link all this land with just 1 perimeter fence around it?

Marko: That’s their theory. But they’re pretty well spread across our county and across the river and they’re not necessarily connected.

DOI Presents 10-year Plan for Bison

Geese fly over a semi truck emblazoned with a banner promoting private land ownership in Lewistown on Thursday, Jan. 24. Across the street the American Prairie Reserve was holding a public conference for agricultural producers on Living with Wildlife. Photo Bret French, Billings Gazette.

Francie: It’s interesting, the “Save the Cowboy” signs we see around your county and other counties close by. I think their point is quite clear—a lot of local people don’t like what they are seeing.

However, I see that the Department of the Interior (DOI) of which BLM and the government grazing lands are a part, has a new 10-year plan concerning Bison.

That powerful department—DOI which governs one eighth of the land mass of the United States—recently announced their commitment to establish and maintain large, wide-ranging bison herds on “appropriate large landscapes.” 

Their 10-year plan, called the Bison Conservation Initiative, is a new cooperative program that will coordinate conservation strategies and approaches for the wild American Bison over the next 10 years. They mention working with tribal herds in North and South Dakota.

What do you think of that, Marko?

Marko: In Interior’s press release I don’t see any mention of tribes in Montana, so hard to say what impact this will have in other states.

With the smallest cow herds in the US at least since 1950 one would wonder why the US government would help tribes remove more cattle. But if the tribes want to do that just on tribal lands that would be ok, of course.

Francie: Right, both the projects mentioned in the press release are quite limited, and have to do with increasing tribal buffalo herds and genetics of the Theodore Roosevelt Park herd.

On the other hand—when we look at DOI’s 10-year goals organized around five central themes,

it sounds as if they might have wider plans than that.

Here are DOI’s announced 10-year goals:

1.Wild, Healthy Bison Herds: A commitment to conserve bison as healthy wildlife

2.Genetic Conservation: A commitment to an interagency, science-based approach to support genetic diversity across DOI bison conservation herds

3.Shared Stewardship: A commitment to shared stewardship of wild bison in cooperation with states, tribes and other stakeholders

4.Ecological Restoration: A commitment to establish and maintain large, wide-ranging bison herds on appropriate large landscapes where their role as ecosystem engineers shape healthy and diverse ecological communities

5.Cultural Restoration: A commitment to restore cultural connections to honor and promote the unique status of bison as an American icon for all people (Department of Interior Press Release 5/7/2020)

Ecological Restoration and establishing and maintaining large, wide-ranging bison herds” sounds eerily like what the Prairie Reserve is trying to do.

Yet if that commitment is to be tempered by the “Shared Stewardship,” pledge to cooperate with “states, tribes and other stakeholders,” surely DOI will not participate in deliberate breaking up of close communities against the desires of local residents.

When there is a strong cultural backlash from 100-year residents—as there is from Malta and the Phillips County cattle ranchers—certainly that needs to be considered.

DOI and BLM when acting locally will surely recognize heavy-handedness when they participate in it.

If they think they can override local protests, the “Save the Cowboy” signs make the issues clear. Montana ranchers are making them plain with both lawyers and hand-made signs.

A pair of horses on Lewistown’s Main Street helped spread a message of support for cowboys and opposition to the American Prairie Reserve during the Living With Wildlife Conference last winter, for which the APR was a co-sponsor. Photo by Danica Rutten.

It seems that DOI and BLM need to back off and recognize that the arrogance of these environmental outsiders does not sit well with Montanans.

Their heavy-handedness can in no way be called “Shared Stewardship” with “states and other stakeholders” even when they can “move fast and be nimble,” in the words of Sean Gerrity.

Indeed, maybe 10,000 sometimes-hungry buffalo under one single electric-fenced pasture is not such a lofty goal, after all.

Right DOI? And if you’ve been thinking so, please tell us why.

What gives them—and you—the right to destroy living communities?

Maybe it only proves the arrogance and pig-headedness of those who have “discovered” this little gem of 100 years of shared conservation efforts at such a late date?

For more on how DOI is working “to improve the conservation and management of bison,” contact Interior_Press@ios.doi.gov)

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Part III. Viewing Sites 9 and 10—Fort Yates and Jamestown

Part III. Viewing Sites 9 and 10—Fort Yates and Jamestown

Sitting Bull Visitor’ Center near Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates. Photo by LaDonna Allard.

If you’re a traveler coming into the Hettinger-Lemmon area from the east or west, you will likely plan to complete your tour by visiting Sites 9 and 10 either before or after the main section of your tour.

Otherwise, separate trips might take you through Fort Yates and Jamestown—which are somewhat to the northeast.

Tribal herds can be viewed at Ft. Yates, and other reservations. The “largest buffalo,” and a National Buffalo Museum that includes a full-body mount of the famed White Cloud reside in Jamestown.

If time allows, a stop in Bismarck at the North Dakota Heritage Center—midway between the two final sites—adds one more important theme to the buffalo story. Here you’ll find exhibits of the pre-historic bones of ancient buffalo found in the state.

Outdoor Events on Capital Grounds in Bismarck feature arts, crafts, food vendors and entertainment. Courtesy ND Tourism.

Part I. Sites 1-4 of this Tour, published in our Sept. 8, 2020 Blog, told of the great traditional hunts from 1880 to 1883. These last great buffalo hunts—the Hiddenwood Hunt, the winter hunt in the Slim Buttes and the valley of the last stand, which was the final harvest of the last 1,200 wild buffalo by Sitting Bull and his band on October 12 and 13, 1883.

This region, bordered by the North Dakota towns of Hettinger, Reeder and Scranton, and the South Dakota towns of Lemmon, Bison and Buffalo, is where Native people conducted the last traditional hunts of the majestic wild buffalo that once roamed here in huge herds on what was then the Great Sioux Reservation.

Part II. Sites 5-8, Sept. 22, 2020. Then, just before the last wild herds disappeared forever, the Duprees—a Native American family— returned to the hunt site (Site 5) to save 5 orphaned buffalo calves—and became internationally famous for growing their own buffalo herd at a critical time.

Included on this part of the tour are some ancient locations—such as the authentic buffalo jump at Shadehill SD, used for thousands of years before horses arrived on the Plains—and Native American traditions that incorporated buffalo into their culture.

This is the region where all parts of the Buffalo story come together.

There’s no other place like it for buffalo history and traditions—from ancient times until now, when nearly every tribe in the Plains owns their own buffalo herd and are delighted to share it with you.

So if you’re a traveler smitten by the iconic American buffalo, you can plan your next trip around buffalo sites you find here and on our website.

We outline world class trips to visit these buffalo-related sites, both historic and modern day.

North Dakota Tourism has added our Buffalo Trails Tour to its Best Places and promotes it with international tours. South Dakota Travel provides links as well. (This information is available in our Self-Tour Guide book “Buffalo Trails in the Dakota Buttes” available at local businesses and hettingernd.com/buffalotrails.)

Site 9. Tribal Herds—Standing Rock Sioux Reservation

Buffalo in Standing Rock’s North Pasture graze in green grass by Highway 1806 (ND 24), just south of the Prairie Knights Casino. FM Berg.

Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, which spans the North and South Dakota border, headquartered in Fort Yates, N.D., has a long history of raising buffalo. Initially they were private herds, such as those owned by the Dupree family from the early 1880s.

The first permanent tribally-owned herd arrived in 1955—one bull and four cows—a gift from Theodore Roosevelt National Park, according to Mike Faith, Standing Rock Tribal Chairman, who was the Tribal buffalo manager for nearly 20 years.

Other buffalo came as donations from Wind Cave and Badlands National Parks in South Dakota, or were purchased with tribal funds and grants through the years. To improve genetic diversity, the tribe bought bulls from the Custer State Park buffalo sale.

Standing Rock now runs 400 to 500 buffalo in two herds—about the right size for the grazing land available. It’s important not to overgraze in the drought-prone plains, explains Faith.

To view one or both tribal herds owned by Standing Rock Sioux Tribe inquire at the tourism office in Fort Yates—it’s a beautiful building halfway up the hillside to the left as you approach the town of Ft. Yates.

Gift shop in Sitting Bull Visitor’s Center offers beaded moccasins, jewlery and other handmade crafts. Photo by LaDonna Allard.

You may need special permission and probably a guide to take you through the necessary gates and fences if you visit the south herd in the picturesque Porcupine Breaks or Hills. There the scenery is amazingly rugged and the roads primitive.

Buffalo graze through prairie dog town in the Porcupine Breaks pasture. Courtesy Standing Rock.

Or you may drive directly to the north pasture, which borders Hwy 1806 (ND 24) on the road to Mandan, just south of the Prairie Knights Casino (also owned by the SRS Tribe), and view the north buffalo herd through the fence.

Here the terrain is more rolling, carpeted thickly with green grass, less dramatic than the rugged Porcupine Breaks pasture up on the flat, but it also runs through some badlands country as it drops down toward the Missouri River on the east side.

As happens, off and on through an ordinary week, a knot of people gathers by the highway, watching buffalo in the north pasture through the double-high woven wire fence.

Smiling, murmuring softly—they might be a school tour from nearby Bullhead, Eagle Butte or Wakpala. Or tourists from Minnesota or Norway spilling from a charter bus.

Or perhaps a visiting group of Native people in traditional dress are performing a buffalo ceremonial. They’ve parked briefly along the highway or on the side road along the south edge of the pasture going east.

“We’d like a highway drive-off, so people can stop more easily,” notes my guide, LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, Historian and Director of Tourism for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

After spending as much time as you like contemplating live buffalo, continue driving north to Interstate-94 at Mandan, where you turn east to Jamestown to view more one-of-a-kind buffalo-related sites.

InterTribal Council efforts—A homecoming

ITBC logo

Throughout Indian country buffalo have staged a homecoming.

Assisting and inspiring this come-back has been the mission of the InterTribal Buffalo Council for two and a half decades.

In February 1991, a meeting in the Black Hills of South Dakota, hosted by the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society, brought together 19 tribes to talk about the challenges they face with their own herds and how they can help other tribes restore buffalo to Indian lands.

Coming from all four directions, they discussed their tribes’ desire to obtain or expand buffalo herds and grow them into successful, self-sufficient programs.

Above and beyond the practical economics of it, they wanted to raise buffalo in a way that is compatible with their spiritual and cultural beliefs and practices.

Buffalo represent the Native spirit and remind them of how their lives were once lived, free and in harmony with nature.

Together these Native leaders launched the InterTribal Buffalo Council, believing that reintroduction of buffalo to tribal lands will help heal the spirit of both the Indian people and the buffalo.

In June of that same year Congress voted to provide funding for tribal programs and to donate surplus buffalo from national parks and public refuges to interested tribes.

The InterTribal Council agreed to supervise grants and distribution of the animals.

Buffalo began coming home to reservations in earnest.

Today 69 Indian tribes belong to the InterTribal Council, owning a total of more than 20,000 buffalo now living in tribal herds across the United States.

Many tribes run large buffalo herds for commercial as well as cultural purposes. Traditionally they believe restoration of buffalo to tribal lands will help heal the spirit of both the Indian people and the buffalo. Photo by InterTribal Buffalo Council.

Many are plains tribes with a long history of depending on buffalo for food, shelter and clothing. Others have no known history of hunting buffalo, but want the cultural experience for their people.

Mike Faith, as vice-chairman of the InterTribal Council, has worked with many of these tribes. He says some own large buffalo herds for commercial as well as cultural purposes.

 Others set goals for a small herd mostly for cultural and educational purposes. They might slaughter only one or two buffalo a year for special celebrations and ceremonial use.

 It depends on land available, land uses on the reservation, tribal population and historic dependence on buffalo.

InterTribal Council technicians explain working buffalo in the chutes at a workshop. Photo by ITBC.

 

 

 

 

 

“Quality over quantity is what counts,” explains Faith. “Whether they want a small herd—20 or 30, or a larger commercial herd—we can give help and technical assistance.”

No matter the numbers, Faith suggests it is important that new tribes take their buffalo venture seriously, hiring a competent manager.

 The InterTribal Council offers training and educational programs—such as in low stress buffalo handling—and coordinates transfer of buffalo.

 If desired, experienced leaders are available to help the new buffalo owners work out management and marketing plans that fit with their particular concerns and goals.

 Sometimes the experienced buffalo handlers recommend fewer animal numbers to better accommodate the land available. A buffalo herd needs plenty of space, grass and water.

Details like building high, strong fences before the buffalo arrive are essential—and costly. There may be grants available to help, they suggest. They also work with federal agencies to help bring fractured lands together for pastures.

“Having the buffalo back helps rejuvenate the culture,” says Jim Stone, Executive Secretary of the InterTribal Buffalo Council based in Rapid City and a Yankton Lakota, “In my tribe, like others, the buffalo was honored through ceremony and songs. There were buffalo hunts and prayers to give thanks to the buffalo.”

The Council has adopted a lofty mission: “Restoring buffalo to Indian Country, to preserve our historical, cultural and traditional and spiritual relationship for future generations.”

Daily the leaders are reminded that buffalo represent the spirit of Native people and how their lives were once lived, free and in harmony with nature.

They believe that to reestablish healthy buffalo populations on Tribal lands is to reestablish hope for Indian people. And returning the buffalo to tribal lands will “help heal the land, the animal, and the spirit of the Indian people.”

“We have many cultural connections to the buffalo,” points out Alvah Quinn, a South Dakota Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, the tribe’s Fish and Wildlife Director, who also has managed the local Extension Program.

“I grew up hearing about the buffalo, but we didn’t have any around on the reservation.” His tribe’s last recorded buffalo hunt was in 1879.

Quinn says he will always remember the rainy night in September 1992 when he helped bring the first 40 buffalo to his home reservation.

 “I was really surprised that night. There were 60 tribal members waiting in the cold and rain to welcome the buffalo back home. After a 112-year absence!”

 They now own 350 buffalo—one of many success stories.

 In Alaska, Randy Mayo, first chief of the Stevens Village tribal council, believes being around buffalo can help people work through personal problems.

 He acknowledges that when the village voted to move forward with raising buffalo, he didn’t know much about the animal that had provided food, clothing and shelter to his ancestors.

He learned a lot.

“Every time I come here it lifts me up,” said Mayo. “Just observing them, you never get tired of it.”

Herdsmen play a special role. Caring for buffalo enhances feelings of self-worth and pride in the men and women who work with them, reports Art Schmidt, South Dakota’s Flandreau Santee Sioux buffalo herd manager.

He sees an amazing change in the attitudes of people he hires.

A fenced viewing stand overlooking the Oneida Tribal herd provides a safe place for visiting groups. Courtesy Oneida Tribe.

“Knowing they are taking care of that beautiful magnificent creature—it becomes part of who they are and gives them a sense of pride in their culture,” Schmidt says. “They’re not just going out and doing their job and collecting a paycheck and going home.” 

The Standing Rock tribe harvests 15 to 25 young bulls a year for its own use. Processed in Mobridge under federal inspection, the meat is donated to food distribution programs and provides buffalo roasts and stew meat for various celebrations.

Faith hopes to get buffalo meat into their school system of 800 students.

In many tribes, anyone putting on a community feed can request buffalo meat. It is served at graduations, funerals, naming ceremonies and community celebrations, and has become an honored part of the healthy foods in diabetes programs.

Cherishing Buffalo Meat

The opportunity to eat buffalo meat is cherished by Native Americans.

“Eat the meat of the buffalo,” say Native elders.  “It’s healing. It keeps our people strong. It fills the soul as well as the body.

Considered delicious and healthy, hearty and sweet, tasty and tender, buffalo beef is low in fat and cholesterol and high in protein, highly absorbable iron and zinc, plus other minerals and vitamins.

When grass fed, it has even less fat and is thus more nutrient-dense.

Butchering and caring for the meat is regarded as an integral part of the circle of life, and as an important skill to teach children.

“Every part has a meaning. We use them all,” Allard explains.

Some, such as the Fort Peck tribes in northeastern Montana, where I visited, have built their own butchering facility, out near the corrals, for tribal members who want to purchase and slaughter their own buffalo from the business herd of about 200 head.

Robert Magnan, Fort Peck Fish and Game Director, told me, “We have all the equipment and they bring their own wrap. We teach them how to cut up and cook the different parts.”

But first, says Magnan, “We talk to the buffalo. Tell them we need meat to feed our families. Thank them for their willingness to take care of us.”

Some tribes sell federally inspected buffalo meat and some sell buffalo hunts to people from across the United States and other countries.

Learning from the Buffalo

People can learn much from the buffalo, says LaDonna Allard.

“Our tribe is the original ‘Buffalo Nation—Pte Oyate.’ Everything we do is related to the buffalo. In our ceremonies we use all parts of the buffalo. In the powwow we dance like the buffalo. How we raise our children. . .

Allard tells the story of a Native woman who neglected her children. The tribal judge placed them in a foster home and sentenced her to go each day for six months to watch the buffalo herd, writing down what she saw.

In six months she returned to court.

