Buffalo Stampedes

Buffalo Stampedes

Once wild Buffalo started to run, they tended to stampede faster and faster, trying to stay ahead of the sharp horns pressing from behind. Photo courtesy of SDTourism.

Buffalo stampedes terrified people travelling across the plains.

Stampedes were often described by hunters, soldiers and early settlers on the plains and prairies. No one wanted to get caught in the midst of one without a way to escape—the stampede could be terrible in its consequences.

It took only a small trigger at times to start a buffalo stampede. The yipping of a prairie dog, the cry of a wolf or coyote, a flash of lightening, or a clap of thunder could set it off.

Sometimes it took just one buffalo snorting and starting to run on her own, for others to join in a chain reaction. In seconds a peaceful herd of grazing buffalo could become a charging mass that ran hard for 10 or 20 miles.

Once running, the buffalo herd trampled everything in their path, including other buffalo too slow to keep ahead of the mass. They could not be turned. Or they would turn abruptly at some obstruction.

In April 1846 George Andrew Gordon was out hunting with four friends on the plains of northwestern Texas.

Gordon became separated from the others and in trying to find them, he lost all but one of his rifle bullets. To see better, he began to ride his horse to the top of a nearby hill.

Suddenly he heard a low murmuring sound “as of the wind in the tops of pine trees.”

The sound increased and became a deafening roar. The ground shook and he said his horse shook with fear. But the only place of safety seemed to be a small grove of trees at the top of the hill.

 A moment later he saw the buffalo coming and kicked his horse into a gallop.

The trees were about a foot in diameter and free of undergrowth. Only one tree had branches low enough for him to reach.

Gordon stood up in the saddle and grabbed a branch, pulling himself and his heavy rifle up into the tree.

The rushing buffalo were almost upon him, when they apparently heard or smelled his terrified horse, and tried to turn or stop, but slid and fell in a heap.

“In the twinkling of an eye,” he recalled later, “they were overwhelmed by the pressure behind. I have never seen two railroad trains come together, but one who has seen the cars piled up after a wreck can imagine how the buffalo were heaped up in an immense pile by the pressure from behind.”

A small trigger could start a buffalo stampede. The yipping of a prairie dog, the cry of a wolf or coyote, a flash of lightening, or a clap of thunder could set it off.

The buffalo in the rear kept coming at a gallop, but as they reached the heap of trampled and dying buffalo just in front of the horse and man, they dodged to one side or the other.

He watched from his perch on the tree, while his horse stood there against the tree shaking with fear.

“I could now enjoy a spectacle which I fancied neither white man nor Indian had ever before seen. The front rank as they passed was as straight as a regiment of soldiers on dress parade. The regularity of their movements was admirable.

“It appeared as though they had been trained to keep step. If one had slackened in the least his speed, he would have been run over.”

It took nearly an hour of “alternate terror and pleasure,” as Gordon described it, for the entire herd to pass out of the small grove of trees, as he clung tightly to his branch.

He sat there a few minutes after they’d gone, wondering if he’d had a bad dream. Then he climbed down from the tree and took up the reins of his horse, who was still standing there shaking. (Told by (Ital) David A. Dary, The Buffalo Book: The Full Saga of the American Animal, 1974.)

Sharing the Expertise of Buffalo Jones

This drawing depicts Theodore Roosevelt’s account of a Texas hunt in 1877 by his brother Elliot and his cousin John, who were caught on the Staked Plains by a buffalo stampede. Their only chance was to split the herd, which they did by shooting continuously into the charging mass. Credit Frederic Remington.

Buffalo Jones describes a stampede and how he coped with it, in his book Buffalo Jones’ 40 Years of Adventure

“During the third of a lifetime spent on the Great Plains of the interior of the continent, I have witnessed many stampedes of buffalo, wild horses and Texas cattle.

“Twenty-five years ago a stampede of buffalo—which then roamed in vast herds numbering millions—was an everyday affair.

“What caused the huge, shaggy monsters, accustomed to the tornado, the vivid lightning, the terrible hail that frequently accompanies the sudden, short storms of the prairies, the wolves and the thousand-and one strange phenomena of nature to stampede at apparently nothing is one of those problems that will admit of no solution.

“Sometimes it was a flash of lightning from a dark cloud. Again, a cry of a starved wolf, the appearance on the horizon of a single figure, a meteor, or perhaps something as insignificant as the barking of a prairie dog sitting on the edge of its burrow.

“If a single animal snorted and started to run, if only a rod, all others near it would start in an opposite direction from it and thus others were frightened until all were a surging mass.

“A herd once started, I have seen the whole prairie for miles absolutely black with the fleeing beasts.

“There was nothing so indescribably grand, yet so awful in its results. The earth, shaken by the heavy tramp of their hoofs upon the hard ground, fairly reverberated as they passed a given point.

“Woe to him, her, them or it that stood in the way of the mighty throng of infuriated, maddened animals!

“Nothing but annihilation, absolute and complete, their portion.

“A buffalo stampede, indeed! How few there are today who have ever passed through this thrilling experience; this moment when the heart fluttered at the roots of the tongue. When the pursuer, revolver or gun in hand, the spurs rolling on the sides of his frightened steed, endeavored to force him nearer to the most horrid of all beasts to the eye of a horse.

“Still on and on, like a cyclone in its fury went the great mass, the living cataract, plunging up as well as down the hills and over the plains, tearing and cutting every vestige of vegetation. And woe unto any and all living creatures that chanced to be in its pathway!

“Often have I heard the heavy rumble as if a terrific peal of thunder were reverberating in the distance. I could see a great cloud without water.

“I could feel my blood run cold and my hair stand on end, as I knew that the sound was not thunder, but the roar of the beating hoofs of a living avalanche.

“I knew the cloud which was approaching nearer and nearer was not rain, but dust and dirt thrown high in the air by the nimble feet of the countless host of buffalo.

“To flee from their wrath would have been the height of folly. All that could be done was, if possible, to find a high bank which they could not ascend and station myself on the highest cliff and rest content until the herd had passed by.

“If no such retreat was near, then I must rely on my trusty rifle, which was always with me, both day and night.

“To be sure, I did not depend on shooting them to lessen their number, but to divide the herd and turn their course.

“This was done by elevating the weapon over the herd just enough to miss their great humps that rolled on toward me like millions of iron hoops, bounding in the air at every little obstacle encountered.

“Then, when they were within 50 yards, the trigger was touched and the ball whistled furiously over their heads.

“The buffalo with one great impulse of dodging the missile, swerved to the right or to the left, owing to which side of them the bullet had passed. Then a great rent or split would open out and the moving mass would pass by on either side.

“With wonderful instinct those coming up in the rear would follow the footprints of their leaders and the great rent in the herd would remain open for hours at a time, for a quarter of a mile both in front and behind, when they would gradually come together in the rear of where I stood and thunder along in their mad career.

“It is true that one animal alone could not have made any impression on the great phalanx, but there is unity in strength and both were absolutely required in such time of peril.

“Such sights and sensations cannot be satisfactorily pictured to the millions of people now living and those unborn.

“I regret exceedingly that the Kodak was not a more ancient contrivance, so that a true representation could have been taken from life and handed down to those who will now only be permitted to read pen-pictures of the days which will never more return.

“As soon as the stampede ended the single herd was broken up into many smaller ones that traveled relatively close together, but led by an independent guide.

“Each small group is of the same strain of blood. There is no animal in the world more clannish than the buffalo. The male calf follows the mother until two years old, when he is driven out of the herd and the parental tie is then entirely broken.

“The female calf fares better, as she is permitted to stay with her mother’s family for life unless by some accident she becomes separated from the group.

“The resemblance of each individual of a family is very striking.

“Perhaps only a few rods marked the dividing line between them [the family herds], but it was always unmistakably plain, and each moved synchronously in the direction in which all were going.

“These groups are as quickly separated from the great herd after a stampede as is a company of soldiers from its regiment at the close of ‘dress parade.’

“The several animals know each other by scent and sound. The grunt similarly to a hog, but in a much stronger one and are quickly recognized by every member of the family. When separated by a stampede or other cause, they never rest until they are all together again.

“Their sense of smell is so wonderfully developed that neither animal nor man can pass them on the windward side within two miles without being immediately discovered.

“Indeed, often a herd has been stampeded by the scent from a single hunter even four miles away.”

Tragedy of a Stampeding Herd

Dary tells of a tragedy created by a stampeding herd. He quoted from Henry Shoemaker’s small booklet published in 1915 called “A Pennsylvania Bison Hunt.”

Shoemaker wrote that settlers were moving into Middle Creek Valley in central Pennsylvania and settling below the Seven Mountains where some 350 buffalo lived in summertime.

The wild buffalo were in the habit of coming down into the valley where conditions were easier with the deep snow and cold of winter.

The crops and haystacks of the new settlers would made this even more tempting.

So it happened that as the first winter of 1799-1800 became more and more severe, the hungry buffalo moved closer to the sheltered valley of Middle Creek.

One cold morning—led by a gigantic black bull the community had dubbed ‘Old Logan,’ after a Mingo chief—they came on the run into the barnyard of a settler named Martin Bergstresser.

“His first season’s hay crop, a good-sized pile, stood beside his recently completed log barn. This hay was needed as feed for the winter for his cows, sheep and team of horses.

“The cattle and sheep were standing close to the stack when they scented the approaching buffaloes. With Old Logan at their head, the famished bison herd broke through the stump fence, crushing the cows and sheep beneath their mighty rush and pulling to pieces the hay pile.”

Bergstresser in a nearby field cutting wood and his 18-year-old daughter Katie rushed to the scene and with Samuel McClellan, a nearby neighbor, they shot four buffalo.

The buffalo, terrified, stampeded up the frozen creek and disappeared.

“Woe to him, her, them or it that stood in the way of the mighty throng of infuriated, maddened animals!” Credit Nature Conservancy, Harvey Payne.

“Awful was the desolation left behind. The barn was still standing, but the fences, spring house and haystack were gone as if swept away by a flood. Six cows, four calves and 35 sheep lay crushed and dead in the ruins. The horses inside the barn remained unharmed.

“McClellan started homeward, but when he got within sight of his clearing he uttered a cry of surprise and horror. Over 300 bison were snorting and trotting around the lot where his cabin stood, obscuring the structure by their huge dark bodies.

“The pioneer rushed bravely through the roaring, crazy, surging mass, only to find Old Logan— his eyes bloodshot and flaming—standing in front of the cabin door.

“He fired at the monster, wounding him which so further infuriated the giant bull that he plunged headlong through the door of the cabin.

“The herd, accustomed at all times to follow their leader, forced their way after him as best they could through the narrow opening.

“Vainly did McClellan fire his musket. And when his ammunition was exhausted, he drove his bear knife into the beasts’ flanks to try and stop them in their mad course.

“Inside were the pioneer’s wife and three little children, the oldest five years, and he dreaded to think of their awful fate.

“He could not stop the buffaloes, which continued filing through the doorway, until they were jammed in the cabin as tightly as wooden animals in a toy Noah’s Ark.

“No sound came from the victims inside. All he could hear was the snorting and bumping of the giant beasts in their cramped quarters.

“The sound of the crazy stampede brought Martin Bergstresser and three other neighbors to the spot, all carrying guns.

“It was decided to tear down the cabin, as the only possible means of saving the lives of the McClellan family.

“When the cabin had been battered down, the bison, headed by Old Logan, swarmed from the ruin—like giant black bees from a hive.”

McClellan shot Old Logan as he emerged, but it was small satisfaction.

“When the men entered the cabin, they were shocked to find the bodies of the pioneer’s wife and three children dead and crushed deep into the mud of the earthen floor by the cruel hoofs.

“Of the furniture, nothing remained of larger size than a handspike.

“The news of this terrible tragedy spread all over the valley, and it was suggested on all sides that the murderous bison be completely exterminated.

“The idea took concrete form when Bergstresser and McClellan started on horseback, one riding toward the river and the other toward the headwaters of Middle Creek, to invite the settlers to join the hunt.

“Meanwhile, there was another blizzard but every man accepted with alacrity.

“About 50 hunters assembled at the Bergstresser home, and marched like an invading army in the direction of the mountains . . . They were out two days before discovering their quarry as fresh snow had covered all the buffalo paths.”

 “The brutes were all huddled together up to their necks in snow in a great hollow space known as the Sink in the heart of the White Mountains.

