The Buffalo Conservationists—Part 1

The Buffalo Conservationists—Part 1

In essence, the saving of buffalo focused on two major factors.

On the one hand were westerners, both Native American and whites, who saw what was happening to the buffalo and cared about saving them.

With boots on the ground, these people rescued, nourished and protected fragile buffalo calves until they multiplied into healthy and prolific herds.

Without them American bison would likely have gone extinct. There’d be no buffalo in North America today. It almost happened.

 On the other hand were outstanding Conservationists from the east—who came west to hunt buffalo, yes—but who also understood what was going on and fought for refuges and wildlife parks where they could live out their lives in safety.

The Buffalo Conservationists we know best are President Theodore Roosevelt, William Hornaday and George Bird Grinnell. Each made a significant impact on wildlife conservation in the United States—particularly on buffalo.

As young men, their early lives were influenced by nature, by wildlife—and by the west and western values.

Theodore Roosevelt Travels West

Theodore Roosevelt came west to hunt buffalo at age 24—just as the last of the great wild herds vanished forever. He nearly missed them all together.

Roosevelt was considered an eastern dude when he arrived in Medora. But he learned to love the badlands, developed a broad-minded viewpoint as a rancher, became an advocate for the strenuous life and the Conservationist President of the United States.

In fact, he arrived on September 8, 1883 in Medora, Dakota Territory, on the newly finished stretch of the Northern Pacific railway. It was only a month later—in mid-October—that Sitting Bull and his band killed the last 1,200 wild buffalo ranging on the nearby Great Sioux Reservation.

Born in 1858 in New York City into a wealthy family, he struggled as a frail child, was taught by a private tutor and quickly discovered a passion for the outdoors and nature.

A 6-year-old Roosevelt with his younger brother Elliott watched Lincoln’s funeral procession from the second-floor window of their grandfather’s mansion (building at center far left). Photographed at the window, as confirmed by wife Edith, who was also there as a childhood friend. Manhattan, April 25, 1865.

His favorite activities included hiking, rowing, swimming, riding, bird-watching, hunting and taxidermy.

Creating a vast collection of specimens, he filled his boyhood home and later his adult estate with insect collections and mounted animals. Some are still on display in the Smithsonian.

Roosevelt’s youth was dominated by poor health and asthma. He suffered sudden nighttime asthma attacks that terrified both him and his parents. Doctors had no cure. Here photographed in Paris at age 11.

Roosevelt graduated from Harvard and studied law at Columbia. In 1880 he married Alice Lee, a socialite he met there.

Then, deciding not to finish law school, he took an opportunity that opened to him in politics.

 Elected as a Republican to the New York State Assembly at 23, Roosevelt quickly made a name for himself as a foe of corrupt machine politics.

In Medora Roosevelt found and hired a local guide, Joe Ferris. Riding horseback on a 10-day hunt well outside the reservation they flushed out a few lone bulls and one small band of buffalo in the badlands of the Little Missouri River Valley, southwest of Medora.

In his book The Works of T Roosevelt, Memorial Edition, Hunting Trips of a Ranchman, Roosevelt writes about that hunting adventure.

As he relates it, the first buffalo bull they saw plunged out of a little side coulee, taking both he and the guide by surprise.

“A shabby looking old bull bison galloped out and, without an instant’s hesitation, plunged over a steep bank into a patch of broken ground around the base of a high butte.

“So quickly did he disappear that we had not time to dismount and fire. Getting our horses over the broken ground as fast as possible, we rode round the butte only to see the buffalo come out and climb up the side of another butte over a quarter of a mile off.

“In spite of his great weight and cumbersome, heavy gait, he climbed up the steep bluff with ease and even agility, and when he had reached the ridge stood and looked back at us for a moment.

“In another second he made off . . . he must have traveled a long distance before stopping, for we followed his trail for some miles, yet did not again catch so much as a glimpse of him.”

Later they saw three black specks—three more old bulls. They dismounted and crawled on hands and knees.

“We got within about 125 yards and as all between was bare ground I drew up and fired. The bullet told on his body with a loud crack, the dust flying up from his hide; but did not in the least hinder him, and away went all three with their tails up.

“I drew up and fired. The bullet told on his body . . . but did not in the least hinder him, and away went all three with their tails up.” Credit Missoulian, Kurt Wilson.

“For seven or eight miles we loped our jaded horses, occasionally seeing the buffalo far ahead.

“When the sun had just set, we saw all three had come to a stand in a gentle hollow. They faced us and made off, while the ponies put on a burst that enabled us to close in with the wounded one.

“Within 20 feet I fired my rifle, but the darkness and violent labored motion of my pony made me miss.

“I tried to get in closer, when suddenly up went the bull’s tail and, wheeling, he charged with lowered horns. My pony spun round and tossed his head.

“My companion jumped off and took a couple of shots, missed in the dim moonlight and to our unutterable chagrin the wounded bull vanished in the darkness.

A day or so later in the rain they came over a low divide and saw black objects in the distance. Again they crept toward them on hands and knees upwind.

“The rain was beating in my eyes and the drops stood out in the sights of the rifle so I could hardly draw a bead—and I either overshot or else at the last moment must have given a nervous jerk and pulled the rifle clear off the mark.

“At any rate, I missed clean and the whole band plunged down into a hollow and were off before I could get another shot.”

Finally, on the 10th day they passed the mouth of a steep ravine along the Little Missouri River, on Cannonball Creek, close to the Montana border.

Suddenly both horses threw up their heads and looked with alarm toward the head of the gully. 

“I slipped off and ran quickly but cautiously up along the valley. Before I had gone a hundred yards, I noticed in the soft soil at the bottom the round prints of a bison’s hooves and immediately afterward got a glimpse of the animal himself—a great bison bull—as he fed slowly up the ravine not 50 yards off.

“As I rose above the crest of the hill he held up his head and cocked his tail in the air. Before he could get off I put the bullet in behind his shoulder. 

“The wound was an almost immediately fatal one.

“Yet with surprising agility for so large and heavy an animal, he bounded up the opposite side of the ravine, heedless of two more balls, both of which went into his flank and ranged forward—and disappeared over the ridge at a lumbering gallop, the blood pouring from his mouth and nostrils. 