“What did you learn?” asked the judge.

“I learned that buffalo mothers protect and praise, and constantly care for their children. They teach—and discipline them too, but in a good way.”

“Do you think you can do that?”

“Yes. I want my children back. I’ll try to be a better mother—like buffalo mothers.”

The Council leaders recognize that even after more than a century of recovery, many Native Americans still feel an acute sense of loss over the destruction of the wild buffalo herds and all that represents in their lives.

The InterTribal Buffalo Council is committed to establishing buffalo herds on Indian lands in a way that promotes spiritual revitalization, ecological restoration and economic development. They suggest that for people who may be hurting, contemplating their own tribal buffalo can help them heal and bring a sense of wholeness and peace.

Teaching young people about traditional relationships and spiritual connections to the buffalo is important to Lisa Colome, a grasslands expert with the InterTribal Council.

“Native kids have a natural connection to the buffalo,” she tells me, her dark eyes warming. “They’re just naturally born with this awe. They are never disrespectful and show genuine caring. This is what tribes are seeking.”

She enjoys bringing children to see the buffalo.

“Once I brought a group of sixth graders. They watched silently as the buffalo ran over the hill out of sight. I said, ‘Just wait, I think they’ll come back if we’re quiet.’

“We peeked over the hill. The buffalo circled back and came within 25 feet. The kids had never been that close before.”

It’s easy to see that Colome is excited about her work, whether her day focuses on herd and forage health, or cultural and spiritual ties.

Not always do tribal herds bring financial benefits, she knows—often quite the opposite. But always she sees cultural value.

“I love being a part of developing tactics, plans and solutions that ensure buffalo are here for generations to come,” she says.

“Return of the buffalo awakens the Native spirit—it gives us hope of better lives.”

Site 10. National Buffalo Museum in Jamestown

Jamestown ND—with its “World’s Largest Buffalo” overlooking the town and the buffalo pasture—may have been an obvious choice for locating the National Buffalo Museum. ND Tourism. 

 In the early 1990s the National Buffalo Association and the American Bison Association merged into the National Bison Association. They pooled their collections of buffalo-related artifacts, artwork, and historical memorabilia and looked for a historically significant place to display them.

Jamestown, ND, was perhaps an obvious choice.

Already it was home to the World’s Largest Buffalo, Dakota Thunder, built in 1959 on a hill above the town of Jamestown, right next to the Interstate—I-94. A frontier town had sprung up at its base, and a pasture between was planned for a buffalo herd.

“Largest Buffalo” is a popular photo op for families. ND Tourism.

Further, the location had an ancient history of buffalo migrations along the south-flowing James River. A place where Native hunters lay in wait for easy hunting in fall and spring.

The new museum opened in June 1993, with the North Dakota Buffalo Foundation dedicated to its management and financial stability.

The museum is now home to numerous art works, artifacts, and related Native American items. Visitors see items such as a 10,000 year old bison skull, a complete skeleton of bison antiqus (ancestor to the modern bison), artworks and artifacts relevant to the history of the American bison.

Featured in one room is the full body mount of White Cloud, Jamestown’s beloved albino bison, honored in a glass case and brushed to an elegant sheen. For 20 years she reigned as a prize of the local buffalo herd.

The Museum also hosts the Buffalo Hall of Fame, where visitors learn about the people who have had significant impacts on conservation and restoration of the US National Mammal. And of course an extensive gift shop.

Interactive exhibits are attractions of the National Buffalo Museum, as well as extensive buffalo art, gifts and buffalo cookies. ND Tourism.

Summer hours: Memorial Day to Labor Day, 8 am–8 pm daily. Winter hours: Mon-Sat. 10 am-5 pm. Admission $8-$6. (701-252-8648; 1-800-807-1511) www.buffalomuseum.com

World’s Largest Buffalo

Located at the end of Louis L’Amour Lane, stands the World’s Largest Buffalo Monument, rising tall on the hill in Jamestown, ND.

Buffalo pasture extends into green draws between the big buffalo and I-94. ND Tourism.

Drive through the gate at Frontier Village—it’s open with museum hours.

You will see the World’s Largest Buffalo Monument towering ahead. It stands 26 feet tall, weighs 60-ton—a fun photo op for your family.

A popular roadside attraction for over 50 years, the huge sculpture was created by sculptor Elmer Petersen. On the site with the National Buffalo Museum and a live herd of Buffalo, and an extensive Frontier Village.

Legendary White Buffalo: White Cloud Dynasty

Many plains tribes regard a white buffalo as sacred. Since 1996 traditional Native people have journeyed to Jamestown, North Dakota, to honor and see for themselves the dynasty of White Cloud and her offspring.

Dakota Legend, born to a brown mother in 2008, was believed to be grandson of White Cloud (adults in the Jamestown herd were not identifiable by ear tags or tatoos).

For about 20 years—from the time White Cloud joined the buffalo herd from the Michigan, North Dakota ranch where she was born until her death in Nov. 2016—her white hide showed up clearly among the brown buffalo herd.

Because of her rarity and easy visibility at the home of the National Buffalo Museum and the World’s Largest Buffalo, we added this stop to our tour.

When travelling east on I-94, we hope you will stop and see this miracle for yourselves—a heritage that may stem from the famous Big Medicine himself.

If you dont see the buffalo herd or they are partially hidden from view, drive around the pasture or inquire at the Museum. You may be able to watch them from the museum’s viewing deck with the binoculars provided.

Or come to view them at different times of the day—buffalo like to keep moving.

Once in a great while, rare as it is, a ghostly little newcomer is born into a buffalo herd. A form of albinism, this can occur in any living thing, animal or plant.

From ancient times Native Americans have honored white buffalo and white robes as sacred and carried out special ceremonies to celebrate them.

 

Many Native people today continue these traditions.

In modern times, Jamestown, North Dakota, has been one of the easiest places to see authentic rare white buffalo.

In a narrow hilly pasture along the Interstate, tourists have spotted two and, at one time, even three white animals of purest beautygrazing there in a herd of about 30 brown buffalo.

These were White Cloud, Dakota Miracle and Dakota Legend.

White Cloud, who was born in 1996 and died of old age in 2016, was a true certified albino with pink eyes and skin and not quite black horns. She is mounted and on display at the National Buffalo Museum where she lived most of her 20 years.

This dynasty of white buffalo began when White Cloud was born on a private North Dakota buffalo ranch not far away. The owners offered to share their joy and excitement with admirers through a special lease agreement, but preferred to remain anonymous.

Indian elders came with their drums and sage to welcome her. It was a fitting location for White Cloud and her white offspring.

Years ago Jamestown leaders erected the Worlds Largest Buffalo,a huge cement buffalo on the hill above town. Twenty-six feet high, it honors the great herds that once grazed these rich grasslands and followed a major migration route north and south along the James River valley—a route known for centuries to Native hunters.

Eventually, a historic Frontier Town sprang up beside the big monument, a buffalo herd found pasture, and the National Bison Association decided to locate its National Buffalo Museum there.

Depending on the season and pasture rotations, visitors were able to view one or more white buffalo at this site.

After first giving birth to three brown calves, in 2007 White Cloud produced Dakota Miracle, a white male. Then in 2008, Dakota Legend was born to a brown mother, believed to one of White Cloud’s daughters, in the same Jamestown herd.

Both these two white offspring had blue or brown eyes and dark horns and hooves.

Dakota Miracle grew to adulthood and outlived his mother by a few years, but unfortunately had some health issues. One evening he fell down a steep bank and, apparently unable to rise, was found dead the next morning.

Famous White Buffalo

 Two other well-known white buffalo are Blizzard, a white bull that the Winnipeg Assiniboine Zoo purchased as a yearling in 2005 from a U.S. herd,to honor the buffalo as Manitobas Provincial emblem, according to zoo curator, Dr. Robert E. Wrigley; and Custer, a bull purchased as a seven-year-old from a North Dakota ranch in June 2014 by the Briarwood Safari Ranch, owned by Ron and Deborah Nease, in Bybee, Tennessee.

Famous white buffalo now deceased include what was probably the most famous Buffalo ever: Montanas Big Medicine, born in 1933 who lived for 26 years on the National Bison Range. (See “Legacy of White Buffalo—Big Medicine,” featured in our Aug 25, 2020, Blog.)

Miracle was born in Wisconsin in 1994, and died at age ten. And, all too briefly little Lightning Medicine Cloud, born in 2011 in Texas, lived for only one year. This little white calf was owned by Arby Little Soldier, of the Lakota Sioux tribe from South Dakota.

 Celebrating the Birth of a White Calf

Wherever white buffalo appear, Native people come to visit them, bringing gifts of tobacco ties, colored scarves, dream-catchers and other treasures. Elders perform ceremonials and blessings, waving smudges of sweet grass and singing prayers to drum beats for this highly spiritual animal.

 Many plains tribes celebrate the birth of a white calf as a holy event, and regard the little calf as a sign of peace and harmony—and good times to come.

 They affirm that the white buffalo symbolizes spiritual renewal and the hope of bringing people of all backgrounds closer together. Some see the white buffalo as a manifestation of the White Buffalo Calf Maiden, long revered in Plains tribes as a prophet.

 The welcoming ceremonies were experiences he will never forget, reports Dr. Wrigley, of the Winnipeg Zoo. I felt like I was stepping back into an ancient time to observe the most-sacred and private of ceremonies of a people little known to my culture.

 It has been, he says, A wonderful experience interacting with numerous individuals from First Nations and Métis communities, and they have taught me so much about their traditional relationships with Nature and the spiritual world.

Thank you for Joining us on our Northern Plains Buffalo Tour 

Thank you for joining us on the Dakota Buttes Buffalo Tour of the Northern Great Plains—in the Hettinger/ Lemmon/ Bison / Buffalo area and the Grand River National Grasslands buffalo-related sites. Both historic and contemporary.

We hope you enjoyed it as much as we have in bringing it to you. This is a work in progress, so please share with us your comments and suggestions.

Through the months ahead we will be bringing you more tour-worthy buffalo sites throughout the US and Canada.

In the Dakotas you may also see buffalo at close range, driving among them within their ranges in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, both north and south units, especially near Medora, N.D. (check the prairie dog towns toward evening) and in Custer State Park in the Black Hills of S.D., as well as in tribal herds of every Indian Reservation.

 So if you have any favorites, we’d love to hear about them. Thanks again!

 

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Tour of Buffalo Sites near Hettinger, Part II

Tour of Buffalo Sites near Hettinger, Part II

At the center of the Northern Plains is a rugged section of Badlands, buttes and fertile grasslands, where buffalo, cattle and sheep graze, and deer and antelope still roam.

 Please join us on the 10-site tour we’ve put together of the last great hunts and other historic and contemporary buffalo events, each clearly marked by a yellow sign.

After the miracle when the last great buffalo herd of 50,000 returned here to the relative safety of the Great Sioux Reservation in the fall of 1880 they survived here for nearly three years before being killed off, mostly in traditional Native American hunts.

 These included the winter hunt in the Slim Buttes of the Duprees, theHiddenwook Hunt, and the valley of the last stand—the final harvest of the last 1,200 wild buffalo by Sitting Bull and his band on October 12 and 13, 1883.

The Self-Guided Tour includes three of the Last Great Buffalo Hunts including the final harvest of 1,200 buffalo by the Sitting Bull band in 1883. Painting by CMRussell, Amon Carter Museum.

At the center of these events are previously untold stories and authentic, unspoiled places to envision where they took place.

This region, bordered by the North Dakota towns of Hettinger, Reeder and Scranton, and the South Dakota towns of Lemmon, Bison and Buffalo, is where Native people conducted the last traditional hunts of the majestic wild buffalo that once roamed here in huge herds on what was then the Great Sioux Reservation.

 The history of the last buffalo hunts you’ll find here is true and documented from primary sources. Although not widely known until recently, it is told in detail by people who were there on those hunts.

 They are traditional Native American hunts that somehow fell through the cracks of U.S. history.

 Often showcased is the shameful history of the buffalo’s final days as a wasteful slaughter by white hide hunters.

White hide hunters slaughtered huge numbers of buffalo with powerful guns, in what was called a stand—often a single shooter hidden from sight, killing any leader that attempted to run. Illustration from Wm. Hornaday’s 1889 book “The Extermination of the American Bison.”

That happened, of course. But it is not the whole story.

 Instead, the first-person recollections from these final hunts bring together a heroic saga befitting the noble beasts themselves.

It features Native Americans, who followed time-honored religious traditions in planning and preparing for each hunt, following through, caring for the meat—and never failing to give thanks for their success.

And then, just before the last wild herds disappeared forever, the Duprees, one local Native American family returned to the hunt site to save 5 orphaned buffalo calves—and became internationally famous for nourishing their own herd.

Included on the tour are Prairie Thunder, a full-size mounted buffalo at the Dakota Buttes museum, and an authentic buffalo jump at Shadehill, S.D, used for thousands of years—long before hunters had the luxury of horses and guns. 

 In no other place in the world can you find the history of all these events brought together.

 Here all parts of the Buffalo story come together. From ancient times until now, when nearly every Indian Tribe in the Plains owns their own tribal buffalo herd and are delighted to share it with you.

Visitors can plan their Buffalo Trails jaunt from anywhere in the world via online connections.

  So if you’re a traveler smitten by the iconic American buffalo, you can plan your next trip around buffalo sites you find here and on our website. We outline world class trips to visit buffalo-related sites, both historic and modern day.

North Dakota Tourism has added our Buffalo Trails Tour to its Best Places and pitches it with international tours. South Dakota Travel provides links as well. (This information is available in our Self-Tour Guide “Buffalo Trails in the Dakota Buttes” available at local businesses and hettingernd.com/buffalotrails.)

Site 5. Saving Five Calves

This may well be the area where Pete Dupree and his family came with a buckboard wagon to capture buffalo calves. Although we don’t know the precise details, likely it happened in 1881, the next summer after their Slim Buttes hunt.

The Dupree party likely came over the ridge at the left in a buckboard wagon from their homes on Cherry Creek, and perhaps discovered a band of buffalo resting under the shade of the cottonwoods and cooling off in the shallow waters of the Grand River. Photo FM Berg.

 

 

 

As cattle ranchers, they no doubt looked for young calves they could catch and handle, but strong enough to survive the trauma of being adopted by reluctant range cows.

Imagine the Duprees coming from the southeast—center left—from their homes on Cherry Creek at the Cheyenne River.

Their small party must have included the wagon and several Lakota horseback riders, perhaps leading extra horses for packing fresh meat home. They travelled about 50 to 60 miles to the first buffalo herds—a two-day trip with the wagon—and not far from today’s town of Dupree, named for the family.

Methods of catching calves varied, as described in several sources. When buffalo stampeded from hunters, a number of calves usually fell behind and could be tamed. Or hunters could shoot cows and rope the calves that milled around their carcasses.

Young calves often came willingly to their captors. It was said a hunter might walk up to a buffalo calf and put two or three fingers in its mouth. After it sucked, the calf followed happily wherever he went.

 Sometimes they followed a rider on horseback.

Young calves could be easy to catch when they fell behind the herd. Photo courtesy of South Dakota Game Fish and Parks.

Charles Goodnight, Texas rancher, said if he chased a herd of buffalo, young calves soon tired and fell behind. Then if he changed course and turned aside, the calves followed his horse rather than the herd. One day three buffalo calves followed him all the way to his ranch.

Not so, older calves. They sometimes fought so ferociously when roped that they fell dead. Many other captured calves died before they got the nourishment they needed.

The Duprees must have done things right to avoid the typically high death loss of orphan buffalo calves. They found range cows to mother the young calves, despite the challenge of coaxing wary range cows to accept the strange-smelling calves—and the lanky youngsters to nurse the low-slung cows.

The Duprees in their buckboard likely had outriders and pack horses along to carry fresh meat home for their several families. CM Russell painting, ACM.

 

 

 

But once bonded the five buffalo calves apparently followed their new mothers happily, grazing together on reservation lands with the Dupree cattle. Later they may have added more calves.

 By 1888 Pete Dupree owned 16 buffalo. When he died in 1898, his herd had increased to more than 80.

 Fortunately, his brother-in-law found a willing buyer in Scotty Philip of Fort Pierre, who ran thousands of cattle with his wife Sarah “Sally” on her reservation allotment—as a Lakota and French woman.

 Phillip sent six cowboys to round up the Dupree herd and drive them the hundred miles to his fenced pasture. His nephew George wrote of the formidable task of chasing nearly wild buffalo, but they finally brought in 83 through the pasture gate.

By this time American buffalo were nearly extinct as a species. William Hornaday had made his official count of the surviving buffalo in a report to the Smithsonian Museum in 1887, as published in his book The Extermination of the American Bison, two years later.

His careful tally listed only 1,091 head for all of North America, with the largest herd being 200 in Yellowstone Park. Barely over 500 lived in the U.S., and he added 550 as “very old rumors” of buffalo in Canada.