“The hunters looking down on them from the high plateau above, now known as the Big Flats, estimated their number at 300.

“When they got among the animals, they found them numb from cold and hunger, but they could not move, so deeply were they crusted in the drifts.

The hunters shot and slit throats with long bear knives . . .

“After the last buffalo had been dispatched, the triumphant hunters climbed back to the summit of Council Kup where they lit a huge bonfire.

“It was a signal to the women and children in the valleys that the last herd of Pennsylvania bison was no more and that the McClellan family had been avenged!”

Photographer nearly trampled to death

Cowboys on horses chase stampeding bison out of the pine trees. Forsyth used his dual cameras to shoot these stereographic scenes. Montana Historical Society.

One of the men attracted to Michel Pablo’s grand roundup of his near-wild buffalo was Norman A. Forsyth, a young photographer who began selling stereo cards and viewers door-to-door while attending college at Wesleyan University in Lincoln, Nebraska.

After college he moved west, still selling for Underwood and Underwood, an early producer and distributor of stereographic views. Attracted by the scenic beauty of Yellowstone Park, Forsyth worked as a tour guide and stage driver in Yellowstone five summers, taking scenic stereographic views along the way, and then set up a photography studio in Butte where he sold them.

Fascinated by what he read of Michel Pablo’s great roundup of near-wild bison he took his cameras to Ronan, Montana. There he made friends with Charlie Russell, a cowboy painter also attracted to the dramatic buffalo action they saw every day.

Forsyth shot stereographic views and Russell painted and sketched numerous scenes over the first three summers during which the Pablo buffalo roundup shipped most of the animals to Canada.

One day Forsyth scrambled down into some trees to get the perfect shot as the cowboy wranglers brought in a herd of buffalo across the river toward the corrals.

The Wainwright, Alberta, newspaper reported Forsyth’s near brush with death as the buffalo herd leaped up out of the river and charged directly toward him.

“The entry of the buffalo into the corral came nearly being accompanied by a regrettable fatality.

Mr. Forsyth, an enterprising photographer from Butte, Montana, being anxious to get some photos of the animals in the water, had stationed himself at a point of vantage amidst a clump of trees close to one of the booms in the river where he judged he would be out of path of the oncoming herd.

“However, they chose to take the bank directly below where he was standing, and before he could reach safety they were upon him in a mad, irresistible stampede.

“How he escaped being trampled to instant death is a miracle which even he cannot realize.

“He has a recollection of the herd rushing upon him and of having in some way clutched a passing calf which he clung to until it passed under a tree.

“He then managed to grasp a branch and although he was unable to pull himself up out of danger he was able to keep above the feet of the plunging herd.

“His dangling legs were bruised and cut by their horns and his clothes torn to shreds, but he still clung to the limb for life.

“Twice the herd passed under him as they circled back in an attempt to escape, but fortunately before he became exhausted they rushed into the corral.

“The Canadian Pacific officials and riders who knew the location chosen by Forsyth shuddered when they saw the animals rush in there and expected to find his body trampled out of semblance in the clay.

“Consequently, they rejoiced to find the luckless photographer slightly disfigured, but still hugging his friend the tree in his disheveled wardrobe.”

As the buffalo stampeded up out of the trees and into the corral, the cowboys rode to his rescue.

Scratched, bleeding and with his clothing ripped apart, Forsyth dropped out of the tree.

On the ground were his two costly cameras that shot dual picture stereographs, both shattered into many pieces and trampled in the mud.

He greeted his would-be rescuers with a sheepish grin, saying, “I think I have had enough of buffalo!”

[From a story told on her Blog [www.BuffaloTalesandTrails.com] by Francie M. Berg, Aug 25, 2020. ]

Racing a Train Across the Tracks

Tom McHugh discusses the leadership of a buffalo stampede in his book “The Time of the Buffalo.”

“The initiating animals, alarmed by some disturbance, dash off in headlong flight, thus giving the signal for retreat. Following by the others is virtually automatic. Some stampedes burst forth so suddenly that it is impossible to distinguish lead animals—if indeed there are any.

“At the beginning of a stampede, the buffalo rush headlong into a tight bunch, massing together with a herding instinct so powerful that the group can seldom be divided.

“This same stubborn tendency to bunch often thwarts ranchers attempting to drive a buffalo herd onto a different range.

“No matter what the technique—pushing with a line of men, chasing with jeeps or encircling with horsemen—the task is so difficult that many drives end in failure.

Buffalo can turn on a dime in the middle of a stampede and split off in several directions. Forsyth photo, MHS.

“Sooner or later one buffalo manages to outmaneuver its pursuers and squeeze through a minor break in the line, whereupon the rest of the animals quickly slip through the opening like so many links of a chain and the drive falls apart.

“Men within touching distance of the stampeding herd may shout and whistle and frantically wave their hands, but to no avail.

“Just as a single buffalo breaking through a line can disrupt a contemporary drive, a number of historic bison setting a determined course across the railroad tracks could derail a train. Once a few leaders had crossed, the rest of the herd would try to plunge after them, even when a train moved in to block the way.”

As Colonel Richard Dodge observed in 1872, the result would be utter chaos:

“At full speed and utterly regardless of the consequences, [the whole herd] would make for the track on its line of retreat. If the train happened not to be in its path, it crossed the track and stopped satisfied.

“If the train was in its way, each individual buffalo went at it with the desperation of despair, plunging against or in between locomotives and cares, just as its blind madness chanced to direct it.

Buffalo were known to set a determined course across the railroad tracks. Once a few leaders crossed, the rest of the herd plunged after them, even when a train was standing in the way. This could derail a train. Sketch credited to Wm. Hornaday.

“Numbers were killed, but numbers still pressed on, to stop and stare as soon as the obstacle had passed. After having trains thrown off the track twice in one week, conductors learned to have a very decided respect for the idiosyncracies of the buffalo . . .”

Helpful Stampedes

Stampedes can be dangerous, even today.

On the other hand, stampedes were an essential tool for ancient hunters planning a buffalo jump. One secret of every Buffalo jump was how to get the stampede just right.

Stampeding a buffalo herd a quarter-mile before they came to the cutbank was a trick that often sent them over in confusion. Sketch courtesy of Jack Brink from Head-Smashed-In Jump.

Drive lines for ancient Buffalo Jumps may have looked something like this, funneling a stampeding herd toward the drop-off and a successful harvest. Courtesy JBrink.

No one knew their prey better than did those ancient hunters of the prairies and plains.

They had to be experts. For thousands of years they hunted buffalo without horses or guns.

Archeologists believe those ancient hunters started a stampede as they brought the herd fairly close to the cliff, probably less than a half-mile away.

Then the hunters pressed hard, plunging their prey into an all-out stampede. With huge bodies packed tight on all sides, stout horns slashing from behind, all charging at full speed—the lead buffalo could not stop or slow down. 

The mass of horned animals behind would have prevented any escape. They could only run faster.

Their headlong charge carried them over the precipice at the last moment—for a successful harvest!


NEXT: Crossbreeding Buffalo


Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Bison Sounds and Vocalization

Bison Sounds and Vocalization

What sound does a bison make? Your answer may not come as quickly as “moo” for a cow or “baa” for a sheep. But . . .

Buffalo sounds include anything from the high-pitched bleats of a calf looking for its mother to the deep, low rumblings of male bellows heard during mating season. Other common bison sounds consist of grunts, snorts, coughs and growls.

Calves produce a variety of sounds such as high-pitched grunts and bleats. These vocalizations are commonly associated with searching for their mothers or playing with other calves.

As calves grow older, they will not stay entirely close to their mothers. When they have traveled too far, the mom will utter a series of low-pitched grunts. The calf responds with higher-pitched tones.

So next time you find yourself in a national park or wildlife refuge, tune in to listening for the classic sounds of bison!

In honor of our National Mammal, enjoy this Yellowstone bison rut footage from the 2020 virtual roadshow.

Male bison “bellow” in order to announce their presence and establish dominance in a herd. During the mating season or “rut,” bellowing becomes more prevalent, creating a signature sound of midsummer in Yellowstone. NPS

At the end of spring, females are mainly in small groups tending to young calves. Bachelor groups and lone males spread across the plains, not too far off, but in the same locality.

By July, big groups of bison begin coming together in large open areas for the mating season, known as rut.

Bulls display their dominance by grunting, wallowing and fighting. A challenging bull might grunt, snort, blow or growl to get a female’s attention and the defending bull roars back in an impressive bellow that is described as closely resembling the roar of a lion.

These bellows have been compared to revving up an old Chevy truck!

Bellows of a buffalo bull in rut have been compared to revving up an old Chevy truck!

It is believed that the bellows announce the male’s presence and establish dominance within the herd. The frequency and power of sounds increase during male-to-male competitions or when they are trying to find mates.

“I have been assured by old plainsmen that under favorable atmospheric conditions such sounds have been heard five miles,” wrote Wm. Hornaday.

During the mating season or “rut,” bellowing becomes more prevalent and big herds come together, creating a signature sound of midsummer in Yellowstone Park and Custer State Park in the Black Hills.

The bison rut takes place in July and August. After a bull has proven through face-offs that he is strongest, he focuses on females. In late summer male bison along the Mary Mountain Trail and elsewhere in Yellowstone Park bellow to display their dominance over other bulls.

During rut, the quiet plains fill with male bison bellows, low sounds that travel far for females and potential competitors to hear and respond. Pillars of dust rise into the air as the bison wallow, rolling in the dirt.

Males sometimes urinate on the ground before wallowing, covering themselves with their pheromones—a special odor. When a bull bison rolls on the ground, he’s also urinating, spreading his scent. His urine tells a story to others.

Both male and female bison wallow throughout the year to deter flies and shed fur, but there is a notable increase during rut.

The ritual of the rut helps ensure the survival of the fittest, earning a bull the chance to gain a female’s acceptance as mate.

The dominant bulls join and remain with a mixed cow-calf group, tending to females and warding off competitors.

A bull must continuously defend his females from opportunistic males. He selects a female and “tends” her—stays close—for two or three days until she’s ready to breed, defending her against other males. If she has a calf, it is unceremoniously bumped out of the way.

After breeding, dominant bulls select another cow and again stay close while fighting off other bulls.

This activity is extremely strenuous for the major bulls—and during the two or three months of rut they lose weight–as much as 200 pounds, or 10% of body weight.

George Catlin, artist and observer on the upper Missouri during the 1830s, once reported seeing several thousand buffalo in rut raising huge clouds of dust. They pawed the earth, “in mass, eddying and wheeling about… plunging and butting at each other in the most furious manner.

“All [roaring]] in deep and hollow sounds; which mingled together like the sound of distant thunder at the distance of a mile or two,” wrote Catlin.

“The actual combats, which were always of short duration and over in a few seconds after the collision took place, were preceded by the usual threatening demonstrations, in which the bull lowers his head until his nose almost touches the ground, roars like a foghorn until the earth seems to fairly tremble with the vibration, glares madly upon his adversary with half-white eyeballs and with his forefeet paws up the dry earth and throws it upward in a great cloud of dust high above his back.”

Bison use all their senses of smell, hearing and sight. In rut they sniff the air and their bellows can be heard for miles. Photo courtesy of National Park Service.

At one point Catlin describes a close encounter with a large number of buffalo:

“Near the mouth of White River, we met the most immense herd crossing the Missouri River— and from an imprudence got our boat into imminent danger amongst them—from which we were highly delighted to make our escape.

“It was in the midst of the ‘running season,’ and we had heard the ‘roaring’ (as it is called) of the herd when we were several miles from them.

“When we came in sight, we were actually terrified at the immense numbers that were streaming down the green hills on one side of the river and galloping up and over the bluffs on the other.

“The river was filled, and in parts blackened, with their heads and horns, as they were swimming about, following up their objects, and making desperate battle whilst they were swimming,” he wrote.

Research at the U of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine shows that heavier bison bulls produce lower (deeper) formants and this predicted higher mating success, even when controlling for mass.

Their study was conducted during July and August of 2004-2007 at the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, in the Sandhills region of north-central Nebraska.

Field recordings and behavior observations were made on a herd of 325 individually identifiable (branded) bison. Herd-wide observations were conducted continuously during daylight hours throughout the reproductive season and included measures of active participation in rut  (tending male-female pairs and attending rival bulls), copulations and the outcomes of agonistic interactions between bulls.