“In the next gully we found him stark dead, lying almost on his back, having pitched over the side when he tried to go down it. 

“He was a splendid old bull, still in his full vigor, with large, sharp horns and heavy mane and glossy coat, and I felt the most exulting pride as I handled and examined him.” 

Roosevelt shot his buffalo on September 20, 1883 on upper Little Cannonball Creek near where it is joined by the Little Missouri, just across the Dakota Territorial line into Montana, according to Joe Wiegand, Theodore Roosevelt scholar, who portrays TR with the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation in Medora. 

At the time Wiegand says Roosevelt and Joe Ferris were using the Nemilla Ranch as a base camp, hosted by Gregor Lang and his 16-year-old son Lincoln, north of today’s Marmarth, ND.  

Roosevelt was so delighted with his hunting adventure in the scenic badlands with rugged buttes and fertile green bottoms all around that he impulsively decided to become a cattle rancher.

Painted Canyon, TR National Park, at sunset. Roosevelt was so delighted with his hunting adventures in the badlands with its rugged buttes and fertile green bottoms that he invested in two cattle ranches. Medora Foundation.

He invested in two cattle ranches—the Maltese Cross seven miles south of Medora and the Elkhorn, 35 miles north. 

The next year TR suffered a double tragedy when his mother and his wife both died on the same day—Valentine’s Day. His wife had given birth two days before to a daughter, also named Alice.

He returned to Medora and spent much of the next two years on his ranch in the Badlands of Dakota Territory.

Roosevelt threw himself into ranching, determined to get a taste of the American frontier before it was gone forever, and to restore his health by living a vigorous life.

In Medora, Roosevelt lived in the saddle, learning to be an authentic cowboy, ranching, driving cattle, hunting—and at the same time overcame his physical weaknesses.

He fell in love with the Little Missouri badlands and admired the strenuous life of the outdoorsmen who lived and worked there, trying to follow their example.

In the North Dakota badlands he lived in the saddle, learning to be an authentic cowboy ranching, driving cattle—he even captured an outlaw and at the same time overcame his physical infirmities.

In Dakota Territory Roosevelt changed from the frail, New York “dude” who arrived there—into a democratic advocate for ranching and the strenuous life who became the 26th President of the United States.

William Hornaday Seeks Buffalo Carcasses

in 1886 William Temple Hornaday also came west to hunt buffalo—if he could find any. 

As chief taxidermist of the Smithsonian Museum, when he learned that buffalo were almost extinct, he surveyed the Smithsonian’s storage closets for buffalo bones and carcasses.

Shocked, he found only one poorly mounted female, a few tattered bison hides and an incomplete skeleton. 

How would future generations of Americans be able to visualize the magnificent mammal that once stampeded across the plains and prairies by the millions, if the greatest museums in the nation had none?

He wanted some buffalo carcasses for mounting, so that future Americans could view them.

William Hornaday and an unidentified man working in the taxidermy lab behind the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC. A bird hangs from the ceiling, and mounted animals line the shelves. Skulls and animal skins are scattered throughout the room. Credit Smithsonian Institution Archives, c. 1880.

Hornaday immediately requested permission to travel west to collect bison carcasses—dead buffalo—lots of them, preferably as many as 80. If that many still existed. 

He planned to shape them into a dramatic new Smithsonian exhibit, unlike any seen before, and share the rest with the foremost museums in the United States, so that when buffalo became totally extinct—as he had no doubt would soon happen—future generations could still view the pinnacle of America’s great wildlife heritage.

Thus began Hornaday’s fascination with the buffalo that continued all his life.

Little did he know then that American Bison would become his obsession, that he’d spend the rest of his life fighting for their survival. 

The last of the great wild buffalo herds had disappeared in October 1883, when Sitting Bull and his band killed the last 1,200 on the Great Sioux Reservation in Dakota Territory. 

But, chasing rumors, Hornaday set forth by train with two museum assistants for the little cow town of Miles City, Montana on May 6, arriving after four days. 

Since his journey was a government project, Hornaday had some clout, and managed to pry loose a few soldiers from nearby Fort Keogh to come along on a buffalo hunt. 

All inquiries, both in Miles City and at Fort Keogh, two miles distant, got the same reply, “There are no buffalo anymore and you can’t get any anywhere!” 

However, one distant rancher on the Little Dry Creek sent a message that was still a chance to find a few buffalo around the Big Dry. 

Five days later their party crossed the Yellowstone River and headed up Sunday Creek to the northwest, where a few survivors might still be living farther north in the rough badlands country known as the Missouri River Brakes.

By this time they had an escort of a Sergeant and four soldiers from Fort Keogh, plus a cook, teamster, wagon, and six-mule team. They purchased two saddle horses for hunting. 

His party rode horseback more than a hundred miles farther, deep into the most rugged country they had ever seen. 

There they had a series of hunting adventures unlike any other, as detailed in Hornaday’s government report, later published as his despairing book on how the “extinction” came about. 

They finally found and captured a lone buffalo calf, which exhausted, had been unable to catch up with its mother. But they never found the herd it came from. 

On the 10th day they found a couple of bulls. They shot one and realized he was shedding his winter coat—leaving his hide so tattered and seedy looking it could not be mounted.

The Hornaday party arrived in May and hunted the remote badlands northwest of Miles City. But when they did shoot a bull, its hide was so tattered and seedy looking they decided to return in September for hides in prime winter condition. Credit NPS, J Schmidt, 1977.

They decided to wait till fall for hides in prime winter condition.

After beseeching local ranchers to spare their intended targets, they took the live calf and returned to Washington.

In late September they returned to the same remote badlands, some 135 miles northwest of Miles City.

“Wild and rugged butte country, its sides scored by intricate systems of great yawning ravines and hollows, steep-sided and very deep and bad lands of the worst description.

“Such as persecuted game loves to seek shelter in,” wrote Hornaday.

In two months of hard riding they found a few small bands of extremely wild stragglers—a lone buffalo bull here, two or three cows with calves there. Seven in one bunch.