 The “bottleneck,” as it’s been called—came in the 1890’s, or perhaps a bit later, around the turn of the century when the “safe and protected” Yellowstone Park herd of around 200 was decimated by poachers.

The narrow bottleneck nearly closed off completely then. It could have happened. The American buffalo could have died out forever.

“There is no reason to hope that a single wild and unprotected individual will remain alive ten years hence,” Hornaday wrote in despair. “The nearer the species approaches complete extermination, the more eagerly are the wretched fugitives pursued to the death whenever found.”

 Yet, amazingly, buffalo made it through the bottleneck and were saved from extinction.

“The buffalo were saved because a handful of men captured a few wild buffalo and raised them in captivity during the 1880s and 1890s,” writes David A. Dary in “The Buffalo Book.”

Five groups and families are honored as pivotal in saving the buffalo. They are the Pete Dupree and James “Scotty” Philip families in South Dakota; Samuel Walking Coyote and his herd purchasers Charles Allard and Michel Pablo in western Montana; James McKay and neighbors of Manitoba, Canada; the Charles Goodnights of Texas, and C.J. “Buffalo” Jones of Kansas.

Three of the five had Native American roots and knew well the cultural importance of buffalo in the lives of their people. The Dupree and Philip families, the Walking Coyotes and Allard and Pablo, and McKay, a Métis, all held a personal stake in buffalo survival. Rather than butchering or selling the increase, they tended to grow their herds, multiplying and strengthening their numbers. They valued the natural wild traits of the buffalo without trying to alter them.

The other two, the Goodnights of Texas and Buffalo Jones of Kansas, respected the natural world, cherished their buffalo and their own roles in preserving them.

However, more than the others, perhaps, both hoped to reap economic rewards, and engaged in considerable buying and selling. Also, both experimented with unsuccessful cross-breeding with cattle in the hope of developing hardier, more productive beef animals.

Likely others helped to save the buffalo, yet these families made special efforts to rescue and raise buffalo calves and kept sustainable adult herds for many years. Their herds flourished and eventually became the foundation for buffalo herds throughout the United States and Canada.

While men received most of the credit from early historians, women were much involved in saving the buffalo, as well. Native American women went on all the big hunts, watched the great herds disappear under the ruthless slaughter by commercial white hunters with their powerful, long-range rifles and called for saving them.

 Ranch women, both Indian and white, likely helped the fragile calves to survive and thrive.

“Mary Ann Good Elk Dupree and Sarah Philip were unsung heroines in the saga, largely ignored by historians but credited by their families for their roles,” wrote Pat Springer in the Oct. 12, 2009, Rapid City Journal. “Both women were Lakota, for whom the buffalo are sacred. And both, according to their descendants, helped persuade their husbands to rescue buffalo for their preservation.”

 Scotty Philip grew his buffalo herd to as many as a thousand. On the Missouri River bluffs west of Pierre his buffalo became a well-known tourist attraction. When he died in 1911, it took his sons 15 years to sell them. Many went to parks and wildlife sanctuaries in South Dakota and throughout the country as well as to private individuals.

History rightly gives the Duprees and Philips, the Walking Coyotes with Pablo and Allard, McKay, Goodnights and Jones a great deal of credit for saving the buffalo.

Also honored for this distinction are the visionary conservationists—William Hornaday, President Theodore Roosevelt, and George Bird Grinnell—who fought for buffalo sanctuaries and laws to protect them.

Today nearly half a million buffalo range across the face of North America, about half in the U.S. and half in Canada. It’s an incredible comeback for a species that hovered at the edge of extinction about a century ago.

Many of the 40,000 buffalo living in South Dakota today—still the state with the most buffalo, by many thousands—are direct descendants of those few calves the Duprees rescued on their reservation very near to this spot. For more than 40 years those buffalo were nourished and multiplied by the two families, the Pete Duprees and Scotty Phillips.

SITE 5. What happened to the Southern Herd?

 While viewing these vast plains to the south is a good time to contemplate what happened to the southern herd that was decimated during the 1870s—several years before the buffalo returned here to Dakota Territory.

In 1871 an estimated 3.5 million head of buffalo grazed the southern ranges. Four years later all were gone, victims of white hide hunters with big guns. Only a few escaped to hide out in distant canyons. SD Tourism.

Visualize those wide-open plains farther south—200 miles and more distant—to central Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and eastern Colorado and New Mexico.

In 1871 an estimated 3.5 million head of buffalo grazed those southern buffalo ranges. Only four years later—by fall of 1875—the entire southern herd was gone.

Most fell to commercial white hide hunters with long-range buffalo guns. It was made possible by the railroads crisscrossing those ranges, bringing huge numbers of eager hunters to previously inaccessible areas.

The first transcontinental railway Union Pacific crossed the nation in 1869, permanently dividing the buffalo into two great herds—the northern and the southern herd. Soon they became separated by 100 miles on either side as sporting men and hide hunters rode the rails and branched out from small towns along the way to a deadly slaughter of all buffalo within that range.

In the next few years other railroads cut across the heart of the southern plains.   Farther north, this process delayed until after the Northern Pacific Railroad was able to cross the Missouri River at Bismarck in 1882.

The southern herd contained more buffalo, it was said, but on less territory than the northern herd, so they were somewhat more concentrated.

The still hunt” or “stand” developed there as the systematic way to kill more buffalo faster with newly-developed big guns, even for inexperienced hunters.

The secrets of making a stand were simple: Lie on a ridge above a herd of 50 or so buffalo, brace the rifle on a rock and fire away. Shoot the leaders if they started to run, and the others likely hung around sniffing at them, waiting for another leader until all lay dead.

Thousands joined the rush. Hide hunters took along a skinner or two, a wagon and set out independently. Or they worked for merchants in small towns who outfitted their own wagons.

Railroads also hired buffalo hunters to furnish meat for their workers laying track. One of these was William (Buffalo Bill) Cody, who killed 4,280 buffalo in 18 months for the Kansas Pacific Railway. Later the famous Buffalo Bill took his Wild West show on the road and across Europe.

Other hunters claimed kills of 2,500 to 3,000 during a single season—November to February. One reported he killed 91 buffalo in one stand and another, that he shot 112 head within a radius of 200 yards in less than three-quarters of an hour.

Much of the meat lay wasted, and often even the hides rotted due to the inexperience and carelessness of hunters. At the height of waste, in 1871, every hide sent to market represented no less than five dead buffalo, according to William Hornaday’s careful estimates, gathered through extensive interviews and correspondence with military men, fur traders, hunters, railroaders and frontiersmen.

 All too soon it was over. Last to go were a few scattered survivors that fled farther southwest to “wild, desolate and inhospitable” country inhabited only by desperate Indian bands. (For more details see Ch 10, Saving the buffalo, page 166, from the companion book “Buffalo Heartbeats Across the Plains,”)

Site 6. Shadehill Buffalo Jump

Shadehill Buffalo Jump as viewed from the north side of the lake, damned in the 1950s. Photo by Vince Gunn.

For thousands of years before they had horses and guns, Native Americans in the northern plains had discovered the secrets of the buffalo jump. Research shows that a buffalo jump near Lethbridge, Canada, just north of the border, was used for over 5,600 years.

The rugged, broken terrain of the Great Plains was well suited to buffalo jumps. Grassy plateaus above steep, rocky cliffs often border rivers and creeks—as seen here above the waters of the Grand River.

This South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks sign describes the buffalo jump as well as 115 prehistoric sites and artifacts found in the area by archaeologists. However, the bones, once in two layers, one 12 feet thick and the other 4 feet on the side of the cliff, are gone, bulldozed off before the dam was built in the early 1940s and shipped to the west coast to make explosives in World War II. V Gunn.

Herds of buffalo frequently grazed on these plateaus above the cliffs. All it took was a stampede to drive them over the edge. And when panicked, wild buffalo stampeded easily, running faster and faster without regard to danger, the leaders unable to turn back.

The steeper cliffs you see ahead—when you look across the nearby bay to the left—was called a buffalo jump or mass buffalo burial by early homesteaders because of the bones exposed on its face. Large cedar trees fill the near draws, and on the other side of the trees are steep drop-off bluffs. A slump at this end shows where the bluff has fallen or was bulldozed off the top.

 At this point the river holds the combined waters of both the North and South Grand and is now flooded by Shadehill Reservoir, dammed during the 1950s. To your far right is the earthen dam that holds back these waters.

 Before the dam, the Grand River swung hard against the cliffs in flood stage, pulling down sections of the bank and its exposed buffalo bones—and revealing a fresh set of bones.

 Archer Gilfillan, author of the classic book Sheep, described this bluff in 1939:

: Buffalo jumps have three parts, a steep cliff with a pile of bones below and evidence of drive lines above. Here a flock of wild turkeys visit a memorial to Mountain Man Hugh Glass who was mauled by a grizzly near the Shadehill Buffalo Jump site in 1823. V.Gunn.

 “South of Lemmon, SD, 13 miles to Shadehill and then three miles west on a scenic road along the Grand River, is what has become known as the mass buffalo burial. This is a mass of buffalo bones exposed in a steep bank on the south side of the river. The river bank at this point is about 150 feet high.

 “The bones are in two layers. The first layer, 12 feet thick, is about 25 feet below the top of the bank. Beneath this 12-foot layer of bones is a four-foot layer of earth. Then comes a second four-foot layer of bones, the bottom of which is still 100 feet above the bed of the river.

 “The two layers of bones are exposed for approximately 100 feet up and down the river. Many of the bones are well preserved, although not fossilized. Horns and teeth are intact and there are large masses of almost indestructible stomach contents. All but the top layer of animals are crushed and smothered by those above.

 “Two estimates were made by old timers of the number of buffalo involved, ranging from 500 to 20,000. . . . Obviously any estimate can only be guesswork at present, because no one yet knows how far the mass of bones extends into the hill.”

The two bone layers were well known locally and clearly visible on the face of the bluffs. Dorothy Durick Kroft of White Butte told of going there on a grade school trip during the 1920s to see the bones. Neighbors used the buffalo skulls to decorate their flower beds.

Settlers in the area reported the site and hoped it would be investigated by archaeologists. Finally it was, but too late.

 During World War II there was great demand for bones in making explosives. People on the home front did what they could to help with the war effort. This is what happened to the Shadehill buffalo bone site, according to a neighbor, John//Don (dad) Merriman, who still lives south of the dam.

In the early 1940s, Merriman says, the land owner bulldozed off the top of the hill, uncovering the top layer of bones. He then scraped out that layer and the next, loaded and shipped them to munitions factories on the West Coast.

 This was called mining bones. A Canadian source says, “Many buffalo jump sites were vigorously mined beginning around the turn of the century . . . to the end of WWII. Much of the natural phosphorus extracted from the bones went for the manufacture of munitions.” Earlier,  bones also were used in fertilizer.

Renee Boen, Area Archaeologist for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Rapid City field office, reports that experts surveyed the Shadehill buffalo bone site in 1946 and again in 1992. They found no bones, but only the slump of earth at the bottom of the cliff.

 After the dam, Shadehill Lake rose and covered the base of the bluff and heaps of earth. The only bones remaining lie deep under water, likely disintegrated over the years.

 So, unfortunately, without evidence of butchering it can’t be proved whether this was an actual jump site or not.

 Nevertheless, it illustrates the typical buffalo jump. The ideal site was a cliff that abruptly dropped off to a rocky bottom from a grassy plateau where buffalo commonly gathered to feed.

 If the drop-off was hid by a slight rise so stampeding buffalo did not realize where they were heading, all the better, we are told.

When Indian scouts found a sizeable herd of buffalo grazing on a flat above a cliff—and the wind was right—the band made plans to stampede them. for a drive.

No one knew their prey better than did these seasoned hunters of the plains. They sensed the best way to direct each hunt—how to entice curious buffalo closer to the edge, when to drive hard and where to hide in safety as they plunged over.

In this sketch ancient people set up tree branches with brush, rocks and clumps of sod to wave in the breeze, conveying a sense of motion as if people were waving hides along the drive lines. Courtesy of Imagining Head-Smashed-in book by Jack Brink.

Religious rites, traditional dancing and prayers played an important part in the hunts. These were people without horses or guns. They prayed for courage, skill and teamwork as well as cooperation from the buffalo.

When ready, the drive lines may have looked like this, directing the buffalo toward the low area and funneling them toward the drop-off. Drive lines sometimes stretched for miles above the jump. Courtesy of Shayne Tolman, Imagining Head-Smashed-in.

Women, children and dogs hid behind rock and brush piles at intervals on both sides of a wide drive line funneling toward the cliff, ready to leap out waving blankets at the right moment. Hunters unobtrusively formed a semicircle behind the herd.

Often the buffalo could be teased to the very edge of the cliff by young boys or a shaman. Dressed fancifully, perhaps in buffalo or wolf skins, the decoys attracted their attention and excited curiosity by prancing and bowing, alternately appearing and disappearing.

The closest buffalo began to watch and to approach. Then they eventually took chase, speeding toward the brink.

George Bird Grinnell wrote that the medicine man who brought the buffalo to the drop-off zigzagged this way and that, always attempting to lead, never to drive.

The driving began only after the herd had passed the outer rock piles, and the people had begun to rise up and frighten them,” he said.

Panicked, the buffalo stampeded toward the precipice in a great mad run, charging blindly after their leaders, gaining speed, faster and faster. With the mass of huge animals ramming against them, the leaders lost the power to stop. Too late they saw the danger—and plunged over the cliff, landing in a fatal pile-up on the rocks below.

Scrambling down the cliff, hunters with sharp spears, stone knives and clubs finished off any crippled animals below and began the work of skinning and butchering.

 At least a hundred buffalo jumps are identified in the northern plains. Likely thousands more are not researched or were mined of their bones before being studied.

 Some are still accidentally being discovered in road-building—as was the Vore Jump when Interstate I-90 built through northeastern Wyoming and unearthed a sinkhole filled with buffalo bones (I-90 obligingly jogged south at that point). Or in excavations, as was another in that area while digging a water hole for cattle.

Other methods of harvesting large numbers of buffalo before Native Americans gained the help of horses included the surround (confusing the buffalo into milling in a circle), the impoundment (fashioning a pen at the bottom of a slope), and pursuing buffalo with dogs or on skis in deep ravines during times of heavy snow.

Before they had horses, hunters often disguised themselves to get close enough for a fatal shot with bow and arrows. The skins of wolves cause little fear among buffalo. Painting by George Catlin.

Then in the mid-1700s came horses and guns, and the glorious days of running buffalo with fast horses in the manner described here during the final great buffalo hunts of the 1880s began. (For more details see Ch 8, Way of the Hunt, page 128, from the companion book “Buffalo Heartbeats Across the Plains.”)

Side Trip A. Hugh Glass monument and Grand River Scenic Route

Many people like to stop at the nearby Grand River monument that marks the site near which Hugh Glass was left for dead after being attacked by a grizzly bear.

Hugh Glass was a hardy mountain man travelling up the Grand River with the Ashley and Henry fur trapping expedition party of trappers in 1823. You may have seen him in the Academy Award Winning the movie “The Revalent,”

While coming up the Missouri River on a keelboat, they had stopped at the Arikara villages at the mouth of the Grand River and traded for horses to travel overland.

The “Arikara” or “Arikarees,” known as Rees, seemed friendly but during the night they attacked the trappers, killing 13 men and wounding 10 or 11 more.

In retaliation the Army attacked and burned two large Ree villages.

Continuing up the Grand River, the trapping expedition was attacked again by Rees and two trappers killed. Shortly after, scouting near the forks of the North and South Grand in a heavily wooded area by the river, Hugh Glass was jumped by a grizzly bear.

The grizzly clawed and tore his body so badly that he lost consciousness and hovered near death. Major Henry left two men to guard him until his death and went on.

But Glass did not die. He lay unconscious with his terrible wounds as the days passed—with the two trapper guards growing increasingly anxious to get out of Ree territory. Finally, sure that he would die, they took his gun and knife and hurried off to join their party.

For five days he lay there. Finally he revived and in a nearly unbelievable feat of endurance, his leg badly maimed, he began to crawl back the way he had come. Wary of the vengeful Rees, he travelled only at night. Starving, he chased wolves away from a carcass, and caught small animals and birds to eat.

Finally he reached Fort Kiowa, near Chamberlain, 200 miles away.

There he joined a party of trappers going up the Missouri River, eager to return to trapping. For 10 years Glass continued to hunt and trap on the upper Missouri and then was killed by his old enemies the Rees as he crossed the ice on the Yellowstone River.

Legend has it that Hugh Glass swore revenge against the two trappers who deserted him, but forgave them when he met them again.

Below the monument and off to the right is the Shadehill Buffalo Jump.

“The steep bank just below this hill was the site of a large buffalo jump,” states the Forest Service map, “The Grand River and Cedar River National Grasslands: Land of vast horizons, rich history and enduring traditions.”

Also, on a high slope nearby, are the large faint letters “US-7th ”. Still visible, especially when the early spring grasses come.