Observations were conducted from 4-wheel-drive vehicles to which the bison were accustomed.

Tending bulls were recorded during sessions in which a single tending pair was followed and recorded for 20-30 min.

Tending pairs consisted of a male guarding a female by standing close and using agonistic  (aggressive) displays and physical fighting in an effort to prevent the approach of other males.

Bison were monitored throughout the reproductive season to acquire data on dominance levels and copulations. Biological tissue samples were used to assign parentage to sired offspring.

Body mass of recorded bulls was measured in late September (after the peak of the rut) during the annual autumn roundup conducted by staff for herd management purposes.

Bison were weighed in a hydraulic squeeze chute containing a built-in scale. Exact ages were available for all bison included in this study through unique brands and records.

Dominance scores for each bull were based on the outcomes of aggressive interactions between bulls during rut.

Agonistic interactions were recorded when two bulls approached each other to within five body lengths and one bull turned away in a different direction by at least two steps. The first bull to turn away was recorded as the subordinate—or unsuccessful—bull in that interaction.

Agonistic interactions included a variety of behaviors ranging from bellowing, visual displays and parallel walking to pawing, wallowing, charging and physical fighting.

Dominance scores for each bull were calculated as the number of successful interactions divided by the total number of agonistic interactions viewed per bull during the reproductive season.

The study concluded that bulls bellowing with lower formants (from longer vocal tracts) reflect their greater fitness.

This sent positive information to the bison herd of dominance, mating success and reproductive success—the siring of more offspring—across long distances.

These signals were judged to contain information for the herd about the bull’s competitive ability, quality, condition, motivation and sexual receptivity.

The vocalizations may reveal information about the male’s competitive ability, physiological quality and condition, and sexual receptivity—in other words, the bellows denote fitness-related information important to the herd.

They indicated that the acoustic qualities such as the frequency, length and volume of the bellows demonstrate which males are more dominant, and therefore, a better mate for females.

Scent of a Bison

If someone comes near you, can you tell who it is just by their smell? The North American Bison can. Their sense of smell is so good that they can tell the difference between smells from over a mile away!

This sense of smell comes in really handy when they are trying to figure out if predators are nearby. With their amazing sense of smell bison can take one whiff and make a clean getaway.

Bison use all their senses—smell, hearing and sight. The sense of smell is especially well developed, and bison reaction to the odor of an observer is often more marked than reaction to sight or sound.

In rut the bison bull is using all his senses—smell, hearing and sight

Both smell and hearing are acute. They can pick up strange odors on a stray breeze as well as weak and distant sounds.

They are able to detect another animal by smell at a distance of 3 kilometers (1.5 miles).

Ancient hunters understood they had to hide their human scent or cover it over with buffalo odors.

The most important communication is with pheromones and smells, related to reproduction.

Through their senses of touch, smell, hearing, and vision, the members of a herd weave into one another. A cow identifies her calves in the first days mainly by smell; then she recognizes it visually, and finally by its calls. Grunts and bellows resound and carry manifold meanings for members of the herd.

A bull smells the urine and rear end of females, which can tell him whether she is in heat or not.

Bison Eyes View 90 Percent of Surroundings

Often it has been said that buffalo have poor eyesight. But perhaps it’s not so much that their eyes are weak—as that they are unlike the eyes of predators.

Eyes are positioned on opposite sides of the buffalo’s head. This makes it difficult for them to see and focus ahead without turning. Many have concluded that buffalo have poor eyesight.

However, Steven Rinella, who studied all aspects of buffalo alertness in preparation for his lonely Alaskan buffalo hunt, after his tag was drawn in lottery, says their eye location allows for panoramic vision.

Rinella points out that buffalo—like other targets of predators, such as bison, deer and cattle—have eyes on opposite sides of the head. This gives them a wide panoramic vision—rather than the sharply focused vision of predators.

In searching for his wild Alaskan Buffalo, Steve Rinella says he had to worry about both sight and sound—what the buffalo see and what they hear.

“Sight is most important. While an animal might not immediately run off when it sees me, it certainly will not forget that I’m here. Usually an animal will spot me by detecting the movement of my body,” he writes in American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon, 2009.

“If you look at a large herbivore [plant eater] such as a buffalo, you’ll see that its eyes are laterally positioned or placed on opposite sides of the head. This type of eye placement allows for panoramic vision.

“A buffalo can see almost 90 percent of its surroundings without turning its head (obscured, however by wisps of hair).

“Lateral positioning is superb for the detection of predators that are lurking to the sides and rear of an animal, though it does leave the animal with a compromised ability to see visual detail.

“Predators—owls, humans and lions—have eyes that are frontally positioned, allowing for narrower, more binocular vision. (Humans see a little less than half of their surroundings at any given moment.)

“Frontal positioning is superb for depth perception, which enables predators to calculate the proper timing and trajectory for effective strikes and to concentrate on a specific target. This is essential because a 150-pound mountain lion needs to have a very precise strike if it’s going to take down a 300-pound yearling elk.

The eyes of predators—like wolves and owls—are positioned in front of the head for sharp focusing and precise strikes on their prey.

Rinella also says that humans see a much more colorful world in the daytime, but more darkness at night than do buffalo.

The retina of the eye has two types of photo receptors—rods and cones, he points out. Rods are more sensitive than cones—and they are much better in low-light—but they don’t detect colors.

So maybe because both buffalo and their predators are active at night, they have more rods and fewer cones.

Human eyes have a density of cones in the center and more rods at the edges, he says. So try looking out of the corner of your eye when trying to see in the dark. “You’ll see it more clearly.”

Bison are typically alert and wary of an observer whether seen or heard, but a careful approach to a viewpoint is often possible if the wind has not carried the scent to them. After an observer is scented, flight is usually immediate. The herd runs for at least a short distance.

Sight more frequently causes flight than does sound, according to one expert, and an observer sighted on foot is more disturbing than one on horseback. In winter a skier is usually detected as soon as in view of a herd, although the skier may be a mile or more away. However, if the skier uses white clothing, approach to less than 100 yards is sometimes possible unless scent disturbs the bison.

The tail is a highly expressive organ, and through vision bison can participate in the ebbs and flows of dispositions and moods that show themselves through the tail, as well as through movements of the body and head.

The Wholeness of Senses

Craig Holdrege in his book “Seeing the Animal Whole—And why it Matters,” notes that all of the buffalo senses are part of a whole, coming together in one animal.

“We realize that the various grunts and bellows have meanings in the relations among the members of the herd,” he writes. “All such activity radiates out from the bison as a centered, attentive being. Sentience is an expanding and contracting agency by which the animal opens through its senses to participate in a specific world of qualities.

“The bison expands into a wide world through senses such as hearing, sight and smell and draws more into itself when tasting, ruminating and digesting.

“Every movement the animal makes embodies sentience, whether flicking of flies with its tail or swimming across a river. Every part of its body is ensouled, but the sentience itself—the soul of the animal—is not, just as the animal’s life is not, a ‘thing’ that can be localized.

“One exception to the usual wariness of bison is common,’ he writes.

“Solitary bulls are probably as aware of an observer in a given set of circumstances as is a group of bison. However, these bulls are much more inclined to stand their ground, particularly near roads, where they are more accustomed to people.

“Their tolerance of approach is misleading; they are not aggressive, but when approach is beyond tolerance, they will depart. The line of departure may be through or over unwary people who sometimes nearly surround one of these bulls.”

This can be dangerous for visitors who have come too close, typically for photos.

[Note: We are unable to find a sound recording of a Buffalo Calf calling its Mother—or the Mother’s call and response. If anyone will send us a video of these sounds, we’d love to add it to this educational Blog on “Bison Sounds, Smells and Eyesight.”]




Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

The Trophy was the Journey


Bison in the Henry Mountains, Utah, where a target 500 buffalo and cattle run together on the same BLM range. Photo credit Bill Bates, Wildlife Section Chief for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

“They have a huge hump, giant head, eyeball the size of a billiard ball. What is not to like?”  – Padgett Powell

My once in a lifetime hunt ended on a beautiful Saturday morning in early November 2017, but it began many years earlier.

The animal would be the first and last bison I will ever kill. Something that only a handful of hunters get the chance to do in the twenty-first century.

The trophy was indeed the journey it took to reach this milestone.

My quest to understand and learn about the bison has carried me across thousands of miles: from the badlands of North Dakota, to Montana’s National Bison Range, from Yellowstone National Park, to Utah’s Antelope Island State Park.

For decades I’ve studied and observed this country’s national mammal, and I have grown to love it, which you can’t do until you actually get to know the animal. Because of this journey, my interest in the bison will be a lifelong love affair.

How can I claim to love the very thing that I worked so hard to kill? I’ve thought of this often lately.

John Mason said it best, “I do not hunt for the joy of killing but for the joy of living, and for the inexpressible pleasure of mingling my life, however briefly, with that of a wild creature that I respect, admire, and value.”

At the apex of their reign the American buffalo (Bison bison) roamed over much of North America in countless numbers.

However by 1890, less than a thousand animals could be found on the entire continent! Today there are scattered herds in private and public ownership.

Utah has three of these herds, one on Antelope Island, one in the Book Cliffs /Indian Reservation, and one on the Henry Mountains.

John Mason said it best, “I do not hunt for the joy of killing but for the joy of living, and for the inexpressible pleasure of mingling my life, however briefly, with that of a wild creature that I respect, admire and value.” Buffalo in the Henry Mountain Range, photo credit Russell Nielson.


For the entirety of man’s existence in North America, we’ve struggled with the meaning of this animal, with the ways in which its life is intertwined with our own…I sometimes imagine that we saved the buffalo from the brink of extinction for the simple reason that the animal provided a handy mirror in which we could see our innermost desires and failures, and our most confounding contradictions. Our efforts to use the buffalo as a looking glass have rendered the animal almost inscrutable. At once it is a symbol of the tenacity of wilderness and the destruction of wilderness; it’s a symbol of Native American culture and the death of Native American culture; it’s a symbol of the strength and vitality of America and the pettiness and greed of America; it represents a frontier both forgotten and remembered; it stands for freedom and captivity, extinction and salvation. Perhaps the buffalo’s enduring strength and legacy come from this chameleonic wizardry, this ability to provide whatever we need at the given moment.  –Steven Rinella, American Buffalo

Bison in Utah’s Henry Mountains are among the few herds in North America that are genetically pure. This is because in 1941, fifteen cows and three bulls were captured in Yellowstone and released by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources into the San Rafael Desert in Southeastern Utah.

The Henry Mountains—in background—rise directly out of the barren, but scenic deserts of Southeast Utah. Credit RN.

The herd eventually migrated to the Henry Mountains. This herd is the only free-roaming herd in the lower 48 states that is managed by hunting alone and has 1600 square miles in which to roam. The sustained target population is 500 animals.

The Henry Mountains rise directly out of the barren, but scenic deserts of Southeast Utah. A certain mystique has always surrounded the mountains and they are steeped in history.

These mountains are located northwest of Lake Powell and east of Capitol Reef National Park. They are about 60 miles long by 20 miles wide. Before being named the Henry Mountain, they were known as the “Unknown Mountains” and for good reason.

The Henry Mountains were the last range in the United States to be “discovered” (1860) and didn’t appear on any maps until 1872.

They were one of the last-surveyed and last-named mountain ranges in the lower forty-eight states. They were named by Almon Thompson (John Wesley Powell’s brother-in-law) in honor of Joseph Henry, the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and its head for 32 years.

Under Henry’s direction, the national weather forecasting service was born. One of American’s greatest scientists, Henry invented the first practical electric motor, telegraph and electric relay. He also pioneered in the study of sunspots, and innovated the development of lighthouse foghorns and lights to aid ships in navigation.

The “henry” was named in his memory and is one of eight recognized units of electrical measurements (the ohm, the ampere, the volt, the coulomb, the farad, the joule, the watt and the henry).

All bison hunts are limited and permits are granted with drawings. It took 23 years to finally draw my coveted ONCE IN A LIFETIME hunter’s choice (either male or female) permit for the first any-legal-weapon (rifle, bow, muzzleloader) bison hunt on the Henry Mountains in 2017.

Whether I had a successful harvest or not I would never get another chance for an additional permit. Thirteen resident and two non-resident permits were issued tags based on accumulated points (one point for every year of applying for a permit) and/or luck for the time slot of Nov. 4th to the 16th.