By this time they had 10 saddle horses and the help of a few more soldiers from Ft. Keogh.

Splitting up, they rode 25 miles or more each day in different directions.

Searching out “the heads of those great ravines around the High Divide . . . where the buffalo were in the habit of hiding,” they eventually killed 22 buffalo—bulls, cows and calves.

Not the 80 carcasses Hornaday had hoped for, but a raging November blizzard with bitter cold cut short their hunt.

Hornaday felt some pride at the big bull he shot himself.

“A prize! A truly magnificent specimen. A stub-horn bull about 11 years old. His hair in remarkably fine condition, being long, fine, thick and well colored—16 inches in length in his frontlet.”

His bull stood a full six feet tall when they added the four-inch-long hair on the hump—standing two inches taller than their next largest bull.

He was nine-feet-two inches, head to tail. In circumference, eight-foot-four around the chest just behind the foreleg.

The bull had been shot several times before. Within the carcass he carried four old bullets of various sizes—as did nearly every bull they killed in those hidden canyons.

Cover of Hornaday’s book Campfires in the Canadian Rockies. This is the story of a trip he made in 1905 with John M. Phillips to high mountain crags and ledges in the Canadian Rockies. They spent more than a month studying, as no trained naturalists ever had before, the habits of the mountain goat at close range. Phillips photographed them, he said “under conditions of utmost peril.” Photo by JM Phillips.

Returning to Washington, Hornaday and his assistants set to work.

After a full year they unveiled their masterpiece.

There in a huge glass case, visitors to the Smithsonian Museum viewed an enchanting scene.

The grouping of six buffalo in an authentic Montana setting, included Hornaday’s prize stub-horn bull.

The Washington Star described the exhibit on March 10, 1888:

A little bit of Montana—a small square patch from the wildest part of the wild West—has

been transferred to the National Museum. . .The hummocky prairie, the buffalo-grass, the sagebrush, and the buffalo.

 It is as though a little group of buffalo that have come to drink at a pool had been suddenly struck motionless by some magic spell, each in a natural attitude, and then the section of prairie, pool, buffalo, and all had been carefully cut out and brought to the National Museum.

A triumph of the taxidermist’s art!

It was a sight Hornaday feared no one would ever see alive again.

He hid a message voicing his despair in a small sealed metal box in the Montana dirt of the display.

Discovered nearly 75 years later when the exhibit was moved to Montana, curators read Hornaday’s heartfelt plea:

My illustrious Successor

Enclosed please find a brief and truthful account of the capture of the specimens which compose this group.

When I am dust and ashes, I beg you to protect these specimens from deterioration and destruction.

W.T. Hornaday

Chief Taxidermist, March 7, 1888

But Hornaday was not finished. He still had his official report to write: (ital) The Extermination of the American Bison, for the National Museum’s 1887 annual report. It was reprinted as a book in 1889.

George Bird Grinnell Joins the Cause


George Bird Grinnell and hiking party on Grinnell Glacier, Glacier National Park, MT. Credit Morton Elrod, University of Montana, Mansfield Library.

George Bird Grinnell joined the cause of saving buffalo early.

Like fellow conservationists Hornaday and Theodore Roosevelt, Grinnell had a special interest in the west—where he made more than 40 trips from his New York headquarters.

Like them he had hunted buffalo, and in fact, joined the Pawnee’s last great buffalo hunt in 1872, at the age of 22, while still in college.

That year in August Grinnell and a friend took the train to what they considered an exciting new travel destination: Nebraska.

The Pawnee were living on a small reservation along Nebraska’s Loup River. Twice a year, the army allowed the tribe to travel south to hunt buffalo in their historic Kansas hunting grounds.

These “hunts of the Indians [had] been described to me with a graphic eloquence that filled me with enthusiasm as I listened to the recital, and I determined that if ever the opportunity offered I would take part in one,” wrote Grinnell.

With the help of a guide, they found the Pawnee hunting village of 200 lodges spread across the prairie.

The head chief received them warmly telling them the hunt so far, had not been successful.

“But tomorrow,” he promised, “a grand surround will be made.” His young scouts had reported a large herd about 20 miles away.

“Here were 800 warriors, stark naked, and mounted on naked animals,” said Grinnell. “A strip of rawhide, or a lariat, knotted about the lower jaw, was all their horses’ furniture.

“Among all these men there was not a gun nor a pistol, nor any indication that they had ever met with the white men . . . Their bows and arrows they held in their hands.”

Grinnell and 800 hunters thundered across the Kansas plains.

He marveled at the skill of the bareback riders, so perfectly in tune with their horses, that the plains appeared to be “peopled with Centaurs.”

Despite the excitement of the hunters, tight discipline governed their advance. At regular intervals in the front of the procession rode the “Pawnee Police,” whose authority during the hunt was absolute.

Much was at stake. The food supply of the tribe for the next six months would be determined in the moments about to unfold.

Ten miles from camp, the lead riders, Grinnell among them, carefully crested a high bluff.

“I see on the prairie four or five miles away clusters of dark spots that I know must be the buffalo.

“Close now, the hunters change course, using the line of bluffs to conceal their advance.”

Finally, only a single ridgeline separated the mass of hunters from the mass of their prey.

“The place could not have been more favorable for a surround had it been chosen for the purpose,” according to Grinnell.

The terrain before them consisted of an open plain, two miles wide, surrounded by high bluffs.

“At least a thousand buffalo were lying down in the midst of this amphitheater.”

In a classic surround, Indians encircled the herd before the great charge. In this hunt, though, they would employ a variant of the strategy.

“All 800 hunters would ride into the herd from the same side. The objective was for the fastest riders to pass all the way through the herd, then turn back to face it.

Grinnell said great clouds of dust quickly filled the air, along with flying pebbles and clods kicked up by fleeing hooves. He realized that some buffalo were now coming back—directly at him. The herd had been turned. CM Russell painting.

 “If successful, the herd too would turn—into the charging bulk of the hunters.”

Behind the ridgeline, the hunters assembled in a long, crescent-shaped formation. Then over the hill they rode.