They were carved by an Army detachment in 1891 on their way to protect settlers during a homesteader scare of an uprising over the death of Sitting Bull—which didn’t happen.

 Site 7. Buffalo Lore on the Blacktail Trail

Native Americans honor the buffalo as sacred in song, dance, stories, artwork and ceremonies. In traditional plains belief, buffalo gave themselves up willingly as food for the Native people and furnished many other gifts as well—shelter, clothing, medicine and tools. 

The Blacktail Trail—a 7-mile trail for walking, riding horseback or non-motorized vehicles—provides a nice place to consider the complex relationship between the buffalo and the Native people who lived and hunted here. CM Russell painting, ACM.

Blacktail Trail is a 7-mile loop for non-motorized use, constructed in 2004 by the Forest Service. Posts branded with deer antlers mark the trail. Interpretive signs give information on such topics as waterfowl, plants, wildflowers and the transition of this land from buffalo to cattle grazing.

A picnic spot and small fishing pond for youth offers a shady respite along the Blacktail Trail. FM Berg.

Spring-loaded gate keeps cattle out of picnic area. FMBerg.

A walk on the Blacktail Trail on a nice day offers a pleasant interval to consider the complex relationship between the buffalo and the Native peoples who lived here.

 From being a source of food to providing social and cultural inspiration and close connections to spiritual life, the buffalo traditionally figured into all aspects of Native lives and they lived together in harmony.

 Daily they thanked the buffalo and prayed for them to continue protecting them and helping them survive. Their close relationship with the buffalo is expressed by John Fire Lame Deer, “his flesh and blood being absorbed by us until it became our own flesh and blood. .  . It was hard to say where the animals ended and the human began.”

 Walking the Blacktail Trail you may see a sizeable cave or hole in the gumbo buttes.

Perhaps an aged Native grandmother told a creation story about this hole in the gumbo butte to children gathered around. Photo courtesy of Nicole Haase.

As you consider the lore and culture of the buffalo, we invite you to explore further. Many traditional stories speak to the mystery of the origin of life.

 A common belief held by many plains tribes is of the creation of humans and buffalo and other wildlife emerging from a cave or hole in the ground. Perhaps it has been told of this very cave by a medicine man—or maybe an ancient grandmother told it to a circle of small children gathered around her.

How the World Began

This is the way the world began. Long ago this land was quiet and still. No people or animals lived on these hills. Not even in the green valleys or along the creek beds. No snakes, no lizards; no eagles or hawks soared overhead. All living things waited far underground. They waited for the right time to come out.

 Great herds of buffalo lay there, all people, antelope, wolves, deer, rabbits, and even the little bird that sang ‘tear-tear.’  They waited as if asleep.

 Then one day Buffalo Woman opened her eyes. She stretched and began to walk slowly among the others touching them lightly. As she did they began to stir and stretch. She saw an opening with a great shining light and felt warmth streaming into the cave from the light.

She walked toward the ray of sunshine. A young cow stood up and followed her. Then came another buffalo and another and soon a great line of buffalo was going out of the opening into the bright, warm, grassy place that was the earth.

Next the people awoke and streamed out one by one, the men, the mothers carrying their babies and holding little children by the hand. Then came all the other animals and even the small tear-tear bird stretching its wings and flying toward the warming sun.

 They spread out in all four directions toward the horizon that circled all around. And the people saw that they were in a beautiful place—the right place—where they would live together with their relatives, the buffalo, and all would have plenty to eat.

Many different Plains tribes camped in these remote valleys to hunt buffalo and stayed to dry the meat and hides. Painting by CM Russell, ACM.

A traditional Cheyenne belief brought knowledge of how the sacred buffalo arrived on the plains.

In the old days, before people knew of the buffalo, a band of Native people camped near a spring at the head of a small rushing creek. Farther downstream the creek disappeared into a big hole in the ground.

The people were hungry and could find no food, not even a rabbit.

One day the leader said they must explore the hole and maybe they’d find something nourishing to eat. But who would go?

Three brave hunters offered to explore the hole. They knew it was dangerous—they might never return—but joined hands and jumped down into the deep darkness of the opening. When their eyes adjusted to the darkness they found a door and knocked.

An old Indian grandmother opened the door.

“Who are you and what do you want,” she asked.

They told her about the hunger of their people who were camped by the hole above and could find no food.

“Look out there.”

She pointed out her window and to their surprise they saw great herds of buffalo grazing contentedly.

 Then she seated the hunters and gave them three stone bowls of buffalo stew. They ate their fill of the delicious food, and still more meat remained in the bowls.

“Take these special (magical) bowls of buffalo meat back to your people,” the grandmother said.

 “Tell them I will send buffalo soon.”

 They thanked her for her kindness and helped each other climb back up the hole without spilling any of the buffalo meat from her bowls.

The people were delighted to see them safe and bringing food. Everyone in the camp ate hungrily. But still more meat filled the three bowls.

 The next morning they looked out of their tepees and saw vast herds of buffalo surrounding their village and covering the hills and prairies far into the distance. They knew this would be a good supply of food, shelter and clothing for their people.

 Gratefully they gave thanks to the spirit grandmother and the buffalo for their generosity.

The 7-mile walking trail circles around a high butte overlooking broken, rugged country and topped by native juniper trees. FM Berg.

Petroglyphs on the Hills

Special places in these hills are revered. Rock carvings and petroglyphs can be found on cliffs and higher buttes throughout the west. Traditionally this art holds mystical power.

Petroglyphs on the rocky crown of a hill somewhat farther north [only a few dozen miles], in North Dakota, feature the carved tracks of buffalo travelling across a high point, capturing the view of a wide area.

The little-known site, not far from where the last buffalo were hunted on Standing Rock, is still visited with ceremony and offerings by Native people familiar with it. Note: Since these petroglyphs constitute a sensitive site, visitors who wish to visit them are requested to contact the ND Historical Society or archaeologists of the Forest Service.

The Black Hills are perhaps most revered of all, with their crown jewel, Bear Butte—a volcanic eruption at the north gateway to the Hills. Bear Butte rises from the flat plain in the shape of a large slumbering bear. With its sweat baths and private trails, it’s a sacred place for plains tribes, the site of many pilgrimages.

For many Lakota the cave of creation is in the Black Hills. The pine-covered hills there are coursed throughout with large caves, some among the largest in the world, most of them interconnected through tight honeycombed passages. 

Because of her rarity and easy visibility at the home of the National Buffalo Museum and the World’s Largest Buffalo, we have added this stop to our tour. If you are travelling east on I-94, we hope you will stop and see this miracle for yourselves—a heritage that may stem from the famous Big Medicine himself.

In all of these places Native Americans have come to pray, to perform traditional ceremonials and offer gifts of tobacco, dream catchers, feathers and medicine bags. (For more details and Buffalo traditions see Ch 7, Buffalo lore, page 112 in the tour companion book “Buffalo Heartbeats across the Plains,”) In these pastures and in others here, ancient spirits walk.

 Site 8. Buffalo Traits & Behavior

Older bulls often go off by themselves and may look lethargic. But don’t be fooled—buffalo bulls can turn on a dime, gallop 40 miles an hour and jump 6 feet over or into a fence, smashing it down. V Gunn.

There’s nothing quite like seeing live buffalo up close and personal—with sensible regard for safe distances of course.

While you journey throughout this region, you may notice private herds of buffalo belonging to area ranchers. A number of buffalo ranches operate within our tour area, but because they are not currently set up for entertaining tourists and for the safety of all concerned, as well as privacy and insurance issues, they remain anonymous at this time. However, you are welcome to stop along public roads to view them—quietly and with respect, please.

You may also see buffalo at closer ranges in Jamestown, N. D., or driving among them within their pastures in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, near Medora, N.D. (check the prairie dog towns toward evening) and in Custer State Park in the Black Hills.

Buffalo are large, strong, unpredictable, and potentially dangerous. Admire them from afar, but DO NOT APPROACH. Above all, DO NOT enter pastures with buffalo or drive through gates without permission.

Observe buffalo behavior

In most seasons the cows and bulls sort themselves out into separate male and female groups. Young bulls hang around with their mothers until two or three years old, when they join other males in small bachelor herds.

The Johnson herd visits a reservoir near Hettinger on its morning travels. FM Berg.

Buffalo cows are generally affectionate and attentive, fiercely protective of their calves. They are known for ease of calving, with relatively small newborns weighing only 30 to 50 pounds. When born, buffalo calves are red-gold with a thick growth of long woolly hair, which soon darkens, especially on the crown of their heads.

 They are born without a hump—but that doesn’t take long either. By three months the hump emerges and so do inch-long stubs of horns. Calves shed their baby coat after three or four months, to be replaced by a growth of fine, new, dark hair. As yearlings, their horns grow into straight, conical spikes, four to six inches long, and perfectly black.

 Calves can be playful. In his book The Time of the Buffalo Tom McHugh describes a group of seven exuberant calves.

Calves can be playful, but mothers are watchful and protective. The Oneida herd in Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of Oneida Tribe.

 

All of a sudden they perked up their tails, kicked their hind legs in the air and bolted across the meadow to engage in what looked like a game of tag. As they milled chaotically, one calf bounded out of the little band, inviting another to follow.

A companion came forth and the leader broke into a rapid gallop, challenging him to a race around the herd. Before long all seven were tearing about in a frenzy of activity, butting, kicking and bounding to and fro in carefree frolic.”

During this play the calves uttered “sounds as unique as they are difficult to describe.”

Buffalo bulls often display a strong sense of responsibility for protecting the herd, even today. When they feel threatened they often come together in a tight group with bulls on the outside, cows and calves inside.

Dominance issues

Buffalo are social animals with a great understanding of where they stand in the herd’s ranking—or pecking— order. Size makes a difference in ranking, but other traits matter as well, including strength, fighting skill, endurance, maturity and aggressiveness.

McHugh spent three months studying the hierarchy ranking through patterns of dominance and submission in a Jackson Hole Wildlife Park herd of 16 buffalo. He named each individual and recorded its rank through interactions with each of the others. Most of their interactions were peaceable, as all knew and understood their rank order compared to each of the others.

Often a dominant buffalo walked over and displaced subordinates at a pile of hay just by his presence, without force or threat. The low-ranking animals simply moved away while wending their way carefully through the herd to avoid other superiors, indicating submissiveness. McHugh noted all this was subtle and almost imperceptible, but universally recognized and respected by each animal.

About one-fourth of the interactions involved warnings and threats or actual use of force. This might involve a steady stare, swinging horns menacingly, or placing a chin on the rump of a subordinate to force it to move away.

The Standing Rock Tribal Herd grazes through a prairie dog town in the Porcupine Breaks or buttes. Photo courtesy of LaDonna Allard.

 

When threats failed, a battle might follow. McHugh says disruptions occur when new individuals enter the herd, calves are born, or young bulls begin to assert their increasing size and strength over formerly superior cows. Once hierarchy is reestablished, combat dies down as each individual recognizes and accepts its place in the herd.

During breeding season—also called the rut—fights are staged between big bulls as they move between herds and fight for dominance. In the wild this was the time when males and females came together in huge herds.

A challenging bull might grunt, snort, blow or growl to get a female’s attention and the defending bull roars back. The challenge of a bull buffalo is described as an impressive bellow or growl that closely resembles the roar of a lion.

Cows normally breed in August or September and calve from mid-April through June, with a gestation period of about nine months or slightly longer.

Under favorable ranching conditions today buffalo cows live to 20 or 25 years old, producing a calf each year. In the wild, such as in Yellowstone Park, they rarely live past age 15 and may calve only every other year.

Working them in the chute can be stressful for bison. Being in the chute alone is stressful, but so is being too closely crowded with several others. It’s important for handlers to work quickly and quietly. FM Berg.

 

Rare visit by students allowed in working pens. Oneida photo.

 

Buffalo coats and shedding

You may be surprised to see that by early summer a buffalo’s rich brown winter coat is faded to light brown, with patches of it flying in the breeze.

 William Hornaday described this shedding process in his 1889 Smithsonian study. “Promptly with the coming of spring, if not even the last week of February, the buffalo begins the shedding of his winter coat.

 “It is a long and difficult task, and with commendable energy he sets about it at the earliest possible moment. It lasts him more than half the year, and is attended with many discomforts.”

 The new hair grows so rapidly and densely “that it forces itself into the old, becomes hopelessly entangled with it, and in time actually lifts the old hair clear of the skin. The old and the new hair cling together with provoking tenacity long after the old coat should fall, and on several of the bulls we killed in October there were patches of it still sticking tightly to the shoulders.”

 The bull attacks clay banks. He rubs on trees. He fights. He wallows. “When he emerges from his wallow, plastered with mud from head to tail, his degradation is complete,” wrote Hornaday. “He is then simply not fit to be seen, even by his best friends.”

Bulls wallow to shed winter hair, to get rid of insects and to establish dominance. Here young bulls take their turn at a wallow. SD Tourism.

 

The bull’s one redeeming feature in all this rag-tag display is “the handsome black head, which is black with new hair as early as the first of May, preserving the bull’s majestic appearance throughout this long shedding effort.” And by fall a wondrous transformation takes place and the rich brown coat is luxuriant and fully grown.

 “The buffalo stands forth clothed in a complete new suit of hair—fine, clean, sleek and bright in color, not a speck of dirt or a lock awry anywhere.” 

New growth hair on the beard and front can reach amazing lengths. From his own hunt for Smithsonian museum specimens Hornaday reported: “I have a tuft of hair . . . which measures 22½ inches in length, from the frontlet of a rather small bull bison. The beard was correspondingly long, and the entire pelage was of wonderful length and density.”

 Be aware that buffalo are wild animals—as are lions and tigers born in zoos. They are not domesticated, even in the sense of undergoing a selection process to increase traits considered desirable and breed out undesirable traits, which passes down to offspring. Thus they are unpredictable.

In a seminar for tribal buffalo managers, Dr Trudy Ecoffey, InterTribal Buffalo Council Wildlife Biologist, cautioned the managers about getting up close. Her advice was “Don’t!”

 “It is difficult for people who are around buffalo often to tell when an attack will occur, and for the person who is never around them almost impossible.”

 The lumbering walk of the buffalo is deceiving, she said. They can turn, accelerate and charge in a heartbeat. A clue to their agitation is the stubby tail. When it hangs down and switches naturally, the buffalo is usually calm.

 But if the tail flips up and over the back he may be ready to charge. Other signs of anxiety are grunting or shaking the head. These actions should prompt people to give the buffalo plenty of room and preferably, to place something huge between them and the buffalo, warned Ecoffey.

 If you are not seeing any live buffalo, note that an indication of a buffalo pasture is usually higher fences. In the distance buffalo show up as wedge-shaped—with large extended forequarters and small, slender rear ends—compared to the blocky, rectangle-shapes of cattle and rounded curves of horses at a distance.

Buffalo prehistory

The first buffalo are believed to have arrived in North America about 43,000 years ago, crossing back and forth from Asia on the Bering Land Bridge in Alaska, along with mammoths, mastodons, the wooly rhinoceros, horses and camels. However, recent evidence suggests an earlier wave of bison may have come 195,000 to 135,000 years ago and then died out, as reported in 2017 by the University of Alberta, Canada.

 One giant bison species stood one-fifth larger than our modern buffalo with horns 10 feet across. Most of these large mammals—including all buffalo species except one—vanished around 9,000 years ago, a mass extinction that is still a mystery. Horses found a new home in Asia before dying out here, and returned later with Columbus and the Spanish Conquistadors.

 Modern American buffalo developed into two subspecies—the prolific plains buffalo of the open country and the wood buffalo of the forests and far north. Thus under scientific classification, the American plains buffalo is listed as genus Bison, species bison, and subspecies bisonfor Bison bison bison. The wood buffalo is Bison bison athabascae.

 Although controversial for a time whether they were separate species, recent research at the University of Alberta conclusively shows genetic differences. Plains buffalo have a more rounded hump, with its highest point directly over the front legs, and more predominant hair character—large chaps, a full beard and neck mane and a clearly-defined cape.

 In contrast, the larger wood buffalo tend to have higher, often sharply-angled humps located farther forward on the body. They wear no chaps, sport only a thin pointy beard and skimpy neck mane and their less-defined cape blends smoothly back to the loins. Wood buffalo are usually a darker color.

 Conserving the buffalo: Public, tribal and private herds

How many buffalo were here when the first Europeans arrived? In the 19th century, naturalists estimated 60 million or more, based on an assumed range of 3 million square miles.

 However, range experts now put that number at closer to 30 million, given we now know their usual range was smaller, about 1.2 million square miles.

 Today, buffalo in the United States and Canada total nearly 500,000, about half of them below the international border and half above. As the railroads, highways, and cities grew in the Great Plains, the massive herds dwindled to an endangered level, prompting many to look at ways to save the buffalo.

 Today’s buffalo live in free-range herds within national parks, special herds through Indian tribes, and in private herds. A few live in zoos and other wildlife parks. These hardy animals live and thrive in all 50 states, every Canadian province and many countries throughout the world.