The day before the hunt we came around a bend in the road and a bull stood right in the middle of the track. Good omen or cruel trick? What a way to get the adrenal flowing! Credit RN.

There would be a total of 80 permits awarded across five hunts in the Henry Mountains for 2017. The numbers of these permits vary each year and are based on data, such as aerial surveys assessing the herd’s current population.

Of these 80 tags 39 were to be cow-only harvests and would be open during two slots in December. The first ever archery-only hunter’s choice hunt ran from Oct. 6th—20th and then there would be a second any-legal-weapon hunt from Nov. 18th—30th.

Also, from my statistical analysis, I found that 73 hunters had the same number of bonus points as I did. Of these 73 only 41 applied this year. Fifteen people purchased an additional bonus point, which left 16 hunters uncounted for (death, absence, etc).

Of the 41 applications 15 drew tags somewhere in the state (Antelope Island, Book Cliffs or Henry Mountain). For the hunt slot I applied for, 24 hunters made application and 6 drew a permit.

Utah has a unique way of drawing once-in-a-life time permits, in that half are used for those sportsmen with the largest number of bonus points and the other half are true random.

It felt terrific to be selected after such a long wait. However, given Utah’s system, it was a bit frustrating when I met a sportsman on this hunt (a self-proclaimed “redneck from Tremonton”) who drew after only four years of applying.


For me, hunting is not a symphony, not a painting, not to be defined. It is a long, fascinating road leading to moments never to be forgotten. –Frances Hamerstrom

My interest with the Henry Mountain bison was probably sparked by stories I heard from my Uncle Albert Henry Peterson who had a successful hunt in the 1960s with his friend Jim (who had the tag).

However my “love affair” with the Henry Mountains started in 1992 when I accompanied Steve Smith on his bison hunt there where he killed a young bull.

In subsequent years of 1994, I was with my sister Nadean when she killed her cow bison, in 1998 when brothers Kyle and Bryce Egbert bagged their cows, and then again in 2002 when Wade Carter took his cow with a muzzleloader.

All together I spent 13 days either scouting for or hunting these five successful bison harvests from the Henry Mountains. During this pursuit the number 13, considered unlucky by many, became my “lucky 13” and seemed to crop up in diverse places, at sundry times and weave a common thread to the outcome of my hunt.

In 2009, I made a trip to hike Mt. Ellen’s 11,506 foot peak with Mark Rogniske. I was filled with awe at those incredible, magic sunsets over the water pocket fold of Capital Reef that can’t be replicated anywhere else in the world!


As you hunt, you bond with the animals. You start to match heartbeats, and when you do that respect for them and for the land comes naturally. When you hunt buffalo, you know that the herd is not just one big group; it is a collection of families. Sometimes they’re all together and sometimes they separate…  –Wildlife biologist Richard Sherman, Where the Heart Is

The pit crew: Chad, Jill, Don, Steve W, Mark P. Credit RN.

In May 2017, when I learned of my successful draw my trophy journey began. In the following months I gathered both harvest and aerial data from the division of wildlife resources, and had phone conversations with the state’s wildlife biologist.

I collected maps from the Bureau of Land Management who administers the mountain range, and most importantly, planned and carried out three scouting trips to the Henry Mountains to re-acquaint myself with the roads and terrain.

During these 13 days of scouting in this year alone I saw more than 250 bison in herds from five to more than 70 animals.

The most important and meaningful thing I did during this time was to assemble my “bull pit crew,” This crew consisted of 13 valued members who at some point during my three scouting trips or actual hunt would share the trophy journey on the Henrys with me.

I also met other hunters including Greg Solberg from Grand Junction, Richard Ballard from Logan and two tourists Peter and Michael from Germany at “sunset point” who had hired a guide to take them to the “most remote place in Utah.”

With much help from George Richardson we upgraded my Ruger .270. We floated the barrel, changed from a Weaver 4x to a Leopold 3×9 variable scope, loaded up plenty of 150 grain Nosler Partition bullets, and sighted in my rifle. It was the same gun my father had saved for so he could buy it for me when I was a teenager.

Chad & Mark Peterson also helped with the ballistic and gun patterning. Most of these crew members I was able to treat to the world famous Bessie Stewart’s Pinto Bean Pie at the Sunglow Café in Bicknell, UT.


The true hunter counts his achievements in proportion to the effort involved and the fairness of the sport.  –Saxton Pope

At last the months of planning, dreaming, and anticipation were over and it was time for the hunt.

On Thursday Nov 2, we loaded up firewood (that Jeff Carver provided), and then Brad Allen, Steve Allred and I headed to our prearranged spot at McMillan Springs campground.

We set up the wall tent that the Bailey’s furnished and then spent the next day and half scouting for the elusive bison.

The day before the hunt we came around a bend in the road and a mature bull stood right in the middle of the track. What a way to get the adrenal flowing! Never before had this happened to me! Was it a good omen or a cruel trick?

On the Friday night before the opener we located five bulls and watched them ‘til sunset.

It takes a great effort to get to the Henry Mountains. As my crew continued to arrive late Friday I was very pleased that three of my nephews were able to be with me for the hunt. Brandon had flown in from Missouri, Todd and Mark from Washington and Cedar City respectively. Also Larry Mickelsen from Soda Springs ID and George Richardson from Manti, both life-long friends of mine.

Under the huge, full moon my bull pit crew and I put together a plot to find the bulls the next morning. How could anyone sleep that night?


When it comes to the cold, buffalo have a lot of anatomical tricks up their sleeves. Proportional to body size, the buffalo’s trachea is larger than that of any other large land mammal; when it takes a breath of cold air, the air is pre-warmed inside the trachea before it moves down the animal’s lungs. This way, ambient air temperatures have a diminished effect on the animal’s core body temperature, which is 101.6 degrees Fahrenheit. A buffalo’s coat of hair is another handy adaptation. The thick, shaggy coat is so well insulated that snow can settle on its back without melting. The hair above it’s eyes is so short that it looks like someone buzzed it with a electric clipper. This shortness prevents freeing water from accumulating against sensitive eye tissues. Domestic cattle have longer hair around their eyeballs and are commonly blinded by gobs of ice. – Steven Rinella, American Buffalo

That night as the wind blew and the hours slowly passed, I thought about the bull that might be experiencing his final night on the mountain, after what I hoped was a long and good life having fulfilled the measure of its creation.

If I had the chance for a harvest tomorrow, I wanted my bull to be admired and yet respected by my rifle and me. I wanted my shot(s) to be swift and clean and I reviewed the unique anatomy of the bison to make sure this would happen.

As I nervously shivered in my warm sleeping bag, I thought about my father. In the morning I planned to carry with me the two most cherished possessions he left me: the .270 Ruger rifle and the hand-made knife he gave me at high school graduation. I would also be wearing the buckskin shirt his mother, my Grandmother Nielson, hand-made in her 90th year.

When I awoke in the morning my nephews would be wearing their buckskins my sister Sherrie, their mother, had hand-made for them. We were all carrying on a treasured legacy.

Hunting is so much more than the high points of any one sense. It uses all five senses – and all the knowledge I have accumulated up to that time. – Frances Hamerstrom

Finally morning came! Arising at 5:00 a.m. and after a quick breakfast we all hustled down to the Head of Bullfrog drainage where we had last seen the five bulls.

We all hustled down to the Head of Bullfrog drainage where we had last seen the five bulls. Credit RN.

The full moon was still incredibly bright and lit up the desert country to the west. We were in our spots before any other hunters arrived, which was our main objective for heading out so early.

As the sunrise crept over the mountains to the east and the morning stars slowly faded, the coolness of the morning was biting. Brad, George and I were on the same knoll that we had left the night before while watching the five bachelor bulls.

Steve had stationed the other members of the bull pit crew at strategic overlooks to watch and wait, perhaps impatiently.

About 9:00 a.m. the first sighting of four bison appeared. George and I made a plan to try and work up the draw that they seemed to be coming down. Brad was to stay with the spotting scope and provide any information about their movements that he could.

After skirting up the ravine, I saw animal legs through the juniper trees. George and I tried to assess where they might be going and how we could intercept them. We worked up a ridge and came to an opening just moments before four mature bulls walked into full view—no more than 80 yards away!

They were not moving extremely fast, but I believe they knew we were there and were headed for the junipers on the far side. George was still in the trees some distance away, so I knew I had to make the decision myself. I picked the lead bull that gave me a good broadside shot.

At the roar of my Ruger all of the animals became confused.

George called “Which bull?” I returned “The first one.”

The bull that I had just shot stopped but was still standing.

The smallest bull was now right in the way for a good second shot. I waited for what seemed like an eternity for the animals to reshuffle.

Finally I had another chance to place the fatal bullet. After the report of my rifle the bull went towards the junipers and laid down. The other bulls, which were merely a distraction to my focus at this point, moved off.

There would be no long tracking today, only the wait for the bull to go gently into the light of peace.

I named the now lifeless bull “Lucifer,” not in the traditional biblical sense for being bad or evil, but because he was the bright light along the journey’s road. The Venus Star to my life-long love affair.


Lucifer: Latin word meaning “the morning star” or as an adjective “light bringing.”


“Killing a large animal inevitably gives me a sense of sorrow. I know it will hit me before it does. it hits as I run my fingers through the tangled mane of the buffalo’s neck. The animal feels so solid, so substantive. I feel compelled to question what I’ve done, to compare the merits of its life with the merits of my own. It’s not so much a feeling of guilt. There’s no moment when I want the buffalo to stand back up and walk away, no moment when I wish the bullet would retreat back into the barrel. It’s more complicated than guilt. Seeing the dead buffalo, I feel an amalgamation of many things; thankfulness for the meat, an appreciation for the animal’s beauty, a regard for the history of its species, and, yes, a touch of guilt. Any one of those feelings would be a passing sensation, but together they make me feel emotionally swollen. The swelling is tender, a little bit painful. This is the curse of the human predator, I think.”  – Steven Rinella, American Buffalo

Now the work began. The bull pit crew, who had all found their way to the meadow, was swift to action and worked with great efficiency.

Brad A, Mark A, Brandon A, Todd A and Russell celebrate the trophy seven-year-old bull shot Nov 4, 2017. They wear buckskin shirts made by family members. Credit RN.

But first there was a moment to pay honor and tribute to the mighty seven-year-old bull. It was a beautiful animal with 17” long horns (and a circumference of 13”). We took pictures and relived the chase and then got to work.

It took more than four hours to butcher, skin and cut into multiple pieces. Then Brad A, Mark A, Brandon A, Todd A, and Russell haul them 300-400 yards to my pickup.

George R, Steve A and Russell. I named the now lifeless bull “Lucifer” because he was the bright light along the journey’s road. Credit RN.

Brad A, Larry M and Russell. We took pictures and relived the chase. Credit RN.

We left no parts of the beautiful specimen behind (this was another best-case scenario hope of mine).

It took more than four hours to butcher, skin and cut into multiple pieces. Then Brad A, Mark A, Brandon A, Todd A and Russell haul the pieces to my pickup. Credit RN.

I was also required by the division of wildlife resources to take blood and tooth samples so that they could age the animal and test for diseases like brucellosis. This data would be helpful in managing the herd in future years.

When we got back to camp, we learned the brothers from Tremonton had killed one of the five bachelors from my group earlier in the morning in the drainage above us. We also met up with Phillip Johnson, the son of Evan Johnson (Grandma Nielson’s brother) from Mt. Pleasant who also had a tag. He had not had any luck yet despite having 19 crewmembers to assist.

We finished the work of securing the animal for transporting while at our camp spot and Brad, Larry and George took him to Manti and Spring City for cooling, hanging and cutting up.

The rest of us stayed the night as Steve Allred the master of comedy entertained us. We broke camp the next day after a heartfelt expression of gratitude by Steve, now the master of sincerity, who said he’s now too old to not express thankfulness…

My 13 reasons of gratitude could really be many more! First and most important I am thankful for those members of my support crew whom I could not have accomplished the hunt without. This crew also includes many family and friends supporting me from distant places like Newfoundland Canada, San Diego California, and Monument Colorado. For Don Simmons the oldest, and perhaps the strongest and my most faithful supporter at 91 years of age.