“[W]hen we are within half a mile of the ruminating herd a few rise to their feet and soon all spring up and stare at us for a few seconds.

“Then down go their heads and in a dense mass they rush off toward the bluffs.

“The leader of the Pawnee Police gave a cry,  “Lo?-ah!”

“Like an arrow from a bow each horse darted forward,” recalled Grinnell. “Now all restraint was removed, and each man might do his best.”

Grinnell, who had only one horse, soon fell behind the Indians on fresh mounts. Great clouds of dust quickly filled the air, along with flying pebbles and clods kicked up by fleeing hooves.

As he galloped forward, Grinnell could just make out the fastest riders, disappearing into the herd. Soon he could no longer see the ground, relying completely on his horse to navigate the field, aware that falling could mean death.

Halfway across the valley, Grinnell realized that some buffalo were now coming back—directly at him. The herd had been turned.

“I soon found myself in the midst of a throng of buffalo, horses and Indians.”

Grinnell began shooting, “and to some purpose.”

Two-thousand-pound animals tumbled and skidded to the earth around him. Shooting from a galloping horse required a skilled mount, steady hands, and even steadier nerve.

Riders attempted to come alongside a running buffalo, aiming behind the shoulder. It was difficult and dangerous.

“The scene that we now beheld was such as might have been witnessed here a hundred years ago. It is one that can never be seen again.”

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Grinnell lived in Audubon Park as a young man, on what was previously the estate of John James Audubon. His school, conducted by Madame Audubon likely encouraged his interest in the natural world.

As a graduate student and naturalist he rode with General Custer’s 1874 Black Hills expedition. The next year he went with Col. William Ludlow’s expedition to Yellowstone Park, and wrote a scathing report on the poaching of buffalo, deer, elk and antelope that was going on there.

While still a student, George Bird Grinnell went with Col. Ludlow’s expedition to Yellowstone Park and wrote a scathing document relating the disastrous poaching of buffalo and other wildlife, attached to Ludlow’s report.

Grinnell graduated from Yale University in 1870, earned a PhD in 1880 and became an anthropologist, historian, naturalist and prolific writer.

In 1876 Grinnell became editor of Field and Stream magazine and remained there as senior editor and publisher for 35 years. This gave him an excellent platform for his writings on conservation and environmental issues.

He took hunting trips with the well-known guide James Willard Schultz. During a 1885 visit they hiked over the St. Mary Lakes region, naming many of the features in what is now Glacier National Park in Montana—including Grinnell Glacier.

About this area he wrote:

“Far away in Montana, hidden from view by clustering mountain-peaks, lies an unmapped northwestern corner—the Crown of the Continent.

“The water from the crusted snowdrift which caps the peak of a lofty mountain there trickles into tiny rills, which hurry along north, south, east and west, and growing to rivers, at last pour their currents into three seas.

“From this mountain-peak the Pacific and the Arctic oceans and the Gulf of Mexico receive each its tribute. Here is a land of striking scenery.

“There is a solitude, or perhaps a solemnity, in the few hours that precede the dawn of day which is unlike that of any others in the 24, and which I cannot explain or account for. Thoughts come to me at this time that I never have at any other.”

But he also wrote, “We are a water-drinking people and we are allowing every brook to be defiled.”

Hornaday Voices his Despair

In his 1889 book, The Extermination of the American Bison, Hornaday regarded the buffalo extinction as inevitable.

“There is no reason to hope that a single wild and unprotected individual will remain alive 10 years hence,” he wrote.

“And in a few more years, when the whitened bones of the last bleaching skeleton shall have been picked up,” wrote Hornaday. “Nothing will remain of him save his old, well-worn trails along the water courses, a few museum specimens and regret for his fate.” NPS.

“The nearer the species approaches complete extermination, the more eagerly are the wretched fugitives pursued to the death whenever found.”

His official count of the surviving buffalo in 1889 totaled only 1,091 head for all of North America. Half of that total he credited to “very old rumors” of 550 wood buffalo in northern Canada.

That was likely an exaggeration, he admitted. But, “We will gladly accept it.”

However even this number was destined to drop lower. The lowest official number fell to 800 in 1895, according to the count of Canadian historian Ernest Thompson Seton.

The 200 counted in Yellowstone Park had dropped to a low of only 23, as the herd was nearly annihilated by hide hunters lurking at its borders and poachers within, according to the National Park Service.

Hornaday voiced his despair.

“If the majority of the people of America feel that so long as there is any game alive there must be an annual two months or four months open season for its slaughter, then assuredly we soon will have a game-less continent!” he said.

“The wild buffalo is practically gone forever.

“And in a few more years, when the whitened bones of the last bleaching skeleton shall have been picked up and shipped East for commercial uses, nothing will remain of him save his old, well-worn trails along the water courses, a few museum specimens and regret for his fate.”

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Bison Meat: Delicious and Nutritious

Bison Meat: Delicious and Nutritious

Back in 1880, Native people ate buffalo meat with great relish, seasoned or not, whether cooked over a campfire or on a grill. Just as we do today. Photo Nebraska Bison.

“The meat that has ‘ping’ to it—the meat that satisfies.”

That is how Lakota hunters from the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe described the taste of buffalo to the missionary Thomas Riggs on the way to their last winter hunt in December of 1880.

For 15 years buffalo had been gone from their Great Sioux Reservation, due to settlement pressures from the east, but mysteriously they had returned and the older hunters were eager to taste their favorite meat again.

Snow fell almost continuously and the hunting party of 101—about half men and half women and children—followed the Moreau River valley west with buckboard wagons and extra pack horses. Some days they made only three or four miles in deep snow that crusted and grew deeper day by day.

The hunters grew excited that last day as they neared the Slim Buttes, where scouts told them the buffalo had returned.

They talked of how tired they were of eating porcupine, skunk, venison and badger meat. During their journey the party had killed and eaten 148 porcupines and 200 deer.

The Lakota also had brought 500 dogs as back-up if needed—but mostly to fatten up for later.

Then, on the day before Christmas, they made their first local buffalo hunt in 15 years.

The men returned to camp loaded with an abundance of meat and robes. The women helped unload and cared for the meat and hides.