 Buffalo vs Bison? What shall we call them?

What shall we call this magnificent Monarch of the Plains—buffalo or bison?

 Call them what you are comfortable with, what you like best—and don’t feel guilty if that’s “buffalo.” It’s mistaken to believe they “should” be called “bison.

Professor Lott, who surely loved and understood the animal as much if not more than any other scientist who wrote of them, used both terms, almost interchangeably.

 “My scientist side is drawn to bison . . . scientifically correct and precise,” he wrote. “Yet the side of me that grew up American is drawn to buffalo—the name by which most Americans have long known it. Buffalo honors its long, intense and dramatic relationship with the peoples of North America.”

 As the grandson of the chief ranger, Lott was born on Montana’s National Bison Range and grew up there and on a ranch within sight of those buffalo. Later he specialized in Biology and wrote the book American Bison as a college professor.

 Indian tribes often use names in their own languages, such as the Lakota Tatanka and Pte.

 Hornaday, who comes in a close second in his passion for buffalo as a scientist—initially intrigued with them as a taxidermist for the Smithsonian and going on to devote most of the rest of his life to the species—calls them bison in his own writings, but he also wrote in 1889:

“The fact that more than 60 million people in this country unite in calling him a buffalo, and know him by no other name, renders it quite unnecessary to apologize for following a harmless custom which has now become so universal that all the naturalists in the world could not change it if they would.”

So don’t apologize if buffalo comes most naturally for you. Of course in scientific usage it is bison—as is bovine, equine and canine. But we don’t call the cow, horse or dog those names in normal conversation do we?

Buffalo actually comes from French fur traders who called the animals les boeufs (la buff), for “the beefs” meaning oxen or bullocks. It has a long history in North America dating from 1625 when first recorded—even before bison was used, in 1774.

 It even has a verb form—to buffalo (meaning to bewilder or overawe).

 Here where buffalo are raised we quite naturally prefer the term buffalo. It’s a good, solid, friendly yet respectful label, with no formality separating us from these majestic animals.  (For more details see Ch 6, Noble Fathers, page 92,and Ch 11, Buffalo Ranching Across America, page 186, from the companion book “Buffalo Heartbeats Across the Plains.”)

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Tour 10 Buffalo Sites in the Northern Plains, Part I–The Last Great Hunts

At the center of the Northern Plains is a rugged section of Badlands, buttes and fertile grasslands, where buffalo, cattle and sheep graze, and deer and antelope still roam.

We’d love to have you join us on the 10-site tour we’ve put together of the last great hunts and other historic and contemporary buffalo events, each clearly marked by a yellow sign.

These sites include three of the last great buffalo hunts, including the valley of the last stand—the final harvest of the last 1,200 wild buffalo by Sitting Bull and his band on October 12 and 13, 1883.

At the center of these events are previously untold stories and authentic, unspoiled places to envision where they took place.

This region, bordered by the North Dakota towns of Hettinger, Reeder and Scranton, and the South Dakota towns of Lemmon, Bison and Buffalo, is where Native people conducted the last traditional hunts of the majestic wild buffalo that once roamed here in huge herds on what was then the Great Sioux Reservation.

The Self-Guided Tour includes three of the Last Great Buffalo Hunts including the final harvest of 1,200 buffalo by the Sitting Bull band in 1883. Painting by CMRussell, Amon Carter Museum.

The history of the last buffalo hunts you’ll find here is true and documented from primary sources. Although not widely known until recently, it is told in detail by people who were there on those hunts.

They are traditional Native American hunts that somehow fell through the cracks of U.S. history.

Often showcased is the shameful history of the buffalo’s final days as a wasteful slaughter by white hide hunters.

White hide hunters slaughtered huge numbers of buffalo with powerful guns, in what was called a stand—often a single shooter hidden from sight, killing any leader who attempted to run. Illustration from Wm. Hornaday’s 1889 book “The Extermination of the American Bison.”

 

That happened, of course. But it is not the whole story.

Instead, the first-person recollections from these final hunts bring together a heroic saga befitting the noble beasts themselves.

It features Native Americans, who followed time-honored religious traditions in planning and preparing for each hunt, following through, caring for the meat—and never failing to give thanks for their success.

And then, just before the last wild herds disappeared forever, one Native American family returned to the hunt site to save 5 orphaned buffalo calves—and became internationally famous for nourishing their own herd.

Included on the tour are Prairie Thunder, a full-size mounted buffalo at the Dakota Buttes museum, and an authentic buffalo jump at Shadehill, S.D, used for thousands of years—long before hunters had the luxury of horses and guns. 

In no other place in the world can you find the history of all these events brought together.

Here all parts of the Buffalo story come together. From ancient times until now, when nearly every Indian Tribe in the Plains owns their own tribal buffalo herd and are delighted to share it with you.

Visitors can plan their Buffalo Trails jaunt from anywhere in the world via online connections.

So if you’re a traveler smitten by the iconic American buffalo, you can plan your next trip around buffalo sites you find here and on our website. We outline world class trips to visit buffalo-related sites, both historic and modern day.

North Dakota Tourism has added our Buffalo Trails Tour to its Best Places and pitches it with international tours. South Dakota Travel provides links as well. (This information is available in our Self-Tour Guide “Buffalo Trails in the Dakota Buttes” available at local businesses and hettingernd.com/buffalotrails.)

Site 1. Prairie Thunder—Dakota Buttes Museum

Our tour begins with a closeup of America’s New National Mammal—the magnificent bison or buffalo—in the Dakota Buttes Museum in Hettinger.

Prairie Thunder represents the last wild herds that came here in their final days, the last great traditional hunts, the miracle of how a handful of men and women, including local Native Americans, saved the buffalo from extinction, and buffalo herds that graze here today. Photo by Bonnie Smith.

Meet Prairie Thunder, our majestic full-mount buffalo—harvested in early January during a 20 below zero cold snap when his deep brown winter hair had grown to its finest thickness.

The buffalo has long captured the imagination of people everywhere, with his great size and stature, confrontational eye, beautifully-shaped black horns and semi-tragic history.

William Hornaday of the Smithsonian Museum probably described him best back in 1887:

“The magnificent dark brown frontlet and beard of the bison, the shaggy coat of hair upon the neck, hump, and shoulders, the dense coat of finer fur on the hindquarters, give the bison a grandeur and nobility of presence which are beyond all comparison amongst ruminants,” he wrote.

None, he declared, is as striking in appearance– as the male buffalo.

“The grandest of them all,” he summed it up.

Both bulls and cows are intimidating figures, but the buffalo bull is larger, tall and massive, strangely narrow in profile, with shoulders broader than his slim hips—all accented by the large shoulder hump.

His hair hangs long and heavy over the front quarters, a “thick mass of luxuriant black locks,” with even longer hair over forehead, beard, mane and chaps of the forelegs, but short and sleek over the rear and tail. Some bulls have long beards.

Typically, Prairie Thunder stands in the front exhibit hall of Dakota Buttes Museum to greet visitors.

He stands 5.5 feet high at the shoulder and is 8.5 feet from nose to tail. In life he was judged to weigh nearly 2,000 pounds. His hair varies in length from 3.5 to 5 inches. His horns span 30 inches at their widest point.

Given this area’s close connection to the last buffalo hunts along with contemporary buffalo ranching, the Hettinger community launched a two-year fundraising effort to acquire Prairie Thunder.

Donated by a local rancher, this beautifully preserved buffalo made his debut in the museum on July 4, 2010.

Prairie Thunder represents to us, not only those last wild herds and the great traditional hunts, but the miracle of how a handful of men and women, including Native Americans, saved the buffalo from near-extinction.

A major event in that rescue occurred in this area, as well, when Pete Dupree and his brothers drove a buckboard wagon to the last buffalo ranges and took home five husky, healthy calves to grow and multiply on the Great Sioux Indian Reservation.

Before long Pete Dupree counted his herd at 83 head.

This buffalo mount was created by national award-winning taxidermist Randy Holler, of Hettinger, who worked 18 months to complete the work, donating much his time and artistry to the museum project.

Visitors are asked not to touch Prairie Thunder, his coat brushed to a rich sheen, as he stands in Hettinger’s Dakota Buttes Museum. Photo by Wendy Berg

His coat is unusually rich and beautiful, and the oils from human hands can destroy his natural sheen, so we ask you please to refrain from touching Prairie Thunder.

Knowing visitors enjoy the luxurious feel of a genuine buffalo hide, the museum staff provides a separate buffalo robe nearby, which you are welcome to touch and handle. (More on the magnificent buffalo is found in Chapter 5, page 76, in “Buffalo Heartbeats Across the Plains,” the companion book to our Self-Guided Tour booklet “Buffalo Trails in the Dakota Buttes,” both available at local businesses and hettingernd.com/buffalotrails.)

Site 2. Hiddenwood Hunt—June 1882

Sites on Hettinger’s Self-Guided Tour are identified by yellow markers—Site 2 is the Hiddenwood Hunt. FM Berg.

As Running Antelope—leader of the hunt—Long Soldier and other prominent men rode out on a high point, just out of sight, they saw what they thought never to see again: thousands of buffalo grazing across valley and hills.

Thousands of buffalo grazed across Hiddenwood valley and hills in June 1882. Photo courtesy of South Dakota Tourism.

Only a few hundred yards off stood the nearest buffalo. So close they could hear him grunt and snort. With the wind in their faces, they smelled his rank odor.

With the wind in their faces the hunters could smell the bull’s rank odor. Photo SDT.

They waited. It was important that all hunters start at the same time and all have an equal chance before the herd began to run.

Look off to the east in the direction of Fort Yates, to your left. This is where most of the hunters from the Great Sioux Nation were coming from, riding low and quiet up Hiddenwood Creek.

Running Antelope—leader of the hunt—Long Soldier and other prominent men rode out on a high point, just out of sight, as they waited for other hunters to join them. Painting by CMRussell, ACM.

Another group of this band rode farther north. They had not yet caught sight of what was ahead, what their scouts told them was here.

Since boyhood the older men had hunted buffalo in this place. But for the past 15 years these prime Dakota grasslands had stood empty.

White hide hunters had relentlessly pushed the buffalo farther and farther west. Now most herds were gone forever—killed off for their hides.

Then mysteriously, this very last big herd of 50,000 came back.

Miraculously, the last big herd of 50,000 buffalo returned to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in 1880. Photo SDT.

“On the wings of the wind came the news that Pte, the buffalo, had arrived to make a Sioux holiday and provide such meat as had never been furnished even by the most conscientious and liberal of beef contractors,” wrote James McLaughlin, Indian agent at the Standing Rock agency in Fort Yates, who rode along on this hunt.

The winds told tribal elders the mission of the buffalos’ return.

The buffalo returned to provide their starving Lakota brothers and sisters with desperately needed food, clothing and shelter before all were killed by the white hide hunters. That’s what the elders for told.

The large hunting party of 2,000 men, women and children left Fort Yates, 100 miles to the east, on June 10, 1882, moving slowly.

Six hundred hunters rode horseback. Others rode in horse-drawn wagons or travois pulled by horses or dogs. Many walked.

“It would hardly be possible to make a more glittering array of a body of Indians,” wrote McLaughlin in his book, My Friend the Indian. “The plains of Dakota had not for many years seen so resplendent a gathering of these people as that which moved out of Standing Rock just after dawn.”

During 10 days of travel to the famous hunting campground at Hiddenwood—where scouts assured them they’d find buffalo, the hunting party paused for traditional religious ceremonials and prayers for a successful hunt.

You are standing on a historic spot. This is where “The Last Great Buffalo Hunt” began on or about June 20, 1882, in this broad fertile valley near Hiddenwood Cliff.

Let’s imagine this valley as it was on that delightful June morning in 1882, filled with an immense herd of buffalo. The big animals grazed peacefully on both sides of Hiddenwood Creek and off into the distance, spread out over the broad valley and hills.

Buffalo cows nuzzled and nursed their young calves. Tawny-colored calves frisked and played together.

Massive bulls stood down by Hiddenwood Creek in the mud, drinking, pawing and splashing. Some tore into the yellow clay of Hiddenwood Cliff with huge shaggy heads, throwing up dust and rubbing their rough winter pelts.

To the right, up a draw, big bulls rubbed themselves in a buffalo wallow. Awaiting their turn, several squared off, whacking heads and horns, grunting and pawing up the ground.

Planning their approach to the herd before them, Running Antelope and others gestured and talked in whispers, as they waited for the others to come up on the high point. All gasped as they rode up and glimpsed the valley below and the hills on either side filled with buffalo.

Quietly, feverishly, they spread out along the flanks. These were people with buffalo hunting running in their veins and in their hearts.

Since childhood they heard stories of courage on the hunt, deeds of strength and endurance against great bulls, of buffalo mystique and legend. They lived in buffalo hide tepees, slept under soft buffalo robes, ran through cactus in tough hide moccasins, delighted in eating pemmican and dried buffalo meat.

Older Lakota men had hunted here before. This was an ancient campground for buffalo-hunting plains tribes. For hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years the cliff and creek winding below it were known as Hiddenwood (Pha Can Nahma)—because the trees could not be seen from a distance. Tepee rings filled this valley when first settlers arrived.

Tepee rings filled Hiddenwood Valley when the first settlers arrived. Painting by CMRussell, ACM.

The horses felt the excitement too, lifted their heads, snorted, pranced and reared.

Running Antelope glanced back at the hunters lined up just below the crest of the bluffs and across the creek on the far slope. Every eye was on him, all ready to go.

He lifted his arm and drove it forward in a forceful gesture.

And–they were off!

The hunters charged at full speed, dashing among the buffalo as they attacked from the hills on both sides of Hiddenwood Creek.

Wolves slashing viciously at the throat of the old lone bull turned suddenly and streaked out of range over the ridge, looking back as they ran. A few antelope, grazing on the flat, leapt up a side hill and turned to stare curiously, their sharp eyes alert.

Rifles cracked and buffalo fell. Some began to run. Riders with fast horses raced ahead, cut in close to turn the leaders and dropped them with a bullet or two.

The buffalo turned in confusion, confronting their attackers with furious thrusts and slashes of massive heads and horns. They grunted, bellowed and flung their short, stubby tails over their backs.

Each hunter rode close alongside his buffalo and shot it in the heart or lungs—just ahead of the front leg. Usually the animal fell with one shot. No bullets wasted. He made sure it was dead and raced ahead for another shot.

Buffalo on distant slopes merely looked up and returned to grazing.

Most of the men carried repeating rifles, breechloaders—which fed bullets from the rear rather than the front of the barrel, allowing faster reloading.

Not all the Indians could afford guns. Some older men and boys, in their poverty, used only bow and arrows.

A few others had no guns because McLaughlin did not trust them enough to allow weapons. Many of these same hunters had fought against Custer and the 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, only a few years earlier.

Wolf Necklace, an old man of about 60, was one hunter without fire power. He carried only bow and arrows, rode an old gray pony and followed a buffalo whose side he had pierced with four or five protruding arrows. As his pony walked slowly alongside, he now and then shot another arrow, but without the arm power needed to bury them deeply.

A friend rode up with a pistol and offered to help.

“No. Don’t shoot!” cried Wolf Necklace. “The arrows will work in and he will die.” 

He was right. After a few minutes the big animal fell dead. Wolf Necklace had killed it with no help from anyone.

The hunters rode their best horses, swift runners—older seasoned “buffalo horses” if possible. Men with younger horses worried that, though fast, they might fail to perform in close quarters alongside these strange, pungent-smelling beasts that they’d never encountered before.

Indeed, from the first charge, plunging, rearing horses could be seen through the valley as riders struggled to gain control.

It was a long and successful day. There was no rest. The hunters kept up the slaughter until they lost their horses or were exhausted.

Not a few ended the chase on foot. No attempt at butchering was made that first day.

Women cooked humps and other tender morsels and fed the hunters who returned to camp long after dark. All were too tired that night for celebrating or storytelling.

On the second day the people butchered and cared for the meat.

All knew their tasks. The men skinned, quartered the animals and hauled the meat in to the new camp by travois, pack horse and wagon.

Women began the formidable task of slicing chunks of meat into thin sheets for drying. These sheets they hung on willow racks to dry in the sun.

When cured, they’d make and store the meat as pemmican and jerky. They stretched the hides and staked them on the ground to dry. As summer hides lacking prime winter hair, they’d be used for rawhide and tanned leather—without hair, for clothing, moccasins, tepee covers and many other uses.

That evening after the day of butchering everyone feasted. It was a feast such as had not been held for many years.

There was dancing, singing and storytelling. Great orators and chiefs like Gall, John Grass, Crow King, Rain-in-the-Face, and Spotted Horn Bull recounted tales of courage, fortitude and tragedy in hunting and battle.

McLaughlin said, “The head men of the Sioux Nation were on that hunt and at peace on the banks of Hiddenwood Creek that night.”