My Grandmother Nielson made my buckskin shirt when she was 90 years old on an old Treadle Sewing Machine—the final one she made, as she passed away later that year. Credit RN.

My Grandmother Nielson made my buckskin—Mule Deer—shirt when she was 90 years old on an old Treadle Sewing Machine. It was the final one she made as she passed away later that year. She made hundreds of buckskin shirts, jackets and coats, beside baby booties, etc, through the years for family and friends (see newspaper article). My sister took patterns from some of her work and made shirts for her sons as kind of a coming-of-age gesture (had to kill two deer to have enough leather to make a shirt). Additionally, we were taught and trained to use as much of the harvested animal as possible which included the hide.

I also express gratitude to those who helped bring the bison back from the brink of extinction. What an amazing, wonderful, interesting, majestic animal! LONG MAY THEY ROAM!!

The hunters enjoyed one last, beautiful sunset from their campground. Credit RN.

Blog 44 written by Guest Editor J. Russell Nielson, of Salt Lake City and hometown Manti, Utah,Lucifer and Lucky Thirteen” Nov 2017.

Thanks Russell, a magnificent tale, well told! Your quotes from other hunters are so effective and put into words the respectful and even awed response with which many hunters approach their game. So glad you included them! It’s fun, too, that you gave us your “lucky 13” as it applies to your trophy buffalo—circumference of base of each horn nearly 13 inches, 13 members of your “bull pit crew,” the 13 days you spent scouting with earlier hunters in the Henry Mountains on five previous trips. And 13 showed up again with 13 resident permits granted in your special year 2017 and 13 important Henrys and Henries in your life. We are delighted to present your authentic Buffalo Hunting story in honor of National Bison Day, Nov 6, 2021, First Saturday in November! Let’s all celebrate the day by telling—and enjoying—Buffalo stories!   -Best Wishes, Francie M. Berg, Editor www.BuffaloTalesansTrails.com ­


NEXT: Buffalo Sounds and Vocalizations

The Legacy of Wind Cave National Park

The Legacy of Wind Cave National Park

Below are 3 bright slices of the rich heritage of Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota.

First: In the video below the fine storyteller Sina Bear Eagle tells the beautiful Lakota tradition of Wind Cave as the place from which humans and bison emerged in ancient times.

Second: Briefly, what’s the history of Wind Cave National Park from the time President Theodore Roosevelt established it Jan 3, 1903, with its own genetically pure herd of bison from the New York Zoo? At 154 miles of explored passageways (so far) the 7th longest cave in the world . . .

Third: A bright new segment captivates a female student from the Latino Heritage Intern program. New generations, new enthusiasm for conservation and wildlife.

So let’s relax and enjoy these segments of the wonderful heritage of Wind Cave National Park.

The Lakota Emergence Story

Sina Bear Eagle tells her Cheyenne Creek community version of the Lakota Emergence Story that comes from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

In Lakota culture, history is passed down to new generations through the spoken word. There are many different versions of the Emergence Story, varying from band to band and family to family.

This version comes from the Cheyenne Creek community on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation of the Oglala Lakota tribe. The story was told by Wilmer Mesteth—a tribal historian and spiritual leader—to Sina Bear Eagle, who retells it in the following passage.

This story begins at a time when the plants and the animals were still being brought into existence, but there were no people or bison living on the earth. People at that time lived underground in the Tunkan Tipi—the spirit lodge—and were waiting as the earth was prepared for them to live upon it.

The Natural Opening of Wind Cave. Can you hear the “breathing earth” through the hole?

To get to the spirit lodge, one must take a passageway through what the ancestors referred to as Oniya Oshoka, where the earth “breathes inside.”

This place is known today as Wind Cave, referred to in modern Lakota as Maka Oniye or “breathing earth.” Somewhere, hidden deep inside this passageway, is a portal to the spirit lodge and the spirit world.

There were two spirits who lived on the surface of the earth: Iktomi and Anog-Ite.

Iktomi, the spider, was the trickster spirit. Before he was Iktomi, his name was Woksape—“Wisdom”—but lost his name and position when he helped the evil spirit Gnaskinyan play a trick on all the other spirits.

Anog-Ite, the double face woman, had two faces on her head. On one side, she had a lovely face, rivaling the beauty of any other woman who existed. On the other, she had a horrible face, which was twisted and gnarled. To see this face would put chills down any person’s spine.

Anog-Ite was once Ite, the human wife of the wind spirit Tate. She longed to be a spirit herself, so when the evil Gnaskinyan told her dressing up as the moon spirit, Hanwi, would grant her wish, she followed without question.

Gnaskinyan used both Ite and Woksape as pawns in his trick on the other spirits.

The Creator, Takuskanskan, decided not to punish Gnaskinyan for this trick, because evil does what’s in its nature.

Woksape and Ite were both punished because they let their pride determine their actions and allowed themselves to be guided by evil, when both should have known better.
Takuskanskan transformed the two into Iktomi and Anog-Ite, allowing Iktomi to play tricks forever and Anog Ite to be the spirit she desired to be. Both were banished to the surface of the earth.

Iktomi and Anog-Ite had only each other for company. Iktomi spent his time playing tricks on Anog-Ite, torturing her and never allowing her to live in peace, but this pastime soon bored him.

He wanted new people to play tricks on, so he set his sights on the humans. He knew he needed help for this trick; he asked Anog-Ite, promising he’d never torment her again. She agreed to these terms and began loading a leather pack.

Anog-Ite filled this pack with buckskin clothing intricately decorated with porcupine quills, different types of berries, and dried meat. She then loaded the pack onto the back of her wolf companion, Sungmanitu Tanka.

When the wolf was ready, Iktomi led him to a hole in the ground and sent the wolf inside Oniya Oshoka to find the humans. The wolf followed the passageways until it met the humans.

A lone wolf. Anog-Ite’s wolf was named Sungmanitu Tanka. Credit NPS Photo by Jacob W. Frank.

Once there, he told the people about the wonders of the Earth’s surface, and showed them the pack on his back. One man took out the buckskin clothing and felt the soft leather. His wife tried on a dress and when he looked at her he thought the dress accentuated her beauty.

Next they took out the meat, tasted it, and passed it around amongst some of the people. The meat intrigued them. They’d never hunted before, and had never tasted anything like meat. They wanted more.

The wolf told them if they followed him to the surface of the Earth, he’d show them where to find meat and all the other gifts he brought.

The leader of the humans was a man named Tokahe—“The First One”—and he refused to go with the wolf. He objected, saying the Creator had instructed them to stay underground, and that’s what he’d do.

Most of the people stayed with Tokahe, but all those who tried the meat followed the wolf to the surface.

The journey to the surface was long and perilous. When they reached the hole, the first thing the people saw was a giant blue sky above them. The surface of the earth was bright, and it was summertime, so all the plants were in bloom.

The people looked around and thought the earth’s surface was the most gorgeous place they’d ever been before.

The wolf led the people to the lodge of Anog-Ite, who was in disguise; she had her sina—“shawl”—wrapped over her head, hiding her horrible face and revealing only her beautiful face.

Anog-Ite invited the people inside, and they asked her about the clothes and the food. She promised to teach the people how to obtain those things, and soon she taught the people how to hunt and how to work and tan an animal hide.

This work was difficult, however. The people had never struggled like this in the spirit lodge. They grew tired easily and worked slowly.

Time passed, and summer turned to fall, then to winter. The people knew nothing about the Earth’s seasons and had worked so slowly that, by the time the first snow came, they didn’t have enough clothes or food for everyone.

They began to freeze and starve. They returned to the lodge of Anog-Ite to beg for help, but it was then that she revealed her true intentions.

She ripped the shawl from her head, revealing her horrible face, and with both faces—beautiful and horrible—laughed at the people.

The people recoiled in terror and ran away, so she sent her wolf after them to chase and snap at their heels. They ran back to the site of the hole from which they’d emerged, only to find that it had been covered, leaving them trapped on the surface.

Two buffalo at Wind Cave. NPS.

The people didn’t know what to do nor where to go, so they simply sat down on the ground and cried.

At this time the Creator heard them, and asked why they were there. They explained the story of the wolf and Anog-Ite, but the Creator was upset.

The Creator said, “You should not have disobeyed me; now I have to punish you.” The way the Creator did that was by transforming them—turning them from people into these great, wild beasts. This was the first bison herd.

Time passed, and the earth was finally ready for people to live upon it.
The Creator instructed Tokahe to lead the people through the passageway in the cave and onto the surface. On the way, they stopped to pray four times, stopping last at the entrance.

On the surface, the people saw the hoof prints of a bison.

The Creator instructed them to follow that bison. From the bison, they could get food, tools, clothes and shelter. The bison would lead them to water. Everything they needed to survive on the earth would come from the bison.

Buffalo along the road in Wind Cave National Park.

When they left the cave, the Creator shrunk the hole from the size of a man to the size it is now, too small for most people to enter, to serve as a reminder so the people would never forget from where they’d come.

Bison Bellows: Wind Cave National Park—Riding the Rails Back Home

Buffalo at the entrance to Wind Cave National Park, Visitor center. Photo courtesy of Greg Schroeder.

Before the mid-1800s, bison dotted the South Dakota plains.

But by the 1890s, South Dakota resembled a bleak wildlife landscape. The wild free roaming bison were gone and so were the elk, the pronghorn, other wildlife and the people that once roamed freely across the plains.
By the 1900s some efforts were underway locally to restore prairie wildlife; yet, it wasn’t until people on the east coast gathered together to create the New York Zoological Society in 1905 and its subdivision of the American Bison Society, led by William Hornaday and President Theodore Roosevelt that bison conservation actually began to have a home.

In 1913, the New York Zoological Society raised sufficient numbers of bison that they could imagine doing something that had never been done before. They proposed a new vision of conservation partnership between private and public entities, in order to donate and restore bison to Wind Cave National Park nestled in the South Dakota Black Hills landscape.

In November, 1913, 14 bison departed New York City by train for the long trip westward back home to Hot Springs, South Dakota and then by wagon to Wind Cave National Park.

This cross-country movement of bison, from private possession to public lands, represented a major milestone in wildlife conservation.

The 14 bison multiplied rapidly among the pines in the Black Hills of South Dakota in Wind Cave National Park. Photo courtesy of Greg Schroeder.

It is interesting to visualize enthusiastic crowds gathering at train stations to see the 14 bison from New York City heading home westward.

It may be that some of those communities included people who earlier rode the same rails westward in order to decimate wild bison.

The story of bison restoration at Wind Cave National Park is one of remarkable change in societal intent and perception, and one of how a small yet determined society can transform the attitude of a nation.

Although bison suffered an unnatural and traumatic population decline, the Wind Cave bison herd now serves as a foundation for future conservation.

Those 14 bison in 1913 were the beginning of over a century of bison conservation at Wind Cave National Park. They have served as a source of bison to reestablish other herds across the United States and most recently in Mexico and have brought delight and inspiration of millions of park visitors and supporters of the National Park Service.

According to the Lakota people, Wind Cave is the place from which Wakan Tanka, or the Great Mystery, sent bison to the Sioux hunting grounds through a person, known as the buffalo woman, who ascended from Wind Cave to give the Lakota people bison.

Surveying Buffalo at Wind Cave National Park
in the Latino Heritage Internship Program

by Nicole Segnini , Intern, Office of Communications

”I never thought I would learn so much about wildlife in such a short time and be interested in learning more.”

S’mores, late-night card games, embarrassing stories, trying to light up a fire, seeing bison for the first time, learning about Lakota culture, and seeing Cave Boxwork for the first time.

That’s a summary of what I did with a team of interns from the Mosaics In Science and Latino Heritage Internship Program, with some of the Environment for the Americas (EFTA) staff.

Our team: Yuyavan, Paola, Brooke, Will, Shanelle, Griselda, Sheylda and Jedi. The team was full of incredibly smart people whom I learned so much from. I never thought I would learn so much about wildlife in such a short time, and be interested in learning more.

“Our team—we learned about the park’s extensive prairie landscape and its wildlife and helped the park’s wildlife biologist count their bison.”

We went to South Dakota, land of lots of cows, and Wind Cave National Park. During the trip, we learned about the park’s extensive prairie landscape and its wildlife (especially bison and prairie dogs) and helped the park’s wildlife biologist do a count of bison.