The Lakota on that last hunt in the Slim Buttes were so pleased with Buffalo meat, that they still took delight in it—even after 8 or more weeks of eating only buffalo meat—after all other food, coffee and tobacco was gone. Photo NBA.

Fires crackled, pots boiled. People ate the tasty buffalo meat with great relish. All were smiling and happy.

In fact they were so happy with the hunt and the meat that they stayed in the Slim Buttes hunting area in tepees and tents for 3 months—even though they had packed only enough provisions for 3 weeks and soon ran out of all other food.

From then on they had only fresh buffalo meat to eat—no vegetables, no tobacco, no coffee or tea, except what they made with rose hips.

But still they stayed—even through the coldest blizzards and deepest snow they had ever known—until they had all the buffalo meat and hides they could carry home again.

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

Health-conscious people across the US and Canada have discovered the benefits of Bison meat today. They call it nutritious, hearty, sweet and rich, tasty and tender and nearly fat-free.

Speaking for myself, some of the best meat I ever tasted was at the 3-Day National Bison Association Summer Convention held in North Dakota in 2019.

We ate buffalo meat every day. Tender and tasty! Perfectly seasoned!

Much of the meat was donated by local producers as I remember—so they probably made sure it came from the best bison cuts, from bison of just the right age. No tough old bulls.

The Great American Buffalo Cookbook

Front Cover of the Great American Buffalo Cookbook, available from NBA for only $3. Photo NBA.

The National Bison Association compiled and published a 22-page gem called “The Great American Buffalo Cookbook” in 2002. It’s organized for all cooks, those just getting started with cooking Bison as well as seasoned cooks.

Includes lots of good cooking tips, clearly explained. Everything you need for cooking delicious Buffalo Meals—and all for only $3.00.

You can order The Great American Buffalo Cookbook here: National Bison Assoc, 8690 Wolff Court, #200; Westminster CO 80031, or by visiting the website (Note: even more recipes are available on the NBA website.)

Back cover of the Great American Buffalo Cookbook. A gem of a book published by the National Bison Association in 2002. Photo courtesy of NBA.

This cookbook is only 22 pages, but includes lots of good cooking tips, clearly explained.

(Note: Except for front and back covers, shown above, the colored food photos that illustrate this article are not included in the NBA Cookbook.)

Grilling Buffalo Steaks

Lots of “Hints” and “Tips” are included. The NBA Cookbook starts right out with the basics of grilling a Buffalo Steak.

Cooking hint–Sear both sides of steak on hot grill to keep the juices in the steak, then turn heat down and finish cooking to desired doneness. Photo NBA.

Grilling Buffalo Steaks

Cooking time is important in order not to overcook your steaks. Total cooking time will depend on the thickness of the steaks.

1 inch thick      Rare: 6-8 minutes                   Medium: 10-12 minutes

1 ½ inch thick  Rare: 10-12 min                      Medium: 14-18 min

2 inch thick      Rare: 14-20 min                      Medium: 20-25 min

Steaks recommended for grilling/barbecuing include Rib Eye, T-bones, New York Strip, Flat Iron, Flank and Sirloin.

Less tender cuts of buffalo steaks are not recommended for grilling unless they have been marinated.

Steaks thinner than ¾ inches thick are not recommended for barbecuing or broiling. (Note: Well-done buffalo steaks are not recommended. Due to the leanness of the meat, buffalo has a tendency to become dry when overcooked.)

Buffalo meat, always delicious from the grill, whether steak or sausages. Cooking buffalo to well-done is not recommended, however, due to the leanness of the meat. Photo Buffalo Hills Bison.

Broiled Buffalo Steak

Rub your favorite cut of steak with a combination of a little garlic salt, cooking oil, ground black pepper and lemon juice. The lemon makes it tangy, with a zippy flavor.

Rosemary Marinated Steak

1 sirloin buffalo steak

1 Tbs. dried rosemary

½ cup red wine

¼ cup olive oil


  • For good cooking, preheat broiler or grill at least 5 min. before you broil or grill a steak.
  • Use long handled tongs to turn steaks on the grill. A fork will pierce the meat and allow the flavorful juices to escape.
  • Sear both sides of your steak on hot grill to keep the juices in the steak, then turn heat down and finish cooking to desired doneness.
  • When cutting thin slices of meat, have the whole piece slightly frozen. It will slice easier.

Kabobs made with cubes of Bison steak. Some veggies may be pre-cooked. Photo Quill Creek Farms.

The cookbook is divided into 4 sections, with 6 to 10 recipes in each:

1. Steak and recipes using meat chunks, cubes or slices. Includes Buffalo Fajitas, Pita Pockets, Kabobs, Stew and Stir-Fry.

2. Buffalo Roast and Leftovers, includes Bar-B-que Buffalo, Crock Pot, Buffritos, Sandwich Filling.

3. Ground Buffalo and Buff A Loaf, Buff-N-Biscuit, Chicken-Fried Steak, Meatballs, Lasagna, Cheeseburger Pie, Buffalo Quiche and Chili.

4. Miscellaneous (Buffalo salami, tongue, heart, more).

Further it is noted that Buffalo may be used with any of your favorite beef recipes if you remember these basic tips.

Buffalo Cooking Tips

Buffalo meat is similar to beef and is cooked in much the same way. The taste is often indistinguishable from beef, although buffalo tends to have a fuller, richer (and sweeter) flavor. It is not “gamy’ or wild tasting. Buffalo is low in fat and cholesterol, and is high in protein, vitamins and minerals. Fresh cut buffalo meat tends to be darker red and richer in color than many of the other red meats.

Filet Mignon are prime cuts of the best Bison meat. NBA

Less tender cuts and odds and ends can be easily turned into delicious sausages in casings with the right equipment. Photo Quill Creek Farm.

The lack of fat ensures that buffalo meat will cook faster. Fat acts as an insulator—heat must first penetrate this insulation before the cooking process begins. Marbling (fat within the muscle) aids in slowing down the cooking process. Since buffalo meat lacks marbling, the meat has a tendency to cook more rapidly. Caution must be taken to ensure that you do not overcook buffalo.