On the third day the hunters ran buffalo again a few miles farther west. The herd had not moved far. That day they killed 3,000.

Then they made camp at several places on water, butchered and hung the meat to dry in the hot sun. McLaughlin said they had killed many and yet showed restraint.

“I never have known an Indian to kill a game animal that he did not need,” he wrote. “And I have known few white hunters to stop while there was game to kill.”

It was McLaughlin who called this the “last great hunt” in his memoirs, written years later.

Today this historic site marks the Hiddenwood Hunt, named for Hiddenwood Cliff across the green valley, at upper right in this photo. Image by Kathy Walsh

While it wasn’t quite the last hunt of the huge wild herds—that happened about a year later—it was indisputably the largest of the last hunts, both in number of people involved and size of the harvest.

Two thousand Native Dakota Sioux in traditional dress came on the Hiddenwood hunt and in two days they killed 5,000 buffalo, relying on ancient religious ceremony and tradition throughout. (For more details see Chapter 1. The Great Hiddenwood Hunt, page 10, in the companion book “Buffalo Heartbeats across the Plains,”)

In June 1882, 2,000 Dakota Sioux travelled 100 miles from Fort Yates to the Hiddenwood Hunt, and in two days killed 5,000 buffalo. Colored area on the North and South Dakota map shows where this last hunt occurred. Photo by FM Berg.

This valley at Hiddenwood Cliff was also where General George Custer and his 7th Cavalry soldiers made camp on July 8, 1874 on their journey to the Black Hills from Ft. Abraham Lincoln at Bismarck—a few years before this last great buffalo hunt took place.

Site 3. Sitting Bull Hunt—Buffalo’s Last Stand

Take a deep breath of the fresh, clean air! Stretch, look around and let your imagination flow!

Site 3, The Buffalo’s Last Stand—the Sitting Bull hunt finished off the last big herd. Vic Smith, well-known hide hunter said, “There was not a hoof left. That wound up the buffalo in the Far West, only a stray bull being seen here and there afterwards.” FM Berg.

Stop on the high point and hold your breath for a stunning view. A spectacular panorama suddenly opens out ahead and you can see for miles in every direction.

This is where the American buffalo made their last stand—in this remote and beautiful valley and others like it within perhaps 30 or 40 miles.

This breathtaking vista looks today much as it did 140 years ago when the last buffalo returned here “to provide for the sons and daughters of the Lakota…” The air is light and clear, outlining each butte. Photo by Kendra Rosencrans.

In the distance you see long ridges stretching across the horizon from west to east in waves, each wave is a long divide of peaks, plateaus and flat-topped buttes splashed with shades of violet, lavender and blue. Each successive wave takes on a paler shade as it recedes into the background.

This breathtaking vista looks today much as it did when the last buffalo returned here after an absence of 15 years “to provide for the sons and daughters of the Lakota…” in the words of Indian Agent James McLaughlin.

The air is light and clear, outlining each butte, however distant. A reporter riding through here with Custer the next day after camping at Hiddenwood judged he could see “no less than” 40 miles.

“The well-defined, sharpened lines projected on the sky by rolling prairies and distant buttes is marvelous beyond expression, and can never be appreciated unless actually seen. The outlines seem cut in relief upon the very face of the heavens,” he wrote.

But that reporter saw no buffalo—because all had retreated farther west when he rode through in 1874.

Amazingly, in a few years, this last big herd of buffalo returned, and they survived here for nearly three years. 

Maybe we can visualize that too. Hundreds and thousands of buffalo streaming into this valley from the west, led by determined matriarchs in large and small scattered herds.

Some herds would have turned off from the larger migration upon finding a draw or buttes to their liking. They spread out and began to fill in the entire vista as far as we can see.

The southern herd was long gone by this time—from Kansas, Colorado and Texas—mainly they disappeared by 1875 from heavy hunting.

The last remnant of the great northern herd had migrated to the Miles City area of southeastern Montana and then split at the Yellowstone River. Half crossed the river and went north into the waiting rifles of hundreds of hunters, both white and Indian.

Most were annihilated within the year.

This other half—an estimated 50,000, the last of the last great wild herds—came east into this remote part of Dakota Territory, then called the Great Sioux Reservation, now part of Perkins County, South Dakota.

For the buffalo it was a land of relative safety for a time, forbidden to white hide hunters.

The area is rimmed with buttes. The reporter riding with Custer wrote of them:

“The view is fine indeed. . . Buttes . . . of all shapes—conical, sugar-loafed, pinnacled, dome-topped and flat-topped, and all girdled by belts of as varying and blended colors as the strata of white, black, blue, brown and red clays and sandstone of their naked sides”

The rivers here flow east to the Missouri River. Ahead, just out of sight runs the North Grand River, separated from the South Grand by a high divide, and still farther south by the ridges and divides of the forks of the Moreau River, their peaks rising into the distance.

Closer in, the peaks, cutbanks, rugged cliffs, wooded draws, gullies and eroded, rock-crested buttes cut through prairie grasslands. Green in spring and early summer, curing to a nutritious golden brown by fall.

A variety of plants grows here. Nutritious, high-protein grasses—buffalo grass, blue gramma, native wheat grass.

Prairie flowers bloom and wave in the wind—tall golden sunflowers, fragrant sage, yucca, wild mustard, pink coneflowers and prickly pear cactus lush with large and delicate lemon-yellow blooms, and Indian turnips highly prized by Native women who dug them in these hills to balance their diet high in wild meat.

 A golden eagle nests atop a high rocky outcropping. Grouse and wild turkeys rustle through long grass. The liquid melody of the meadowlark floats on the air, along with songs of the horned lark and lark bunting and other prairie birds that nest on the ground.

A jackrabbit springs by on powerful legs and a mule deer grazes out in the open with twin fawns, while a whitetail doe hides in a wooded draw. Antelope run up a side hill.

We call this the Butchering Site because of the many buffalo bones found here. The leg bones we’ve found are chopped in half to remove the marrow, in the ancient Indian manner. They still show up in sandy banks after a hard rain or snow runoff.

Powerful buffalo leg bones found here have been chopped in half to remove the marrow, in the ancient manner. They still show up in sandy banks after snow runoff. FM Berg.

Off to the left, trees mark springs on a side hill where hunting parties left evidence of their camps.

Native men deftly skinned the carcasses, cut and loaded meat onto pack horses for hauling in to camp, leaving skulls and some of the larger bones where they fell.

Women sliced meat thin and hung it in sheets on willow frames to dry in the sun. The hides they stretched and staked out on the ground near their tepees.

Above, soaring hawks and turkey buzzards took note.

Like the Hiddenwood site, many ancient hunts took place here, probably for thousands of years, as well as these final ones between 1880 and 1883.

Many ancient hunts took place at “The Last Stand,” probably for thousands of years. It’s been called the Butchering Site, because of the many buffalo bones and skulls found. CM Russell, ACM.

The rich heritage of nomadic tribes hunting these grasslands left behind tepee rings, arrowheads, tools and beads, as well as buffalo bones. Petroglyphs are found on a peak in the distance at left center.

Famous Indian chiefs lived and hunted here in these badlands and grasslands—Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Gall, John Grass and Rain-in-the-Face—were all here. Early day explorers and trappers came too—Hugh Glass, Jim Bridger and General George A. Custer with the 7th Cavalry.

We can imagine herds of buffalo grazing here and there into the distance, while in the foreground a successful Indian hunting party butchers and cares for their meat.

If you see black or red Angus cattle in this pasture it’s easy to imagine them as buffalo from long ago.

At a distance, buffalo show up as more wedge-like in silhouette than cattle. High at the hump with large hanging head, their elevated forequarters sloping down to small narrow rears.

In contrast, distant cattle appear squared off, as boxlike rectangles. Horses look more rounded in their hips.

Listen—and you might hear Indian drumming on a stray breeze.

Not much is known of the buffalo hunts during those last three years, other than the two hunts documented by the missionary Rev. Thomas Riggs and Indian Agent James McLaughlin, and William Hornaday’s comments on the final Sitting Bull hunt. Only a few other hunts were briefly mentioned in newspapers and in McLaughlin’s letters.

We know these last 10,000 buffalo were set upon by numerous Native hunts during that time, both large and small. Legions of white hide hunters lurked at the reservation borders making illegal forays inside when they dared.

For nearly three years the buffalo stayed here, dwindling—yet thousands remained—until finished off the fall of 1883 by the Sitting Bull Hunt. 

Many thousands of Native Americans were ensconced here on the Great Sioux Reservation. McLaughlin reported that his agency alone had charge of nearly 6,000 people, and there were a number of other agencies on this vast reservation that included most of the western half of South Dakota.

With a great many hungry people, we might wonder how the buffalo lasted so long—even in these rugged badlands.

Why were they not quickly hunted to extinction, as elsewhere?

The answer probably lies in what hunting was allowed, rather than lack of desire to hunt them.

Indian Agent James McLaughlin, who was assigned to the agency at Ft Yates and arrived the end of 1881 ran a tight ship. Determined to stay in control, he did not necessarily grant permission to Lakota hunters who wanted to pursue buffalo here, a hundred miles away from where they lived.

Punishment for disobeying an agent’s rules could be severe, including cutting family food rations.

For the Sioux Indian people assigned to live here this was an especially difficult and painful time.

A nomadic, independent people with the knowledge and skills for survival in an unforgiving land, they traditionally cared for themselves and their families with no help from anyone. Now, without buffalo, they could no longer care for their families or travel freely.

Only a few years earlier, these same Sioux bands had fought and won the Battle of the Little Big Horn, along with their allies the Northern Cheyenne.

They paid a heavy price for that victory, assigned to specific agencies of their reservation.

Almost immediately after that victory, their large reservation was reduced in size. They lost their beloved Black Hills and a western strip of land equivalent to the width of one county—from 104 to 103 degrees of latitude.

Federal policy in Washington, DC, decreed that Natives should build log cabins, take up farming and replace their spiritual traditions, cultural values, religion, language and even life ways with those of mainstream America.

Promised food rations often came up short as thieves and dishonest agents sold much of their intended food and blankets. Unfamiliar diseases hit, such as smallpox and measles, sometimes fatally for whole Indian families with no natural immunity to them.

Many children were sent to far-off boarding schools in New England—Connecticut and New Hampshire, even for years—to learn the ways of white people. Some children died there. Most were terrified and miserable in a strange land.

The great Lakota horse herds and guns were gone.

During those three years, it seems the Lakota people needed to request not only a hunting permit from McLaughlin, but sometimes ammunition and guns.

Fortunately, families were allowed one or two horses for farming and perhaps a rifle, as they were expected to produce food for themselves.

And yet—these valleys suddenly teemed with buffalo. For many years the Native people had known what it was like to live without them. Now the knowledge of buffalo grazing across these native pastures must have brought great joy to their hearts. Their beloved buffalo had returned when so desperately needed.

McLaughlin felt sympathetic to the plight of his charges. Newly arrived at Ft. Yates in September 1881, he spoke Sioux as learned from his wife, a Minnesota Sioux, and his long tenure at the Devils Lake Reservation.

Yet he enforced rigid and often unworkable decisions made in Washington. There was great fear there and among western settlers of a Sioux uprising. McLaughlin was determined that would not happen.

The Great Sioux Reservation was still very large during this window of time. Between 1876 and 1889 it extended approximately 130 miles wide by 230 miles north and south. The Indian agencies were connected within the reservation. However, the Lakota people were assigned to specific agencies and required the agent’s permission to travel between them.

Indian tribes from other reservations, too, petitioned their agents for permission to come here hunting buffalo.

In the spring of 1883, a poignant letter appeared in the Bismarck Tribune, signed by 10 Mandan and Gros Ventre Chiefs living at Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota, telling of their deep longing to hunt the buffalo that had come “so near.”

“We want go out hunt buffaloes, is 60 miles from Ft. Berthold, which so near,” they wrote. ”We want go out so bad get some to eat and agent tells us we cannot go. He says if we go out guns and ponies, wagons be take away from us—this is what he tells us. . . We are working hard here.

“We have agent here, but he do not help us. He helps his folks—that’s all help we get from him. When he talk to us people here he talk like he was very kind to think of us Indians here. We often ask him to more eat and he tells us he is going to get plenty eat for us but we get tired waiting. Been three years. . . .

“He is trying to make people live half sick hungry. They got to get some to eat—they cannot.”

 As far as is known this Ft. Berthold hunt was not permitted. Most certainly McLaughlin disapproved of allowing outside tribes to come onto the Sioux reservation to hunt buffalo. His letters make this clear.

During that last summer in 1883 there remained 10,000 buffalo in these final herds. They still ranged in this area—the northwestern corner of the reservation, said to be about half way between Bismarck and the Black Hills, between Hiddenwood Creek and the Moreau River. But their numbers dwindled swiftly toward fall.

“Just at this juncture,” reported Hornaday, “Sitting Bull and his whole band of nearly 1,000 braves arrived, and in two days’ time slaughtered the entire herd,”

Thus the Sitting Bull hunt that began around Oct 12, 1883, and slaughtered 1,200 buffalo was actually the very “last great hunt.” Sitting Bull and his band came from the Mobridge area about 60 to 70 miles nearly due east of here and apparently found that last herd about 10 or 15 miles to the south.

Hornaday quotes Vic Smith, a well-known hide hunter, “There was not a hoof left. That wound up the buffalo in the Far West, only a stray bull being seen here and there afterwards.”

(For more details see Ch 4, Scattered Survivors, page 56, in the companion book “Buffalo Heartbeats Across the Plains.”)

Grand River National Grassland

If you are wondering who owns this land, you need not look far. You and I own it, along with all other Americans!

This is what we call a Government Pasture, part of the Grand River and Cedar River National Grasslands administered by the U.S. Forest Service, USDA.

It’s officially under the multiple use concept that includes cattle grazing and public recreation.

This is a great place to hike and explore the rocky crests of hills and brushy draws and get closer to wildlife. Hiking here is especially exhilarating in early morning. Breathe in the fresh light air, smell the sage and wild prairie flowers, listen to the meadowlark and keep an eye out for mule deer.

Local ranchers lease these grasslands for cattle and through their Grand River Grazing Association care for the land, conserve soil, fence and improve grasslands and water sources.

If you don’t see cattle in this pasture, they are probably being rotated to another pasture. Regulations call for rotation between pastures every two or three weeks for best conservation of native grasses.

Site 4. Winter Hunt in the Slim Buttes

Find a scenic place where you might enjoy viewing buffalo in these pine hills—or joining the hunt, if you imagine you were riding with the Dupree hunting band and Thomas Riggs, missionary to the Lakota Sioux. Their hunting trip lasted months, so most any place you choose in and near the Buttes re-creates that hunt—they must have covered every draw and coulee.

Sites 4a and 4b denote the two passes through the Slim Buttes—to the northeast and south—where the Dupree hunting party spent 3 months in cold and deep snow in the pine hills. They prepared for 3 weeks and soon ran out of food—except for abundant buffalo meat. FM Berg.

Let your imagination wander. It’s wintertime with deep snow in the pines . . .

The winter winds blow cold, but excitement rides high among the 56 Lakota hunters riding with you. They just glimpsed their first buffalo in 15 years. Up ahead five or six big wooly stragglers plow through deep snow and vanished over the rocky slope above.

Two scouts, riding ahead and off to the side, hastily wave the hunters out of sight, motioning for them to swing wide and come on the buffalo against the wind.

Fearing their prey will escape while they circle, the men hurry their horses through heavy snow. All ride silently.

No one can see out of the ravine. Some lash their horses into a frenzy, using heel and quirt.

Rugged buttes and cutbanks punctuate the Slim Buttes landscape. Imagine riding horseback while pursuing buffalo through these broken lands—covered in two or three feet of blowing snow. Photo by Carole Rosencrans.

One impatient hunter grew angry at the delay. He glowered and signaled that the scouts were directing them too far around. He whipped up his horse to cut across the draw.

Suddenly a cloud of snow shot up. The man and his horse disappeared into a deep washout hole. He came up fighting to break free of the wildly plunging horse, legs and hooves kicking.

No one went to help him. After much effort he dragged his horse out and joined the hunters again, quietly cleaning snow from his gun.

He’s cooled off now!” Roan Bear whispered loudly to Thomas Riggs, riding beside him.

As they jumped their horses out of the ravine, a small herd of buffalo snorted and stared at them, startled. In an instant they broke into a lumbering gallop, flinging up their stumpy tails as they ran.

 Suddenly all vanished over a cutbank as if swallowed by the earth.

 In a flash the riders charged after them—and dropped out of sight as quickly as did their game.

 Swept along by a mad rush of hard-whipping riders, Riggs reached the edge of the bluff and—too late—saw the chaos below.

The Dupree hunters covered some rough country during their successful three-month hunt. Not always was it easy to pack the meat back to camp. Painting CM Russell, ACM.

At the bottom 20 horses were down, sprawled across a wide sheet of ice. Their riders scrambled to recover and hang onto their mounts.