I have always cared about animals and wildlife and their conservation. But hearing all of them talk about specific issues, encouraged me to learn more and be more proactive in learning about important wildlife conservation efforts.

At Wind Cave, we did a Natural Entrance Cave Tour and learned about its discovery, where it got its name, and its significance in Lakota culture.

We saw its incredible and unique boxwork throughout the tour. Boxwork is made of thin blades of calcite that project from cave walls and ceilings, forming a honeycomb pattern. 

At one point the lights were turned off, so we could see how it really looks inside the cave. I may have (or may have not) been a tiny bit scared… it was pitch black. It is crazy to think that back in the day people would explore the cave with just a candle…

Our guide, Angela, who is the park’s wildlife biologist, was amazing. She talked about the park’s bison herd and conservation efforts, but she also taught us about other wildlife in the park, like pronghorns and prairie dogs!

After some sandwiches, we headed out to “hunt” bison. We did a bison count or bison survey. This means: we found the park’s herd and counted how many bison and calves were in it.

Discovering bison for the first time. “I counted about 114—from a safe distance.”

A regular count helps Wind Cave keep track of how fast the bison population is growing and can monitor the herd to make sure the animals, and their habitat, are protected and conserved for future generations.

By the end of the count, between 110 to 130 bison, including 12 calves, were observed. I counted about 114. Of course, our count was done from a safe distance. (We did NOT pet the fluffy cows!!).

This was not only a great educational opportunity for us, but it was also a great way to connect with people who share the same love for nature and conservation and to experience the outdoors as some of us had never done before.

Some of us had never even seen a bison (now I have seen quite a few!), others had never gone camping! This trip also encouraged me to learn more about conservation efforts and wildlife at our parks and to head outside to discover.

I am very thankful to Environment for the Americas for allowing me to be part of this amazing adventure!

I am so happy I met Brooke, Yuya, Will, Paola, Shanelle, Griselda and Sheylda. I think we were a great team and worked well with each other. I loved hearing from them about their work, projects, passions, backgrounds and families and sharing things in common with one another.

BONUS! Bison from Custer State Park came to visit us at our camping site!

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Why not celebrate this year’s National Buffalo Day by telling a favorite buffalo story?

Why not celebrate this year’s National Buffalo Day by telling a favorite buffalo story?

How will you celebrate National Buffalo Day this year?

Protecting buffalo calves from wolves was—and today still is in certain areas—a major concern for the entire herd. Sketch by Charles M. Russell, Nov, 1907.

National Bison Day, November 6, 2021, is an annual event. It falls on the first Saturday in November each year.  Americans are encouraged to reflect on the impact Bison have as a part of our environmental and cultural heritage.

Here’s a fun way for us to celebrate: Since we all love stories, why not honor this year’s National Buffalo Day by telling a favorite buffalo story?

Tell it several times—to your family, your buddies, a treasured friend in your long-time care home. Maybe at a meeting you happen to attend that day.

If you work with buffalo, I bet you have a personal, amazing or interesting story or two to share. Even second or third hand will be just fine.

If you’ll share them with us, we’ll reprint them here for National Buffalo Day. Please note the source and send them to us at: fmberg@ndsupernet.com

I’m starting early, so you might use these or zero in on your own.

Beginning in 2012, the movement grew to name the Bison as America’s national mammal to bring together bison supporters, including Native Americans, bison producers, conservationists, sportsmen and educators to celebrate the significance of Bison.

It took 4 years and that finally happened on May 9, 2016, when the Bison—and by general consensus, the Buffalo—became our National Mammal with its own special National Bison Day.

The American bison is not only the country’s official mammal; It is also the state mammal of Wyoming, Oklahoma and Kansas. Many towns, creeks and rivers throughout North America bear the name Buffalo or Bison.

Remember that in North America, we regard the terms Buffalo and Bison as interchangeable—no apologies. So use whichever you prefer!

For reference see National Geographic guidelines, and US-based dictionaries, including Websters Collegiate Dictionary, which declare the terms interchangeable. Buffalo has a long history in North America, dating from 1625 when first recorded—even before Bison was first documented, in 1774.

Professor Dale F. Lott, University of California scientist and author of American Bison: A Natural History puts it well, I think.

“I decided to use both names. . . ” he writes,  “My Science side is drawn to Bison. 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.”

Here are 3 of my all-time favorite buffalo stories. Two are gleaned from that master of Buffalo Lore and knowledge—William Hornaday of the original Smithsonian Museum. His book The Extermination of the American Bison, was published by the US Government Printing Office in 1889.

The other story came from Mike Faith, buffalo manager for Standing Rock herds for some 20 years, now Standing Rock tribal chairman.

How will you celebrate the occasion of National Bison Day, Nov 6? I’m starting early by offering you my 3 favorite buffalo stories.

Will you share some of your favorites too? If we start collecting right now maybe we can have them ready by November 6.

First: Here’s my Number 1 Favorite Buffalo Story:

Noble Fathers We Saw in Action

by Francie M. Berg | Jul 14, 2020

Large gray wolves danced around the circle of bulls in impatient expectancy, licking their chops, while the bulls faced them, snorting and pawing dirt. Painting by CM Russell, The Buffalo Book, David A. Dary.

Buffalo bulls are born with a strong sense of responsibility. The Noble Fathers, they were called in earlier times, for protecting mothers and calves from the ravages of wolves or weather.

When attacked by packs of wolves—and in blizzards and fierce storms, it was said—they form a circle or triangle facing into the wind and shield cows and calves from risks of wintery blasts and vicious wolves.

This remarkable buffalo story—one of my favorites—was told by a medical soldier on the western Plains, back in buffalo hunting days.

One day this army surgeon was out buffalo hunting. As he headed back to camp he saw what he described as “the curious action of a little knot of 6 or 8 buffalo.”

Riding closer, unseen behind the crest of a rocky butte, he noted they were all bulls, standing in a tight circle with their massive heads facing out, snorting and pawing dirt.

A dozen large gray wolves danced around them in impatient expectancy, licking their chops. Now and then a wolf dived in, nipping at buffalo heels.

After a few moments the knot broke up, still keeping its compact mass, and started off for the main herd, a half mile away.

Then to his very great astonishment, the surgeon saw what the bulls were protecting in their midst—a newborn calf trying to stand on wobbly legs.

It stumbled a few paces, then fell back down.

The bulls formed their protective circle again, shaking big heads and stout horns fiercely. The hungry wolves sat back down and licked their chops, awaiting a better chance to attack.

Again, the calf struggled to his feet, stumbled farther ahead, then fell. Each time he fell, he showed a bit more strength The bulls faced out again, fiercely tightening their circle, pawing dust and bellowing.

From his hiding place the surgeon watched this drama play out a few times. The calf struggled ahead, a bit stronger each time before it collapsed. Wolves dove in, snapping at the bulls, got tossed in the air, Furious bulls plunged, pawed dust and slashed with savage horns.

After some time—satisfied that the little calf was safe, the surgeon rode on.

Telling the story later, he said, “I have no doubt the Noble Fathers did their whole duty by their offspring and carried it safely to the herd.”

While the Army surgeon watched, the buffalo bulls protected one small newborn calf until he was strong though to catch up with the herd. Courtesy of National Park Service.

I saw those “noble fathers” in action once myself—and they did protect the buffalo calves.

We were riding horseback in the North Unit of Teddy Roosevelt Park with some friends.

Our kids were teenagers then and we were about 15 riders. As we rode over a hill, we saw—spread out and grazing below us—the North Unit herd of about 60 buffalo.

They looked up, startled by the sudden appearance of so many riders, and began to run. We reined in our horses and paused to watch.

They didn’t run far. The big bulls stopped in an open area and formed a tight circle facing us, shaking their massive heads, while cows and calves took the inside, milling around

It was clearly a defensive position they all understood—and we did too—the calves well-hidden and nosed around by nervous moms in the center, while the bulls came forward—ready and eager to take us on.

Describing a similar defensive move during the 19th century, Colonel R.I. Dodge, wrote in his Plains of the Great West:

“The bulls with heads erect, tails cocked in air, nostrils expanded and eyes that seem to flash fire, walk uneasily to and fro, menacing the intruders by pawing the earth and tossing their huge heads.”

We paused and watched the amazing bulls for awhile, charmed to think that for over 100 years and several generations this herd and their ancestors had lived safely inside the Teddy Roosevelt National Park—with no large enemies to fear.

Yet this generation of noble fathers stood just as ready to fight us off and protect with their lives the young calves and their mothers, just as dozens of observers had described their responses to real dangers long ago.

No hungry wolves would have broken through their defenses that day! No wolves or grizzly bears or hunters.

Of course, we skirted far around the herd and let the buffalo bulls think they had stood off our attack.

(Copyright 2020 by Francie M. Berg. on July 14, 2020, in the blog <BuffaloTalesandTrails.com>, from William Hornaday’s 1889 book “The Extermination of the American Bison,” and a personal family experience.)

Mother Buffalo help each other

My 2nd most favorite story
Francie M. Berg,

Told by Mike Faith, Standing Rock’s Buffalo Manager for some 20 years, now Standing Rock Tribal Chairman.

Mike Faith told me buffalo watch out for each other for warning signs of danger or stress.

When it comes time for a cow to give birth she finds a secluded place such as a ravine with trees. She has time for herself, to be alone there when the calf is born.

There she is able to bond with her newborn, nourish and defend it, until it is strong enough to join the herd.

But she’s not quite alone. The mother has several female friends who hang around—not so close as to interfere, says Faith—but near enough to watch for predators and guard against possible interruptions.

Buffalo cows often watch out for each other, and give help when needed. National Park Service.

 “If a new mother is too nervous, gets up and moves away before she’s ready, she might not bond with her calf,” he says.

“If she gets spooked, she might abandon her newborn and not come back. The calf can die of starvation.”

Faith told me that one morning he saw three cows acting in a peculiar way.

They were grazing together on the plateau above a cutbank.

One at a time, each buffalo cow walked over to the edge of the cutbank, looked down on the flat below for awhile and then returned to her grazing.

They stayed nearby and occasionally each one went back and looked over the bank again.

As he sat in his pickup and watched, Faith couldn’t see what the cows were concerned about, but didn’t want to disturb them.

So he drove around where he could see the grassy area below the bank.

There he saw two coyotes circling a young, sleeping calf at some distance.

As he drove closer, the coyotes saw him and started to run.

They disappeared over the hill, but Faith said he had no doubt if the coyotes had come too close to the sleeping calf, the cows would have charged down the steep trail and chased them away.

The buffalo mother’s two friends were helping her keep watch and protect the sleeping calf.

(Copyright 2020, as told to Francie M. Berg by Mike Faith, Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman, Ft. Yates, ND.)

Great Indian Buffalo Horses

My 3rd most Favorite Buffalo Story
by Francie M. Berg, Jun 30, 2020

According to all accounts Indian buffalo hunting horses were better trained for the job than those of white hunters, reported William Hornaday. Painting by CM Russell.

Painting by CM Russell, Amon Carter museum.

According to all accounts, the Indian buffalo hunting horses were better trained for the job than those of white hunters, reported William Hornaday. He credited this to the fact that Indian hunters shooting with bow and arrows required free use of both their hands.

This was only possible when the horse took the right course of its own free will and held close to the buffalo during a charge—as guided by knee pressure alone.

“Indeed,” he wrote. “In running buffalo with only the bow and arrow, nothing but the willing cooperation of the horse could have possibly made this mode of hunting successful.

“But for the willingness and even genuine eagerness with which the buffalo horses entered into the chase, hunting on horseback would have been attended with almost insurmountable difficulties.”

Indian horses seemed to take special pleasure in running buffalo.

William Hornaday noted that the explorers, Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were impressed with the passion for buffalo hunting of the Indian horses they purchased from the Shoshones in trade for their journey across the Rocky Mountains.

After they had traveled to the Pacific Ocean and back, they re-crossed the Continental Divide, and then divided their party.

Clark took the horses on the southern route through rich buffalo country along the Yellowstone River.

He delegated their 49 Indian horses to Sergeant Pryor with a couple of riders to bring downriver, while to save time he and the others went on boats that they built, mostly of cottonwood trees.

But he got a complaint from Sgt. Pryor, who sent word that he needed at least one more rider.

It was almost impossible, Pryor reported, to drive their horses along the shore with the help of only two men.