  • When oven broiling buffalo, move your broiler rack away from the heat about a notch lower from where you normally broil your beef steaks. Check your steaks a few minutes sooner than you normally would.
  • If you normally cook your roast beef at 325 F, turn your temperature down to around 275 F for buffalo. Plan on the roast being done in about the same amount of time as with a comparable sized beef roast. To ensure the temperature you prefer, we recommend using a meat thermometer indicating the internal temperature.
  • Ground buffalo or Buffalo burger is also leaner (most ranging about 88-92% lean). It will also cook faster so precautions must be taken not to dry out the meat. There is very little (if any) shrinkage with buffalo burger—what you put in the pan raw will be close to the same amount after you cook it. Pre-formed patties tend to dry out faster when grilling. (Hint: the thicker the patty, the juicier the burger.) Although ground buffalo is leaner, there is no need to add fat to keep it from sticking to the pan or falling apart.

All meat, no matter the leanness has enough fat available to cook with it properly. The great thing about ground buffalo is you don’t need to drain off any grease from the pan!

Award Winning Bison Recipes from NBA

A deluxe burger with added tomato slice, onion and lettuce with maybe cheese and bacon enhances the plain burger, which can be a bit dry. Be careful not to overcook. NBA

Additional Bison recipes are available at

Here are some award winners selected by NBA and on their website.

This is an especially good one. For the dedicated chef, I think.

Irish Creek Ranch Best Slider, Winning “Best Bison Slider” Recipe from the NBA’s 2017 Winter Conference.

First Place Bison Burger Slider Recipe, by Karissa Dorey

Irish Creek Ranch Favorite Sliders.

Vermilion, Alberta Bison burgers are something that even the most unlearned, uncultured taste buds can enjoy. (For those of you who believe bison taste “gamey!”)

It is a sure staple on our ranch. Everyone loves it.

My husband every time repeatedly exclaims whilst sinking his teeth into this juicy burger, “This is amazing. People would pay a lot of money for this!”

Hands down this is the BEST burger ever. And maybe even the best BISON burger!

All this being said it is possible to totally screw up a bison burger.

So follow the instructions—especially the burger patty frying part and cover that frying pan!

Irish Creek Ranch Favorite Sliders

Makes: 8 -1/4 lb slider patties

Burger Patties:

2 lbs Ground Bison, thawed
Montreal Steak Seasoning
Worcestershire Sauce
3 Tablespoons Canola Oil

Whiskey Caramelized Onions:
2 Sweet onions
3 Tablespoons Olive oil
8 Brown mushrooms
2 Tablespoons Whiskey

8 slices of Gruyere cheese
8 slices of bacon
8 sourdough slider buns
4 handfuls of arugula

Truffle Aioli Sauce:

3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 lemon, juice
1 cup mayonnaise
3 Tablespoons Truffle oil
2 Tablespoons Dijon mustard


First prepare onions 1 hour in advance:

Cut onions thinly. Place in frying pan over med-high heat, cover and cook onions and oil till

translucent. Take lid off and cook on low for 1 1/2  hour—be sure there is a single layer of onions on bottom of pan. Periodically stir to prevent burning. In the last 15 mins add mushrooms. Let cook. Then in the last 5 mins add whiskey.

Truffle Aioli Sauce:

Stir together all ingredients. Set aside


Cook bacon in advance for about 30 mins in the oven at 375 F. (Cook in a pan with sides lined with parchment paper.)

Burger patties:

Form 8 equal patties. Do not over handle. Sprinkle seasoning and Worcestershire sauce over each burger. Brush canola oil over each burger. Over high heat, heat remaining oil in a large frying pan. Once oil is hot (500 F) place burgers oil side and seasoning side down. Cover pan and cook for 4 mins. Flip and cook for additional 3 mins or until burger patties reach 140 F.

Let sit for 5 to 10 min before serving. Place caramelized onions/mushrooms and then bacon and then cheese over each burger. Cover and cook for additional 1-2 minutes or until cheese is melted.

Place on a freshly toasted bun smeared with Truffle Aioli sauce and arugula or lettuce. Stack from bottom to top: bottom bun, aioli sauce, lettuce, burger, onion/mushroom, cheese, bacon, aioli, top bun. Serve with fresh oven baked sweet potato fries and/or salad.
Karissa Dorey, Irish Creek Bison.

Other winners:

Canadian Prairie Bison Chili, Winner of “Best Bison Chili” Recipe from the NBA’s 2018 Winter Conference.

Colorful Bison Chili, Hawkeye Buffalo Ranch, Runner Up for “Best Bison Chili” Recipe from the NBA’s 2018 Winter Conference.

Sweet and Smoky Island Slider, Runner Up Slider Recipe from the “Best Bison Slider Recipe” Contest

Southwest Bison Pho, by Benjamin Lee Bison2020 NBA Winter Conference Recipe Winner.

Truly Saskatchewan Bison Stew, Winner 2019 NBA Winter Conference Best Bison Stew.

Bison Blue Cheeseburger

Bison Blue Cheeseburger is tasty with Blue Cheese. NBA.


Serves 6

Kathy Cary, Lilly’s, Louisville, Kentucky

Food Photography Jason McConathy

Recipe styling: Cook Street School of Fine Cooking—Denver, Co



1 1/2 lbs. ground bison
1 Tbs. good quality Dijon mustard
2 Tbs. roasted & chopped shallots & garlic
1 tsp. Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce
Splash extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt & fresh ground black pepper to taste
Good quality blue cheese or Roquefort
2 red onions sliced
Balsamic vinegar
2 bulbs fennel sliced



Combine first 6 ingredients and form 6 patties, adding approximately 1 teaspoon of blue cheese into the center of each patty. Grill to order.


2 sliced red onions drizzled with extra virgin olive oil & balsamic vinegar.
Grill until tender.
2 bulbs of fennel, sliced & sautéed until tender.
Toss the onions & fennel together and place on bison burger
Serve with rosemary roasted potatoes and homemade coleslaw.