Hunters race after the fleeing buffalo—their carcasses littered the white snow. Painting by Thomas Miles Richardson Jr 1848, AMC.

Across the creek, other horses raced after the fleeing buffalo. The lead hunters began to shoot. So did reckless hunters behind them, much to the disgust of those in the front. They turned and shouted angrily as bullets whizzed by their ears.

Buffalo fell. The black humps of their carcasses littered the white snow.

It was the day before Christmas, noted Thomas Riggs, the young missionary invited to join the Lakota hunters. The only white man on the hunt, Riggs—himself the son of a missionary to the Siouxspoke their language and was eager to learn the Lakota customs and religious ceremony involved in hunting big game.

The hunters had gathered at the ranch of Fred and Mary Ann Dupris (also pronounced Dupree), on the Cheyenne River at the mouth of Cherry Creek, 35 miles west of the Missouri River.

A French-Canadian fur trader, Fred had built a log trading post and also ran a herd of 200 beef cattle. He and his wife Mary Ann, a Minnicoujou Lakota, raised eleven children and built an active community of their own. As each son and daughter married, they moved into a growing row of cabins built of cottonwood logs on a beautiful wooded flat.

Mary Ann offered to share their family tent with Riggs for the hunt, in which he joined Clearance Ward—his assistant at the mission, her son-in-law known in the tribe as Roan Bear—and many of her children and grandchildren. Fred, an older man in his 70s, opted to stay home by the warm fire.

After that first day’s hunt, the men most often went out in smaller groups following scattered herds of buffalo.

They made their way back to camp loaded with an abundance of meat and robes. Fires crackled and snapped, pots boiled and people ate well of the tasty buffalo meat. All were smiling and happy.

But it was hard work for everyone. The high, rough lands of the Slim Buttes were cut by deep washouts along canyons and dry creek beds. Deep, crusted snow and frequent blizzard conditions added to the difficulties. Snow fell almost continuously. The women worked with skill and efficiency to care for enormous amounts of meat and hides.

They set up their tents and tepees in a protected amphitheater on the southwest corner of the Slim Buttes where they turned the horses loose to graze. Two or three feet of snow covered the rich, cured grasses, but the savvy Indian horses pawed off the snow to eat their fill.

It was hardly a winter to spend in the rugged Slim Buttes living in tepees—where cold winds howl through the pine trees and snow settles deep in rocky canyons.

Nevertheless, the Cheyenne River Lakota stuck it out for three months, even though they had planned for only three weeks. They ran out of provisions and survived on little more than buffalo meat the last few weeks.

Riggs praised his horse Sam, an old hand at running buffalo, besides being very fast.

“Every man in camp knew him, for he was the horse that Canptaye had on the Little Big Horn against Custer in ’76. He was a professional and deserved the honor the Indians gave him.”

Riggs carried a sack of oats to feed his horses.          

Plans were discussed and decisions made in the “soldier lodge” or council tent, the heart of the camp, a place of much smoking the pipe, religious ceremony and feasting. Later the crier announced their decisions throughout the camp. No women were allowed to enter the council tent, but they brought food and set it outside.

Two young men were selected as scouts, given detailed instructions and sworn into service. They made silent pledges, each with hands placed palm down flat on the earth.

At one point Riggs tells of an immense herd of buffalo arriving in the Slim Buttes from the southwest, stampeding into the night. This might have been part of the major migration coming in a direct line 150 miles from Miles City.

The Native hunters followed their game onto the grassy plains north of the Slim Buttes as well as deep in the Pine trees. Amon Carter Museum.

Riggs and five other hunters were returning to a temporary camp through deep snow, nearly exhausted, their pack horses loaded with meat.

In the darkness of that moonless night without stars, Cokan-tanka, a hunter who was a Sitting Bull lieutenant in the Custer battle, charged recklessly into the herd. His first shot missed and he suddenly found himself in the midst of a tight, galloping herd.

The buffalo ran against him on all sides, bumping against his legs. He shot again and missed again, using all the shells in the magazine. With great care he finally pulled a cartridge from the back of his belt and pushed it into the chamber.

While the mass of buffalo still pushed against him, he finally worked his way out of the running herd and shot his buffalo.

Another time, Roan Bear shot a buffalo that fell as if dead. He dropped off his horse to bleed it, but it suddenly leaped to its feet. He jumped back on his horse, which began bucking. The buffalo charged and finally the horse ran. Roan Bear turned, fired behind him and luckily, the buffalo dropped dead.

One night 40 men camped without food about 25 miles from the Slim Buttes. One hunter shot an old bull. They cooked the meat and ate the entire buffalo that evening.

They had only one large tent that barely held 32 men, so they made a partial tent from two pieces of canvas wagon sheet to cover the remaining eight men. It stretched no more than eight feet in diameter. In the partial tent, where Riggs slept, they roasted meat and boiled coffee in a three-quart pail.

All in all, despite the crowding, it was a pleasant evening, filled with much joking and laughter.

When finally the Slim Buttes winter hunt ended it was judged a success. No one was injured. The party killed around 2,000 buffalo. They took home more meat than the horses could pack and 500 prime buffalo hides. 

Today the rugged Slim Buttes are a lovely place to hike, picnic and camp in the pine trees on a pleasant summer day. SDT.

Evenings the hunters sat around warm campfires in the tents, telling stories of the day’s hunt.

One night Riggs had a story of his own to tell. He had killed an enormous buffalo that afternoon, he said. After skinning it, he threw the green hide over his horse and sat on it. The hide instantly froze stiff as marble.

In passing through a deep drift, I was lifted clear off my horse, which passed out from under me and left me straddling the frozen hide on top of nothing.”

His audience hooted with laughter. The amusing story of how he rode a frozen hide as a saddle with no horse under it was told over and over by his fellow hunters to hearty laughter, he wrote in his book “Sunset to Sunset.”

Riggs spent many evenings around the campfire talking about their experiences with the Dupree brothers and sisters. Likely they also talked of what they all knew was coming—the day when the buffalo herds would be gone forever.

Pete, one of the older brothers, became famous as one of a small handful of people who saved the buffalo from extinction.

It was his Lakota mother Mary Ann who suggested it, say descendants—and perhaps that happened right here. The Duprees ran a sizeable herd of beef cattle on the reservation. Surely some of those cows could be coaxed to raise a buffalo calf.

The idea took hold.

In early summer Pete Dupree—along with some of his brothers and probably sisters, too—set out for these buffalo ranges with a wagon. (See Site 5, Saving Five Calves)

They returned with five strong young buffalo calves—and helped change history. (For more information see Chapter 2, Winter Hunt in Slim Buttes, page 26, from the companion book “Buffalo Heartbeats across the Plains.”)

If you come to love the Slim Buttes—as local people do—and want to explore more of this long narrow formation of higher-altitude buttes, covered with pine trees and rocks, turn southeast and drive to the top of the South Pass.

Again we can imagine the Lakota hunting buffalo here in the pines and the mountainous pastures.

Buffalo are adapted to survive the worst blizzards of Northern Plains, from the natural insulation of their dense hair to their great strength and bulk.

The greatest challenges to range animals are the fierce storms of blowing and drifting snow. They often drift with the storm into water holes and other disasters.

Not buffalo. In winter, they face into the harsh blizzards that sometimes hit the northern plains, protected by their massive heads and shoulders. Their hair grows so dense that every square inch has 10 times as many hairs as an inch of cow hide, says Dale F. Lott, a University of California biologist.

With their forequarters well insulated by their heaviest hair growth, they move slowly into the wind until the storm blows over.

If snow lies deep on the prairie, buffalo plow down to eat grass. Their humps contain muscles supported by vertebrae that allow them to swing their massive, low-hanging heads side to side, sweeping away snow to reach plants and grass.

When water is frozen, they eat snow.

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Legacy of White Buffalo—Big Medicine

Legacy of White Buffalo—Big Medicine

Big Medicine, born in 1933 on the National Bison Range in Western Montana, near the Flathead Indian Reservation, lived there all of his 26 years. He had a brown topknot between his horns, his eyes were blue and his horns and hooves were light colored. National Bison Range photo.

The most famous white buffalo that ever lived was probably Big Medicine, born in 1933 on the National Bison Range in Western Montana.

Soon after birth he was dubbed “Big Medicine” by the local Salish, Pend d’Oreille and Kootenai people of the Flathead Valley. He lived there all of his 26 years.

White buffalo are sacred to many Native American tribes and they believed he brought good news and supernatural powers. The Blackfeet tribe farther east also considered him the property of the sun as well as “good medicine.”

“The National Bison Range,” said Paul G. Redington, then chief of the Bureau of Biological Survey, “is maintained to assist in perpetuating the American buffalo. We are therefore much interested in having in the herd an example of a variation so rare as the white buffalo. When only one was known in a herd of more than five million, it is particularly interesting that we should have this big medicine in a herd of about 500 animals.”

Big Medicine posed for Tourist Photos

The buffalo expert, California biology professor Dale Lott, author of American Bison: A Natural History, was born in Montana on the National Bison Range in 1933, the same year as Big Medicine.

He grew up among the buffalo on the bison range, where his grandfather was the Range Superintendent and veterinarian.

In his book he mentions that, growing up, he often had his photo taken by visitors with his grandfather and the white buffalo who was nicknamed “Old Whitey” by park employees.

His father lived and worked there and married the boss’s daughter.

Later his parents bought his father’s home ranch only three miles away, so all through his growing up years “the bison herds were visible as dark patches on distant hills,” according to memories he recorded in his book.

By age ten, Lott recalls that Big Medicine was occasionally turned out in the larger pasture, and contended in battle with other big herd bulls for a time.

Big Medicine spent most of his life in a rather small pasture with a few cows, where he could be easily seen by visitors, and was said to be the most popular tourist stop in Montana after Yellowstone Park.

However, he was soon returned to the smaller pasture with a few cows, which was less stressful for him.

Not a true albino, Big Medicine’s eyes were blue and a thick knot of brown hair grew between his horns.

Nevertheless, it was quite clear that his herd had the true albino genetics.

Alaskan buffalo herd birthed White calves

In 1928, before Big Medicine was born, it was decided to start a new federal herd of Plains buffalo in Alaska to replace the Wood buffalo which had become extinct there.

Twenty-three buffalo cows and bulls from Big Medicine’s home on the National Bison Range were transplanted to Delta Junction, Alaska, to start a new free-roaming herd.

Some in the new Alaskan herd must have carried the same genetics for albinism that Big Medicine did when born five years later—because rare white calves began showing up in that herd.

But since it was rugged and remote forested country, mostly without roads, it was difficult to follow-up on them. Living in thriving wild herds in spectacular mountain country often in snow, the rare white calves in Alaska were difficult to check up on or see from the air.

Also, they lived among large predators such as packs of wolves, fierce grizzly bears and mountain lions—so they were extremely vulnerable. About half of calves did not survive their first yar.

The first Alaskan white calf was born in 1939 and another the next year. They were seen together several times, but then disappeared. In 1949 a white calf was killed by a truck on the road.

In all, 12 white buffalo calves were sighted in the half-wild Alaskan herds over the next 50 years, according to David Dary, author of The Buffalo Book. One had a brown top knot on his head, as did Big Medicine.

Apparently, none survived as long as age three.

Many of the calves seen were recorded only through brief sightings from an airplane.

Game wardens tried to capture the last calf, sighted in the fall of 1973, planning to keep it for special care in a smaller enclosure or zoo. But it disappeared and was not seen again.

Alaskan wildlife officials say no white buffalo were sighted for the next 44 years among the 500 Plains buffalo living in the 90,000-acre Delta Bison Sanctuary.

However, the genetics that can result in white hair probably still exist in the bison herd, Bob Schmidt, of Alaska Fish and Game, told me in 2016. They just needed the right combination of genetics for it to happen.

“If both parents had the recessive gene there would be a 25 percent chance that their offspring would be white,” he said.

White calf born in Alaska herd in 2017

Apparently it happened. Amazingly, the very next year on May 9, 2017 another white calf was spotted in a remote area of the Farewell Bison Herd near McGrath in Alaska.

A white calf born in the Farewell Bison Herd near McGrath, Alaska, in the spring of 2017, is photographed by Josh Peirce and his wife Kellie from the air. He sighted the calf several times in June from an airplane, judging it healthy and estimating its age at three months. But, unfortunately it was not seen again and was believed to be the victim of wolves. Photo by Kellie Peirce.

Josh Peirce is the Alaska Wildlife Biologist with the State Fish and Game based in the McGrath community.

By this time the Delta herd had been split into four herds of plains bison in Alaska, all of them descended from the 23 head shipped from Big Medicine’s home on the National Bison Range in Montana in 1928.

Peirce says the unfenced home range for the bison covers about 500 square miles and has no roads, only an airstrip where planes can land.

“It’s fair to say the herd is at a record high now,” Peirce reported. “There are 395 adults, 115 calves, a total of 510 animals.”

Peirce’s job includes getting a count of the buffalo each year and making plans for the annual spring and fall hunts of excess animals.

The Farewell area is about 225 miles northwest of Anchorage on the Kuskokwim River and 60 miles southeast of McGrath, in the foothills of high rugged mountains,

Peirce says the white calf was seen as early as May 9 and he saw it several times in June, and estimated its age at about 3 months. It appeared to be in good health, he said, was able to keep up with the herd and seemed to have good eyesight.

The Alaskan buffalo herd is always on the move, often covering 20 to 30 miles a day, so it would be difficult to follow one small white calf, especially in deep snow in winter from the air.

However, this latest calf apparently didn’t make it until snow fell in the fall.

Peirce says the little white calf was not seen again. He believes it—like so many other buffalo calves, as well as baby moose—fell to some of the many large predators hunting in the area, likely a pack of wolves.

Only 40 to 60%—or half—of all buffalo and moose calves survive their first year, he said.

If they make it through their first summer—they still risk the extreme cold and threat of starvation in wintertime—which take a toll of very young and very old animals.

The Alaskan buffalo are not fed or watered, summer or winter.

Peirce suspects the missing white calf is leucistic—not a full albino.

In the photos he and his wife Kellie shot, the calf appears to have a dark ring around its eyes and a light brown “cap” on its head, he said.

Alaska Fish & Wildllife News, in announcing the rare birth in Aug 2017, describes two genetic variations: Albinism and Leucism.

“Albinism and leucism are both conditions that can cause an animal to have white fur, hair, skin or feathers. Both are caused by a reduction of pigments at the cellular level, and are usually genetic, according to the article.

“Leucism can affect an entire animal, or just patches (animals with partial leucism are referred to as “pied” or “piebald”) and a leucistic animal will have normal-looking eyes. Animals with albinism have pink eyes.”

Rarity of White Genetics

“Albinism is the complete absence of tissue pigment. Albino can just happen—it doesn’t have to be genetic,” says Schmidt. There are many types of albinism, all of which involve lack of the pigment in varying degrees that gives color to the skin, hair and eyes.

Albinism and its related conditions are often associated with eye problems and more susceptibility to sunburn and skin cancers.

“As a general rule, albino animals have low survival rates,” he says.

“White buffalo . . . don’t seem to do well,” agrees Lott. “Far from going forth and multiplying, they dwindle and disappear.”

He says white can be a good winter color for animals such as rabbits that turn white in winter to blend with snowy background, thus making them safer from wolf attack.

“But probably not for buffalo calves. . . . the answer [to their poor survival rates] probably lies in winter.

White Cloud, mother and grandmother of two white calves and a pure albino, lived most of her 20 years in a small buffalo herd at the National Buffalo Museum in Jamestown, North Dakota. Her coat brushed to a beautiful sheen, she is now on exhibit at the museum there. Jamestown Sun.

“The normal dark coat may be a lifesaver in winter. Bison seldom if ever die of heat, but they often die of cold…Bison evolved in really terrible winters; and even now, especially severe winters kill many of the old and the young.”

Another rare genetic condition causes a buffalo to be born white, but to turn brown within a year or two as it matures.

Finally, a “white buffalo” may actually prove to be what is now called a beefalo—a cross between buffalo and white cattle, such as Charolais.

Don’t be fooled by this in a tourist trap, warns author Steven Rinella in his book American Buffalo: In search of a lost icon.

Rinella says that many so-called “sacred white buffalo . . . a fixure of Western tourist traps, are the result of crossbreeding between buffalo and white breeds of cattle.”

All the plains buffalo in Alaska’s four herds are descendants of the 23 animals obtained from the National Bison Range in Montana before any cattle genes were introduced into the herd.

So Alaska bison are among the relatively small number of genetically pure bison. Any of them might have the genetics of Big Medicine.

Native Excitement brings Welcome

Wherever a white buffalo calf appears, Native people come to welcome it, to celebrate and honor its birth.

They regard a little white buffalo calf as good news, a sign of peace and harmony—and of good times to come. They affirm it symbolizes spiritual renewal and the hope of bringing people of all backgrounds closer together.