There were so many herds of buffalo grazing on the rich grasses of the Yellowstone Valley, and the Indian horses were so eager to hunt them, that they tried to roundup every herd they saw.

“In passing every gangue of buffalow, the loos horses immediately set off in pursuit of them, and surrounded the buffalo herd with almost as much skill as their riders could have done,” Clark wrote in his journal.

“All those that speed sufficient would head the buffalow and those of less speed would pursue on as fast as they could.”

Sgt. Pryor found the only practical method was to have the extra man ride ahead—and whenever he saw a herd of buffalo to chase them off before the main horse herd came close enough to pursue them.

As reported by Hornaday, the Hon. H.H. Sibley also told of the dedication of one horse that had lost its rider on a Red River Metis hunt.

An experienced buffalo horse “continued the chase as if he of himself could accomplish great things, so much do these animals become imbued with a passion of this sport!” CM Russell painting.

“One of the hunters fell from his saddle and was unable to overtake his horse, which continued the chase as if he of himself could accomplish great things, so much do these animals become imbued with a passion of this sport!”

Another hunter who left his favorite buffalo horse in camp for a day’s rest, asked his wife to tie the horse. But the horse pulled loose and galloped off to join the hunt.

“The chase ended. He came neighing to his master—who he soon singled out.”

 “He continued to keep pace with the hunters in their pursuit of the buffalo, seeming to await with impatience the fall of some of them to earth.

“The chase ended. He came neighing to his master, who he soon singled out, although the men were dispersed here and there for a distance of miles,” wrote Sibley.

(Copyright Jun 30, 2020, by Francie M. Berg from the blog <BuffaloTalesandTrails.com> quoting from William Hornaday’s 1889 book “The Extermination of the American Bison,” and the “Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1804-1806.”)

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Wainwright’s Buffalo Legacy

Wainwright’s Buffalo Legacy

Today a magnificent, lunging buffalo bull statue greets visitors in Wainwright with a silent bellow. It was erected just off the highway on Main Street in July 1965 in memory of the great buffalo herds that once roamed Buffalo National Park. The unveiling attended by many townspeople—including a group of Buffalo Riders who rode the range in the buffalo park. Sculptor, Heiko Hespe.

Wainwright, Alberta, is a midsized town in the Canadian Great Plains with a tumultuous buffalo legacy. It lies east of the Rocky Mountains just west a few miles from the Saskatchewan border and to the northeast of Calgary.

From ancient times buffalo grazed those northern grasslands by the millions. Then they were gone—every single one—seemingly for good. Suddenly they returned and multiplied again to many thousands—for 30 years—then totally vanished again.

Today a peaceful “Bud Cotton Buffalo Paddock” stands at the entrance to Camp Wainwright in celebration of that rich buffalo heritage.

Four yearling bison, donated by the Superintendent of Elk Island National Park to commemorate that plains-bison-saving-effort at Buffalo National Park from 1909 to 1939, have grown to a stable 35 head. Also today a magnificent, lunging buffalo bull statue greets visitors with a silent bellow.

What happened during those 30 chaotic years? And who was the legendary Bud Cotton?

This is the story of those 30 years and Bud Cotton’s tribute to his Buffalo Roundup Gang and their stories.

Every school child in Wainwright knows what happened. Their fathers, grandfathers or uncles maybe rode with Bud Cotton in the great buffalo round-ups between 1909 and 1939.

Bud Cotton is a legend. He didn’t forget. In fact, he wrote down the stories. They’re well known in Wainwright.

Bud Cotton’s stories are today family tales told around campfires and in lecture halls.

Great Days—Never to be Forgotten!

“Great days!” Bud Cotton recalls. ”The Buffalo Riders will never forget!”

“Frost bites and bruised bones healed and were forgotten. But memories of hard rides and frozen sandwich lunches, out in the Park hills, a blazing fire to help drive away the frost from tingling toes and cold-seared faces. You would be roasted on one side and froze on the other.

Bringing them in to the corrals against the drift fence at Wainwright on a dead run! The buffalo bore some scars—and so did the Buffalo Roundup Riders.

“Buffalo we had corralled, branded and manhandled by the thousand bore some scars and brands. But then the riders still bear scars and sore bones as mementoes of those same good old days!”

From 1912 through 1940, E.J. (‘Bud’) Cotton was the Buffalo Park Warden at Wainwright, Alberta.

An old-fashioned buffalo handler who rode hard and worked his crew hard in the worst possible winter weather, he arranged for his men to change their lathered-up horses each noon–with fresh horses for the always-challenging afternoon ride.

Cotton hired a hard-riding Buffalo Roundup Gang—as he called them—for ‘fall’ roundup, which they tackled in stride during the coldest days of winter when buffalo hides were prime.

Long before the advent of low-stress handling practices were being advocated for buffalo, the buffalo herds were literally wild animals, and they came stampeding between the drift fences toward the open gate at a dead run.

Cotton said his corral fences looked strong enough to hold an elephant “but just stick around until we run a bunch of buffalo into them, then watch the splinters fly!”

When the second wave of buffalo arrived at Wainwright in 1909 they were welcomed with joy. The town was waiting.

Canadian officials realized their plains buffalo were fast disappearing and began their search for ways to repopulate their grasslands with buffalo before they went extinct. 

They found it south of the border in Montana in the healthy, growing buffalo herd owned by Michel Pablo and Charles Allard on the Flathead Indian Reservation.

With settlers closing in on them, the Montanans were losing their free range on Indian land by the turn of the century. Pablo, the surviving owner, decided to sell. He hoped to sell them to the US government, but his offer was scorned in Washington.

Canada offered to pay Pablo’s price for the whole herd of some 300 head at $200 each plus $45 for shipping by rail. Rounding up the buffalo and getting them to the shipping point in Ravali MT was not easy—it took Pablo and his round-up crew 6 years. By then he had twice that many to sell.

Meanwhile, 9 miles south of Wainwritght the handlers were hurrying to complete a 9-foot wire fence built around 200 square miles to hold them.

The first year, 1907, 411 buffalo made the 1,200 mile journey switching over onto five railway systems in all. The destination was to have been Wainwright, but because the fences were not finished there, they lived at Elk Island Park for a time.

Two years later the herd was moved to Wainwright except for 49 strays which could not be captured—they formed the first herd in Elk Island Park. 

Unloading buffalo from the freight train at Wainwright.

In July the Wainwright Star reported that 190 additional buffalo had arrived and approximately 150 head would be shipped later .  .  .

In total, Michael Pablo shipped 716, according to Canadian buffalo historian Valerius Geist. Canada paid $245 each, including the same for each newborn calf.

By 1910 the count was 800 buffalo, 2 moose, 4 elk and 36 deer which got fenced in too. Later 13 antelope, 11 moose and 2 more elk were added.

In 1923 the Hollywood movie “The Last Frontier” was filmed at Wainwright. The Park Riders were signed up as stunt men and extras.

Buffalo were also shipped to zoos and parks all over the world.

 Bud Cotton’s Buffalo Roundup Gang

For the first 10 years the buffalo herd at Wainwright was allowed to multiply naturally. But soon it was growing too fast even for its 200-square mile range. Every few years the whole herd doubled in size—and then doubled again!

For the first 10 years the buffalo herd at Wainwright was allowed to multiply naturally. It doubled—and then doubled again.

Only a few head were corralled now and again and shipped to England, Ireland, Germany and Italy and to various parks in the US and Canada. Still the healthy herd multiplied.

Something had to be done to curb the growth. The decision was to build a slaughter house and sell prime buffalo hides and meat.

Bud Cotton hired a hard-riding Buffalo Roundup Gang—as he called them—for ‘fall’ roundup, which they tackled in stride for 19 years during the coldest days of winter when the hides were prime.

Long before the advent of low-stress practices were advocated for handling buffalo, they were generally treated like cattle—expected to respond like cattle.

Instead buffalo responded like deer, elk and other wild animals, and they stampeded between the drift fences at the Wainwright pasture toward the gate at a dead run.

But buffalo are not cattle—they were literally wild animals.

Cotton said their corral fences looked strong enough to hold an elephant “but just stick around until we run a bunch of buffalo into them, then watch the splinters fly!”

He praised his Buffalo Riders for their toughness and endurance.

“Bert Kitchen should still show some scars,” he wrote.

“We happened to be heading fast through a narrow draw on the high lope, eight riders strung out head to tail, trying to head off a bunch of break-away buffalo.

“Bert was in the lead when his horse went down, some of our horses jumped over him and some just walked down his lanky frame. Our horses were all shod with ‘never-slip’ or Spade Caulks.

“We all sighed ‘Poor Bert,’ but by the time we had circled back to the rescue, Bert had picked himself out of the snow and was mounted again, and mumbled something about how he had busted his cigarette lighter.

Vern Treffry holding a buffalo calf.

“Vern Treffry will always remember his grand slide down Jameson Lake hill. It was sure hard on his vest buttons, but he made it down to the bottom and headed the buffalo while his saddle horse looked on from the top of the hill, one leg still jammed deep in a badger hole.”

“Hi Dunning tied onto a balky buffalo cow and hitched her hard and fast onto his saddle horn. Now a buffalo cow is not bashful. Things started to happen fast!!

“First his saddle cinch loosened and the saddle started to turn. About that time his horse just didn’t like the looks of the buffalo cow so close and hooked one hind leg over the taut rope and started to buck.

“Hi was sure in the middle of trouble with no hope of getting that hard knot from the saddle horn.

“Warren Blinn rides in close and cuts Hi’s new rope, thus leaving Hi and his horse free from the now thoroughly peeved buffalo.

“Still Hi was uncertain whether to bless Warren for saving him from a real dirty mix-up, or to cuss him for cutting his brand new Italian hemp lariat!

“Jack Johnston, he too was on our Riding Crew. He raced his buckskin pony ahead to open a gate for us, but apparently the buffalo were coming just too fast. Guess about 20 head of buffalos ran over him. Lucky though, they were ‘light shippers’ so Jack was able to keep his date down Greenshilds way that night.

“Dick McNairn rode with the roundup crew for many a winter and could tell you tales of fast running buffalo and cold miles of saddle polishing.

“Dick riding hard and close, trying to haze in a big grumpy buffalo bull on one of our roundups. Down goes his horse in a slitherin’ roll, the bull whirls and stands there looking Dick right in the eye.

“Dick was pinned down by one leg as the horse rolled, but he looked that old bull right in the eye. The bull snorted and loped away just as we were riding up to unscramble one lone rider.

“Felix Courier could tell you tales too. On one roundup his horse fell and left him on foot bout ten miles out around Sandhill Corner.

“His saddle horse came in with the bunch, so we sent out the truck to pick up what could be a busted-up rider.

“He was OK, tho a little perturbed about getting cold beans for supper at camp.

“One real bad mix-up Felix got into was when we were running a fast bunch into the corral approaches, racing close in on the drag of a packed herd of a couple hundred buffalo.

“Suddenly the bunch split around a heavy clump of willow. This left him smack in front of the obstacle.

“His horse piled up on the willows and we had to pry Felix loose. He cussed the saddle horse and the buffalos a little and complained of being a little stiff the next day, but was still chasing buffalo on the roundup.”

“We had about 12 regular riders on the roundups.

“We always looked forward to the times that the Gang rode together. Taking hard knocks, broken bones and bitter cold weather as a matter of course, our riders came back year after year, because there was something fascinating and a surging exhilaration that only the Buffalo Riders will ever know.

Bert Kitchen with his trick roping corralling the Gang instead of the Buffalo.

“Only these riders experienced the thrill of careening over an open Range for miles with 5,000 to 8,000 buffalo thundering along in flying dust of snow clouds.

“Park Regulations prohibited any visitors on our roundup drives, so We the Crew rode alone to sights and scenes that we will never forget.”

First roundup

The first roundup was in 1921—it extended into January.

Said one park rider, “Despite below zero weather, icy range conditions and deep snow and roundup—corralling and cutting out of beef from the main herd continued. It was cold, hard riding but we—the riders—always had the buffalo at the slaughterhouse and never held up the butchering crews.

“On the first buffalo roundup, the main herd had never been corralled and did not know what a gate was for. So both the buffalo and the park round-up crew had lots to learn.

“We learned fast that the buffalo could outrun and outwind our horses as we tried to run them over 20 miles, through bush, sand ridges and snow-covered badger holes.

“The herd in 1921 was a little over 4,000 head . . .  and wild!