Bison: High in Protien, Low Fat, Low Cholesterol

Research from Dr. Marty Marchello of our own North Dakota State University is included in the NBA Cookbook—so you can see how Bison compares nutritionally with beef and other meats. His USDA research was done at NDSU in 1996, updated in 2007 and 2013.

Below are Dr. Marchello’s nutritional comparisons for fat, protein, calories, cholesterol, iron and vitamin B-12 of 100 grams of cooked meat (a 3.5 oz serving) from Bison, Beef (both choice and select), Pork, Chicken and Sockeye Salmon.

Dr. Marty Marchello’s nutrition chart compares the fat, protein, calories, cholesterol, iron and vitamin B-12 of 100 grams of cooked Bison meat (a 3.5 oz serving) to that of choice and select Beef, Pork, Chicken and Sockeye Salmon. NDSU.

At the August 2002 meeting of the Missouri Bison Association, Professor Barbara Lohse (Knouse), PHD, RD, LD, a Dietitian from Kansas State University spoke about the nutritional value of Bison meat.

Dr. Lohse, now Associate Professor and Principal Investigator at Pennsylvania State University, said there are many important advantages to bison meat in addition to the well-known “High in Protein, Low in Fat and Low in Cholesterol.”

This is especially important during this time when more people are pursuing healthier nutritional lifestyles, she said.

Dr. Lohse highlighted the following advantages of Bison nutrition:

    • B6 and B12 (Bison is a HIGH source of these vitamins)
      • Vitamin B12 is only available from animal sources
      • Vitamin B12 has been shown to keep the elderly mentally alert
      • Vitamin B6 is needed for protein metabolism
    • Sodium (Bison is a LOW source of Sodium)
      • High sodium intake is associated with hypertension
    • Potassium (Bison is a HIGH source of Potassium)
      • Key to lowering Blood Pressure
      • Most foods high in potassium are also high in calories
      • Bison contains 1/3 more potassium than chicken
    • Iron (Bison is a HIGH source of available Iron)
      • Necessary for hemoglobin formation and prevention of anemia.
      • Bison is 3 times higher in Iron than pork or chicken.
    • Selenium (Bison is a HIGH source of Selenium)
      • An antioxidant shown to help prevent cancer.
      • Bison has 4 times higher amount of Selenium than the USDA recommends as an antioxidant
    • Conjugated Linoleic Acid (Bison is a high source of CLA)
      • Antioxidant that has been shown to help prevent cancer
    • Calories (Bison is a LOW source of calories) 1/2 the calories of pork and chicken

Ranch to Table: The buffalo meat market

Many customers prefer to buy Bison meat from local producers directly or at Farmer’s Markets, enabling them to know just where their meat comes from. Photo Quill Creek Farms.

“Now buffalo can be found in many grocery stores, health food stores, meat markets and mail order companies. Make buffalo a regular item on your family’s dinner table and enjoy the great taste and healthful benefits of buffalo,” says the NBA website.

Also available on the NBA website is a list of producers who sell and ship Bison meat.

Beware of Water Buffalo Masking as American Bison

In her presentation Dr. Lohse emphasized the big differences between meat from American Bison (Bison) and Water Buffalo originating in Asia or Africa—recently being sold in the United States. Packages are often designed to resemble homegrown Bison.

In NUTRITION CHARTS she notes that American Bison meat is labeled “Bison,” not “Buffalo.” If you purchase meat labelled “Buffalo” it is probably imported water buffalo.

The NBA Cookbook, published earlier, doesn’t mention this. It can be a bit confusing because the Cookbook calls for “Buffalo” in its recipes. (Just remember Dr Lohse’s tip above when purchasing meat. Otherwise, we accept the terms as interchangeable.)

Don’t make the mistake of buying Buffalo meat unless it’s labelled “Bison.”

Note that buffalo today are butchered young—at 2-3 years of age—while they are tender and tasty. In addition buyers often have the choice whether to buy grass-fed or grain finished bison meat—which is a bit higher in fat, preferred by some. Many other health-conscious customers prefer and enjoy grass-fed bison meat.

It’s not like old days when the big old bulls were easiest to shoot, running on the outside of a stampeding herd to protect the more tender and tasty young bulls and cows running farther inside.

Native American hunters knew this and found a way to get past the old bulls, to the more tender and well-flavored young bulls and cows. In our histories they often told of how they’d shoot several bulls running on the outside of the herd to get past them and reach the more tender—and tasty—young bulls and cows being protected there.

Only if a hunter wanted a special trophy head, or huge tough hides for covering the tepee did he settle for older bulls. Likely, tenderness was less of a concern when their meat was dried for making jerky or pemmican.

Native Americans Love and revere the taste

Today, with their own tribal herds—no question, the opportunity to again eat buffalo meat is cherished by Native Americans.

They love and revere the taste of real Bison meat.

Tribes with buffalo herds use much of their own buffalo meat within the community.

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

Today Indian tribes with their own herds use much of their buffalo meat within the community for special events and as an honored part of the healthy foods in diabetes programs. Because buffalo meat is low in fat and cholesterol and high in protein, highly absorbable iron and zinc, it is considered a healthy food. When grass fed it is even lower in fat and more nutrient-dense. Photo InterTribal Buffalo Council.


 “We take our children to the kill,” explains LaDonna Allard, Tribal Historian for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

“The process is carried out with due ceremony, with prayer and thanksgiving, she says. “We thank the buffalo.”

A high-powered rifle takes down the animal, so it is killed instantly to alleviate suffering.

The carcass is then skinned and cut up in traditional ways, with all parts used in ceremonies—horns, skulls, bones and hides.

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

The Fort Peck tribes in Northeastern Montana have built their own butchering facility, out near the corrals, for tribal members who want to purchase and slaughter their own buffalo from the business herd of about 200 head.

Robert Magnan, Fort Peck Fish and Game Director, says he buys a buffalo himself each year and shares it with relatives, as do around three dozen other tribal members.

One of the easiest and most tasty ways to prepare Bison Burgers is on the grill. Photo by Nebraska Bison


“We have all the equipment—saws, grinder—and they bring their own wrap. We teach them how to cut up the different parts—roast, steaks. Grind the tougher cuts and scraps for hamburger. [We teach] how to cook them.”