As a calf—and later—Big Medicine was welcomed and honored by Native Americans as a highly spiritual animal—a sign of peace and harmony, and of good times to come. Montana Historical Society.

“A white buffalo is the most sacred living thing you could ever encounter,” according to John Lame Deer, a Lakota spiritual leader.

They give thanks, with perhaps a smoky smudge of lighted sweet grass and songs to the beating of a drum.

Elders ensure the proper ceremonials and rituals are followed in showing respect to this highly spiritual animal.

“It will bring about purity of mind, body and spirit, and unify all nations—black, red yellow and white,” says Floyd Hand Looks For Buffalo, an Oglala Medicine Man from Pine Ridge, South Dakota.

Some cultures see the white buffalo as a manifestation of the White Buffalo Calf Maiden, long revered as a prophet.

Often visitors leave gifts of tobacco, colored scarves and dream-catchers at the site.

White Buffalo Lore

Historically many Indian tribes considered the white buffalo and a white buffalo robe to have special powers.

Whenever spotted in a wild herd, a white buffalo was the most likely to be killed. It was said they were so highly desired that few lived more than a few years.

William Hornaday in his Smithsonian review reported in 1887 that he had “met many old buffalo hunters, who had killed thousands and seen scores of thousands of buffalo, yet never had seen a white one.”

“Albino buffaloes were always so highly prized that not a single one, so far as I can learn, ever had the good fortune to attain adult size, their appearance being so striking, in contrast with the other members of the herd, as to cause their speedy destruction,” he wrote.

“From all accounts it appears that not over 10 or 11 white buffaloes, or white buffalo skins, were ever seen by white men. Pied individuals [with various spotted patterns] were occasionally obtained, but they too were and are rare.”

In the old days, a set religious ceremony attended the skinning and tanning of a white robe.

A white robe brought great honor to its owner and he kept it in a special place of honor in the tepee, a possession beyond price. If willing to sell or trade or give away, he might cut it in pieces—even a small piece was a “sacred article,” worth a horse or more in trade.

Blind, deaf calf is born

In 1937, Big Medicine sired a full albino bull calf, with pink eyes and white hooves, born to his own mother. Unfortunately, the calf was both deaf and blind.

At the age of 6 months, this calf was sent to the National Zoological Gardens at Washington, DC, upon request. He lived there in the National Zoo on public display several years—perhaps as long as 12 years, according to one report.

Lott said his grandfather “with the directness of the stockman and veterinarian that he was . . . intended to try for more … but the bureaucrats above him—wisely, I think—decreed that the US Fish and Wildlife Service was not in the business of producing freaks of nature.”

That blind buffalo died from what ranchers commonly call “hardware disease”—a length of baling wire lodged in his stomach from the hay he ate. Or he died from an infected cut on his leg. Lott said when his family asked about the cause of death, they were given both answers by staff at the National Zoo in Washington.

Popular Montana tourist stop

In his prime, Big Medicine weighed more than 1,900 pounds, rose 6 feet tall at the hump, and measured almost 12 feet from the tip of his nose to the end of his tail.

There he became, it was said, the second most popular tourist stop in Montana, after Yellowstone Park.

Out on the bigger range by age ten, he contended in battle with other big bulls for a time before returning to the smaller pasture. He became a herd bull, and sired numerous offspring.

On the range a bison’s natural life span is about 15 to 20 years, with their teeth becoming greatly worn with use.

For this reason, Big Medicine spent much of his maturity in the Bison Range’s smaller display pasture.

He was often seen standing on a clay knob overlooking his group of buffalo cows.

Big Medicine died at age 26, was mounted and is now exhibited at the Montana Historical Society museum in Helena.

Big Medicine died on August 25, 1959 at the age of 26, old for a bison bull.

At that time, he weighed only 1,193 pounds. His hide was in poor condition due to his advanced age.

He was mounted in a full body stance and now stands in exhibition at the Montana Historical Society museum in Helena.

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

The Sad Demise of Sir Donald

The Sad Demise of Sir Donald

For many years Sir Donald reigned as the dominant bull in the exhibition buffalo herd at Banff National Park in Canada.

Banff holds the distinction of being not only Canada’s first national park but also the location of its first conservation herd of bison.

The Banff buffalo herd arrived in 1897, with the first gift of three from T. G. Blackstock, a Toronto lawyer, originating with the Goodnight herd of Texas.

Later 16 Canadian Plains buffalo were donated by Sir Donald Smith, Lord Strathcona, including the bull who became known as Sir Donald, after his donor. Smith was famous in Canada for helping build the Trans-Canada Railway.

By 1899, there were 30 buffalo in the small Banff pasture, all doing well, along with captive elk, moose, deer, goats and Bighorn sheep.

The Banff buffalo herd grazed in a 300-acre paddock. Since it was a small enclosure, and the herd increasing in size, they were fed hay and supplements as needed.

 

In 1907 Canada purchased the Pablo Buffalo Herd from the western plains of Montana. Banff received 77 of these animals, and a new paddock of 300 acres was built north of the railroad to hold the increasing herd.

Sir Donald was a handsome bull. It was said he represented well the ideal that Native hunters preferred—a bull with well-built forequarters and large head.

Featured on many postcards, Sir Donald’s photo was mailed around the world by tourists who visited the popular new park at Banff.

A familiar sight for tourists, Sir Donald was featured on many picture postcards.

According to one news report, “He answered best to the Indians’ description of the buffalo, being short and very thick and deep in the body, with an extremely massive head. . . And he was undoubtedly a really pure-bred bison.”

Another well-known buffalo in the herd was Highland Mary, an early daughter of Sir Donald’s. A smaller “bright-colored” buffalo, she was also recognizable and known to visitors.

Grand specimen of the breed that he was, when fully-grown Sir Donald’s head measured 49 inches from tip to tip of his horns, and 15½ inches between the eye sockets across the forehead, according to reports.

His horns were 18½ inches long, with a girth around of 14½ inches.

Sir Donald’s Origins

Known as the “Last Wild Buffalo in Captivity,” the famous Sir Donald was rescued from the wild in a Métis buffalo hunt by James “Tonka Jim” McKay and friends of Winnipeg, Canada.

Tonka Jim McKay rescued the calf later known as Sir Donald, reportedly from a Métis hunt in the Battleford area of Saskatchewan in 1872.

Reportedly, he came from the Battleford area of Saskatchewan around 1872.

McKay, a Métis interpreter at the Numbered Treaties and hunting guide, began rescuing young calves because of his concern that each time he joined the semi-annual Métis hunt there were fewer and fewer buffalo on the Canadian Plains. He did not want them to die out.

Although one report has it that Sir Donald was rescued as a 2-year-old bull on the western plains of Canada, it’s much more likely—as in other reports—that he was captured as a young calf.

That was McKay’s normal style— to save young calves in a hunt—as with the others of his growing herd. At his home ranch near Winnipeg, he “mothered up” the calves with dairy cows until they bonded.

Capturing and taming a nearly full-grown buffalo might sound easy to those who hadn’t tried it, but was extremely difficult to accomplish successfully. Older bison when roped often fought viciously. Many simply lay down and died.

By contrast, young calves certainly required careful attention to nutrition—they needed rich milk and quickly—but when handled carefully, and coaxed with a willing milk cow, they tended to bond well with their nursing mothers.

McKay’s style was to capture young calves during a Métis hunt, then “mother up” the calves with gentle cows until they bonded at his home ranch near Winnipeg. Photo by Chris Hull.

When Tonka Jim McKay died in 1879 his herd of 13 buffalo were auctioned off at a well-attended sale. They were purchased by Samuel Bedson, warden of the Stony Mountain Federal Penitentiary near Winnipeg for $1,000.

Since he was short of money, Bedson borrowed part of it on that day from Sir Donald Smith, also known as Lord Strathcona.

Near the prison Bedson had built a pen for his bison herd. Locals called this enclosure “the Castle,” and its owner, “King of the Castle.”

As a side note: One of Bedson’s new cows gave birth just after the auction and the newly-enlarged herd of 14 was driven by cowboys to their new home at the penitentiary.

They escaped in the night, were rounded up and returned to their new home.

It was recorded that the little newborn calf kept up with the herd for the entire journey—a total of 63 miles in 36 hours—averaging nearly two miles per hour.

Originating in the western Plains of Canada, the little tyke was hailed as being of hardy Canadian stock!

The herd was kept at the Penitentiary near Winnipeg, soon growing to the unmanageable size of 118 head. Some were given to Sir Donald Smith as pay back for Bedson’s initial debt.

In turn, Sir Donald Smith donated some of these—including the bull later named for him—to the display herd at Banff.

The man with the long white beard is Lord Strathcona, Sir Donald Smith. He is here depicted driving in the last spike of the Trans-Canada Railway, in perhaps one of the most famous photographs of Canadian history. Sir Donald Smith helped stitch the country of Canada together with the railway, but beyond his industrial actions, he had an interesting role to play in the early history of bison conservation. Photo taken 7 November, 1885 at Craigellachie, B.C. Archives Canada.

The large bull known as Sir Donald became the dominant bull in the popular herd near the visitors’ Center at Banff.

“A grand specimen of the breed” Sir Donald measured about 49 inches from tip to tip of the horns, and 15½ inches between the eye sockets across the forehead. “The remaining horn is 18 ½ inches long and its girth is 14½ inches. Short and very thick and deep in the body, with an extremely massive head in front. . . undoubtedly a really pure-bred bison.”

As the most powerful bull in the herd, Sir Donald fought many bulls over the years to establish and defend his place at the top of the hierarchy.

End of Sir Donald’s Reign

The fight that finally took Sir Donald down at age 33 was described in a news story as “a terrific battle for supremacy between him and a young bull of almost equal size imported from Texas.

“The fight began early in the morning, the great heads lowered and little red eyes glaring, tearing up the turf with their hooves, and with tails straight up in the air. With the crash like colliding engines they met over and over again.

“Several mounted men endeavored to separate the infuriated animals, but were themselves charged and put to flight.

“Sir Donald at last lost his left horn in one of the shocks, at the same time getting a blow in the left eye which destroyed its sight.

“After being thrown on his back and pummeled while down by his victorious challenger, he gave up the struggle and retired from the gaze of the watching herd to begin his lonely wanderings.

“Since that time he has seldom been seen with the rest, preferring to wander and wallow alone in some favorite sand hole.”

A Retirement of Lonely Wanderings

Sir Donald’s lonely wanderings lasted 5 years during which the herd largely ignored him.

Although still in one of the small paddocks, he stayed some distance from the herd.

As he began to feel his age, the Commissioner of Canadian parks Howard Douglas, of Banff, announced that this last of the known buffalo survivors of the immense herds which used to roam the plains of the Canadian west, “Sir Donald . . . will within a few weeks be put to death, and later mounted” in full-size to be placed in a museum.

On March 12, 1909, The Wainwright Star at Wainwright, Alberta, reported:

“This veteran bull still grazes with the ancient bulls of the herd at Banff, but he has long since been driven out from the main body by the younger bulls.

“Lately he has shown such signs of age that the authorities have decided to end his career, not only out of mercy to himself, but to keep his hide and fur intact for exhibition purposes.

“Sir Donald is the only living buffalo in captivity who ever roamed the prairies of Canada with the aboriginal herds.

“He was captured in 1872, as a calf, by the late Hon. James Mackay, who was a noted figure in the early history of Manitoba and the Canadian west.

“Mr. Mackay was collecting a herd for his private ranch, and captured the calf amongst a dozen others. The herd was kept at Silver Heights, near Winnipeg, for a number of years, and later transferred to Warden Bedson of the Stoney Mountain penitentiary, with whom Lord Strathcona had considerable interest in the preservation of the buffalo.

“Sir Donald Smith on the division of the herd, presented this bull with 12 other buffalo, to the dominion government and they were sent to the national park at Banff, where they became the nucleus of the present herd of about a hundred animals.”

About a month before his death, the Commissioner Howard Douglas had gone out with a local taxidermist to the paddocks to inspect him.

But at that point, the old bull seemed quite lively. In fact, Sir Donald charged vigorously at his distinguished visitors, They escaped outside the fence.

This seemed to indicate plenty of reserve strength in his body, despite the fact he had lost his left eye and left horn in his last desperate fight.

So again Sir Donald was allowed to wander away from the herd—which was in a rather small pasture.

Then came news of his death.

The cowboy in charge of the paddocks saw Sir Donald walking around at five o’clock on a Monday afternoon, and on looking for him next morning saw that he was down and apparently dead.

He covered the carcass with tarps to keep it safe from the prowling wolves and coyotes.

Steps were taken at once to return the taxidermist Ashley Hine to the paddock.

Trampled and Gored to Death

Then a number of the park workmen came with a large sleigh to move the body to the Sign of the Goat taxidermy shop.

But it was too late. The herd had returned, were attacking the carcass, and could only be driven away with great difficulty by the buffalo handlers.

Each bull seemed determined to make one last goring of the remains with his horns.

There was nothing left of the body but a mass of jellied flesh, hair and blood. Only the head and four legs were recognizable.

One newspaper headlined the story: “Old Sir Donald, the Patriarch of the American Bison, Trampled and Gored to Death in Corral at Banff.”

“Many thousands of visitors to Banff, the delightful resort in the middle of the Canadian National park, had seen and admired the grand old buffalo bull, Sir Donald, who had been the leader and chief of his herd for upwards of 38 years.

“But never again will the grand head and massive proportions of this animal, the only really wild bison in captivity, be viewed in their natural environment, for during the early hours of Tuesday morning, April 6 (1909), old Sir Donald came to his final end.

“He was found lying dead out in one of the paddocks, having apparently stumbled over some bogs, probably owing to his being blind in one eye, and while unable to rise he was surrounded by the rest of the herd.

“Alas, for respect among the bison some of the younger bulls took the opportunity to help him onto the happy hunting grounds by goring the huge beast with their short and sharp horns.

“Not content with this, the herd pawed and butted at the prostrate monarch till, except on the head and the legs, there was no hair left.”

Photographers attempted to shoot pictures of him “as he lay in his last sleep,” while trying to keep away from the most aggressive buffalo.

As the workmen with the sleigh tried to load what was left of the carcass, the herd kept closing in, forming a compact half circle around them.

The horses pulling the sleigh got very alarmed, and only expert action on the part of drivers prevented a runaway.

“Highland Mary, a small bright colored cow buffalo, a very early daughter of the dead bull, was the most aggressive, coming within 12 or 15 feet of the workers. But as she was nearly as old as Sir Donald, she was treated with the respect she deserved.”

It took several hours to get the hide off, which was in some places 2 inches thick.

Finally the workmen finished and got the remains loaded onto the sleigh, with the head hung from the back, for the trip back to town. Most of the men took a short cut over the fence for home.

But here the herd again took a hand.

As the sleigh came closer the buffalo charged up to it, crowding each other to get near the head hanging from the back.

“Three times the driver of the team fell over obstacles before he reached the gates, having to keep his eyes on his frantic horses and on the bellowing herd behind him.

“His companion proceeded to open the gate, and for a few moments it looked as if the whole herd would escape into the adjoining paddock.”

Luckily the two men were able to chase back the buffalo that got out and close the gate.

“The head of Sir Donald is now in the hands of the government taxidermist, and will eventually adorn the walls of the museum in Banff.”

Reflecting on the attack

In summing up, how are we to regard the violent and vicious attack of the young bulls against their former chief?

What do we tell the children?

The buffalo herd’s treatment of a former leader sounds harsh, but it is a part of nature, which as we know, can turn savage and ruthless.

Stark beauty of Lake Moraine near Banff. Even in the midst of stunning beauty, nature can be cruel and harsh, unforgiving of weakness.

And how can we deny, as we read history of the world—even at its most “civilized”—the examples of once-powerful human rulers cut down at the end of their reign in violent and vengeful ways—even by their own sons or nephews just as Sir Donald was?

Those of us today who live in peaceful democracies can be grateful that our former leaders generally are treated with dignity and respect.

Whether we agreed with them or not in their power, once deposed we retire them in peace and allow them to hold onto self-respect with their gilded libraries, autobiographies and memoirs, their speeches and harmless hobbies of painting and riding their gentle, old horses.

We don’t stomp on them, tear them to shreds—imagine! Even though some cruel dictatorships seem almost to ask for it and indeed it is literally the way they end.

It’s exactly how these blood-thirsty young buffalo bulls finished off their erstwhile leader Sir Donald at age 38! Fortunately, he first had 5 years of peaceful, if lonely, retirement when he was allowed to wander off alone!

But a peaceful end was not in the cards with Sir Donald’s vengeful heirs waiting in the wings in their small paddock.

They followed him down in the bog, unable to rise. In his humiliation, he had only one working eye and one horn for defense. And they attacked, knowing he had lost all power over them.

Instead of the full-body-mount and honor his handlers had planned for Sir Donald, only his head was left intact—with a missing horn.

His massive head was mounted and hung in the office of the Park Commissioner—presumably with two glass eyes and one remodeled horn.

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

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