“I have seen us riders pick up around 1,000 head in the Battle River hills and riding our horses to a frazzle towards the corrals on the dead run . . . were lucky if we were successful in getting 200 or 300 in our corrals.

“I might add that on some days we landed at the bunk house with no buffalo to show for the hard day’s ride!”

You might wonder:  Why were the Roundup Riders working so hard with buffalo in the coldest part of winter? When, unlike this, cattlemen roundup, sort and sell during the often-delightful golden days of fall.

Cotton explains the difference: “With cattle we don’t worry about how prime the hides are. Down on the big cattle ranches—roundups for beef are pretty well all finished up by the time snow hits.

“With the buffalo it’s different, as both beef and hide count, and the buffalo’s hide is not considered prime until December or later.

“This hide, when prime, makes beautiful robes and coats. That’s why you will hear of riders hitting the roundup trails in 40 below zero weather, right up to their necks in snow banks.”

A typical Buffalo Roundup day with Bud Cotton

At one point in his memoirs Bud Cotton suggests we ride along with him for a typical day on a Buffalo Roundup.

In his own western vernacular, he writes, “Throw a gallon of oats into that lop-eared saddle pony of yours, Stranger. Then we’ll lope along to the ranch for a day or so with the round-up crew.

 “Two hundred square miles of range, sandhills, muskeg and brush, 8,000 buffalo to find and run into the corrals. Come along with the gang. We’re headed out for those sand ridges you can see some 12 miles west.

“We’re headed out for those sand ridges you can see some 12 miles west.”

“Just stick close to one of the riders when we start them on the run. If your horse goes into a nose dive and leaves you afoot, just hit for the top of a butte. We’ll come back and pick you up later, for once we start buffalo running we can’t leave them till we hit the corrals.

“Where will your horse be? Why he’ll be running with us.

“There’s the buffalo! About a thousand, spread out and grazing contentedly among the sand dunes. Sure a great sight! To look at them you would never think they could run, would you?” Get ready, they can—40 miles an hour! And they can spin on a dime! Photo Wainwright Park, by Carsell.

“Getting pretty close now. Some of the riders have circled wide and are closing in around the bunch and the buffalo are getting restless at the sight of saddle horses.

“A bull here and there is pawing dirt and snorting. A tail goes up—and the Mammy buffalo start fretting over their calves.

“Then with a thunder of hoofs the whole bunch are off at a pace that makes your horse stretch himself and the wind and dust bring tears to your eyes, as with nerves atingle you try to stay with the racing herd.

“This is no range steer round-up. The pace is too fast. Fast as a wild horse round-up only worse. Buffalo will not bunch when driven, but try to break away in small bunches, every direction.

“So you go careening along over the hills in the wake of the herd. The leading buffalo are a full mile ahead, with some of the riders on either flank working like Trojans to keep them heading in the right direction.

“As you see more small bunches break away from the riders and into the sand ridges you think, ’What’s the use of trying to hang on to those crazy brutes? We won’t get them near the corrals, let alone into them.’

“Then you hold your breath and all leather that’s within reach as your horse slides down a sand bank and all but stands on his nose.

“You just get your breath back again when a howl from a racing rider off your left tells you to look out! Here she comes!

“A COMING IS SHE . . . with blood in her eye. You have got between a mammy buffalo and her winded calf.

“Right under your horse’s tail! Giddup! Gee! Bet you wish you could step on the gas. Your horse carries you safely away from the indignant old mother buffalo!

“You heave a sigh and wonder what’s next. ’Don’t get bogged in muskeg,’ howls a rider on your right as you top the sand ridge.

“Cresting the ridge and as your horse slides and leaps down into a heavily timbered valley, you catch a glimpse of drift fences and corral gates two miles away on the other side.

“The only way you know there are any buffalo is by the snorts and crashing of brush as the brutes tear through. Then ‘Ker-splash!’ and you are in the muskeg . . .

“You hear yells all around. ‘Where the devil is that crossing?’

The only way you know there are any buffalo is by the snorts and crashing of brush as they tear through. Then ‘Ker-splash!—you’re in the muskeg . . .

“Where’s the buffalo, the riders and everything, you wonder as you scrape mud out of your eyes and try to encourage your horse to get back on solid ground.

“There’s a crash and a grunt right behind you as a lone old buffalo bull comes in. He looks big so you go right across that muskeg and give him lots of room.

“Out on solid ground again the noise ahead tells you the riders have a bunch and are fighting to hold them from breaking away. Fully 500 buffaloes are running strong and fighting to get away as riders streak here and there trying to hold the milling herd and head them down the drift fence.

“The leaders are heading straight for the gate now, with all the riders spread out in the rear.
‘Well we sure got ‘em now. Maybe—if we can hold ‘em.’

“Part of the bunch go through the gate and the remainder turn and hit for the open spaces. Despite some breakneck riding, part of them get away.

“’Well we got about 400 that time anyway,’ a rider with yellow chaps remarks as he comes up alongside on a sweat-lathered horse. ‘Lots more left for another day.’

“’There’s two buffalo mired back there in the muskeg,’ a rider announces as he lopes up and joins us at the gate. ‘Let’s go back and snake ‘em out.’

“Back in the muskeg, where it has been crowded and trampled into the deep mud, a yearling wallows right up to his neck. A lariat whistles out and lands over its head as a rider circles close.

“A snub of the rope around the saddle horn, a heave as the horse puts his weight on the rope and out he comes. Easy money!

“Further over, struggles and flounders an old cow, just stuck deep enough to hold, but too far out to reach with a lariat. It’s a case of wade in and all hands on the tow line. Gradually, with her eyes a-rolling and snorting vengeance out comes the dear old dame.

“’Snub that line!’ yell the boys on foot as they pass the end of the lariat to a rider and then scatter. For just as soon as the cow hits solid footing she lets out a snort and charges her rescuers. No gratitude there!

“She has to be thrown and the rope taken off. This operation takes nerve as it is a case of slipping the rope, then beating it for your horse before the spiteful cow can get up.

“Let’s high-tail it for camp and dinner. The riders are away in a swirl of dust. Arriving at camp tired, sweaty and sore, you crawl off the horse. Your belt buckle feels up against your backbone and you are hungry enough to eat an ox.

“After dinner, with a smile of complaisance and a cigarette in your mush you wander down to the stable corrals and watch riders saddling up fresh horses for the afternoon work, which consists of putting through the corral chutes the buffalo that you helped run into that mile-square enclosure awhile ago.

“On a fresh horse you ramble up to the corrals with a couple of riders who are taking charge of the big slide gates, when the other riders run the bunch in.

“But you notice broken posts and splintered planks here and there which tells you that something besides the wind has been blowing around here.

“Yells in the distance and a drumming of hoofs tells you that the action has started. Coming into view over a fold in the rough ground half a mile away, you see the buffalo coming on the dead run, with riders darting here and there in the rear, herding, holding and turning the buffalo along drift fences.

Riders—at upper left—bring them in at a fast run, darting here and there, herding, holding and turning the buffalo. Some go in–others break back in every direction.

 “As the buffalo near the corral gates, the converging drift fences bunch them into a compact running mass, dust clouds with buffalo and riders all mixed-up. Part go into the corral. Some break back.

“The big gates slide shut with buffalo inside milling. Some charge back at the gate and, landing with a crash, threaten to go through. One hits the side head-on and is hurtled back by the impact with its neck broken.

“Just a spasmodic kick or two and there it lies, dead—rather than submit to being manhandled.

“The others quiet down into a sullen and resentful submission, jumpy and showing fight as riders appear on the corral sides.

“The sweating and heaving saddle ponies are all tied up along the corral, for their part is done. The riders have to get into the corrals with the buffalo and work them afoot. A saddle horse in that corral full of buffalo would not last a minute.

“A man, by keeping on the alert, can always climb out of the way when a buffalo takes after him—though he wants his jumping apparatus in first-class condition.

“With 100 or so in the corrals the cutting out starts. From there on into the chutes one at a time.

“If it’s a beef animal it is released into the beef enclosure where it is held until butchers are ready for it.

“The others are let right through the chutes after being checked for the annual herd census into a 16-square mile enclosure until after roundup.

“That night, back at the bunk house with the riders, a full supper under your belt and the old pipe smoking just right, the excitement of the day is still with you and you want to hear more about this ‘Buffalodom.’

“Now anybody can ride—but to hit the saddle day after day, sunshine and rain, requires more than that. We all rode for wages, yet if that was all we rode for, those old roundups would have been riderless.

“It was for the love of the game and the horses that kept us at it—when hambones were weary and knees felt like lumps of lead. It was the creak of saddle leather, a horse and the lure of the open range that got a fellow—and he stuck!

“So stranger, dawn comes early in range land. Let’s hit the blankets, for there’s still over 6,000 buffalo roaming the hills tonight that we have to corral during the next few weeks.

“Sport? Sure you’ll get lots of it—saddle blisters too—if you ride with the Buffalo Park roundup crew!”

Closing out the Wainwright Herd

In 1925, 1,625 buffalo were shipped out to Wood Buffalo Park. Then for the next four years about 2,000 head made the 700-mile rail and water trek to Great Slave Lake.

For 4 years some 2,000 buffalo travelled 700 miles each year by water and rail to a new home at Great Slave Lake. This photo shows the stockyards where buffalo were loaded onto boats for part of their trip.

The first shipments were branded with ‘Gamb Joint W’ brand. The ‘W’ brand provided identification so that northern game wardens could distinguish the Wainwright buffalo from their own herd. They branded 1,634 head before protests from the SPCA forced them to discontinue branding.

“In 1938 command was received from Ottawa that the Wainwright Buffalo Park Reserve was to be cleared of all animals—to become a National Defense Area,” recalls Cotton.

The pasture was deemed ideal for a military practice range. The buffalo had to go.

In 1945-46, the Camp was used as a prisoner of war facility where over 1,000 German Officers were interned.

“In all the 6,673 head of buffalo they shipped north still holds the record as being the largest movement of wildlife ever undertaken by rail and water.

“Others were rounded up and slaughtered. And the remaining gallant animals that couldn’t be corralled were shot as they roamed the plains.

It was wartime in Europe—time for war preparation in Canada.

“The round-up continued all winter and by spring of ’40 the Battle River Valleys became deserted range lands, void of all animals.

“In the peak years in Buffalo Park we were handling over 8,000 buffalo through the corrals. Two thousand was the record of the annual slaughter through the processing plant. Other years from 1200 to 1600 were cut out for beef and hides.

By 1940 over 40,000 Great Plains Bison were produced and shipped from Buffalo National Park all over North America, Europe and Asia.

“Sam Purshell was our sharpshooter and undoubtedly holds the world’s record with an estimated 39,000 buffalo shot. Sam’s job was a real tough and cold one. Ten to 40 below, he was out in the beef enclosure averaging 50 to 80 animals a day to keep the slaughter house crew busy.

“The buffalo riders too hold a record! Through corrals over 48,000 buffalo were checked through on 19 roundups. In addition to branding 1,634 of the 6,673 shipped north, 60 head of buffalo heifers were dehorned for a special assignment.

“For 30 years the buffalo had again trod the old trails and dug out the sand-filled wallows of their ancestors. The Battle River hills rumbled again with the thunder of mating bulls in mid-summer.

Battle River hills rumbled once again with the thunder of mating bulls in mid-summer for the Leader of the Herd. Now it’s only an illusion for Bud Cotton. Yet he longs to see a faded old buffalo wandering the valleys and sand ridges and looks for him—“Every time I travel over that ridge!” Photo 1909, JH Gano.

“Dust clouds rose from drumming hoofs . . . but now the dust clouds rise as the huge army tanks complete their maneuvers. The Department of National Defense took over on July 1, 1940.

“Allen Treffry rode with us on the roundups for many a year. Later he rode the old Buffalo Range in a jeep for DND.

“Twenty-one years had gone by since we cleared the last buffalo out of the park, but I’ll bet he still looked down in the valleys and sand ridges—hoping to see a buffalo.

“I know I do—every time I travel over that ridge!”

Excerpted from: Saga of the Wainwright Buffalo Reserve, by Bud Cotton, Buffalo Park Warden 1912-1940, from Buffalo Trails and Tales, Wainwright, Alberta, Canada, 1973.

NEXT: Celebrate National Bison Day, November 6, 2021


Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

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