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

For meat used in the tribes’ federally subsidized programs the Ft Peck tribes haul live animals to the nearby small town of Scobey, where they are processed in a USDA meat inspected plant.

A buffalo carries less meat than a steer, he says, about 800 pounds on the carcass.

The Fort Peck tribes offer buffalo hunts, as many as 40 or 50 a year from their business herd.

In 2014 hunters paid the tribe $850 for a two-year-old bull, $1,200 for a dry cow, $1,500 for an ordinary bull, and up to $10,000 for a big bull with well-formed horns.

Many are return hunters who come from foreign countries—Korea and Germany—and Texas and other states throughout the US.

Magnan’s staff instructs hunters to wait until they can shoot an animal off by itself—one of the five or six in a pasture with blue ear tags, designated for paid hunting. They are told not to fire into the herd.

Magnan insists the selected buffalo needs to be put down quickly without suffering. He goes with the hunter and carries a rifle to finish the job himself if the paying hunter only wounds it.

In many tribes, anyone putting on a community feed can request buffalo meat.

Buffalo is served at graduations, namings and community celebrations, and has become an honored part of the healthy foods in diabetes programs.

Because buffalo meat is low in fat and cholesterol and high in protein, highly absorbable iron and zinc, and is considered delicious and exceptionally healthy, it is welcomed as a healthy food. When grass fed, it is even more nutrient-dense.

Diabetes is a serious concern in many Indian tribes.

Tribal leaders attribute their higher diabetes risk to genetics and reservation living, which often leads to a sedentary lifestyle and diet high in sugar and fat.

Today’s lifestyles are quite unlike the traditionally active lifestyles and lean, high protein diets of 100 years ago. 

“Buffalo meat, grass fed meat—this is something people with diabetes can eat that is good for them,” Alvah Quinn explains in talks at schools.

Buffalo meat is considered a healthy meat for people with diabetes. Photo North Fork Bison.


 “We can offer 100 percent pure buffalo meat to our tribal members for nothing or almost nothing. With all the diabetes in Indian Country, eating right is important.”

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Part 2—ITBC, 30 years—Yellowstone Bison Dilemma

Part 2—ITBC, 30 years—Yellowstone Bison Dilemma

From the time he learned of it, Robert “Robbie” Magnan director of the Fort Peck Fish and Wildlife Department in northeastern Montana was troubled by the annual buffalo slaughter of excess buffalo in Yellowstone Park.

It was not enough that the bison meat was distributed to Indian tribes in neat frozen packages.

Magnan and other founding members of the InterTribal Buffalo Council (ITBC) cherished the Yellowstone Park genetics that had flowed from free-roaming bison for more than a hundred years. They wanted those genetics in their own tribal herds.

Not quite the same as “always having lived wild” in Yellowstone Park. They knew that only a reported 23 buffalo survived poaching in the Park—back in the 1890s—and the wild Yellowstone pastures had been replenished by relatively tame buffalo from half a dozen sources, both US and Canadian. So not many were actually “pure.”

Still, the Yellowstone buffalo are special and many Native people deeply desire those genetics in their tribal buffalo herds.

The target population in Yellowstone Park is 3,000 buffalo, no more. But with new calves growing up in the herd it can quickly balloon up to 5,000 or more.

Because of the risks of spreading brucellosis to cattle herds, Montana law says that no bison can leave Yellowstone Park alive.

According to Montana Game and Fish, half the bison and elk in the Park test positive for brucellosis.

Hence, the surplus gets butchered, except for a few tribes allowed to come hunt at the borders in honor of ancient treaties that promised hunting rights.

One of the original founders of ITBC, Magnan has advocated to halt the slaughter of Yellowstone buffalo since 1992.

Two years later, in 1994, ITBC presented their first quarantine proposal to Yellowstone National Park, offering land and resources to support the development of quarantine facilities.

Over the years, Magnan often received bison meat for his tribe from this surplus.



Still, it rankled—even though the Park was 400 miles away, on a diagonal across Montana from his Sioux and Assiniboine Indian Reservation at Fort Peck.

Traveling the Big Pasture

But this was a gorgeous July morning in northeastern Montana. Problems created by winter overpopulation of Yellowstone Park buffalo seem far away.
Sweet breezes waft across the flat between the higher bluffs and the badlands below as Robbie Magnan heads his pickup farther north into the large quarantine pasture.

I was privileged to ride along over the green hills that summer morning in 2014.

Below us to the south we could see bits of the silver ribbon that was the mighty Missouri River—flowing east as it does through most of Montana.

We were looking for the 39 buffalo from Yellowstone Park that recently came to live in this generous pasture—about 20 square miles (equal to a rugged chunk of land four miles by five)—13,000 acres.

They have lots of space to roam and might be anywhere—up on the grassy plateau or down one of many gravel and juniper draws.

Magnan says this herd of buffalo often walk 8 or 10 miles a day while grazing.

They keep moving, so he never knows where to find them.

“I promised I’d look at them every day and that’s what I do.”

He chuckles and you know there’s nothing he enjoys more than bouncing over the grassy flats, up and over the dam and out on a high point of land each morning to scan the badland draws below for the little Yellowstone Park herd.

It was one step in an ambitious experimental program, and Robbie Magnan is an important link in the quarantine process.

He checks levels in a new water tank and the new, higher and stronger quarantine fence being built within the quarantine pasture for later Yellowstone Park arrivals.

It’s a well-fortified 320-acre pasture within a pasture—for extra security.

As we bounced over the terrain—sometimes on a dirt road or trail, sometimes straight across the prairie, up and down—Robbie tells me the amazing story of this small priceless buffalo herd and the quarantine research that brought it here.

The scientific research, still ongoing, studies whether Yellowstone Park buffalo that test negative for brucellosis as calves can continue to live disease-free.

The goal is to grow this very special herd and then, if still disease free, establish them in a wider area, where they can live and multiply on tribal lands outside the Park.

Magnan is pleased with his new six-wire buffalo-tight wildlife exterior fences—a smooth wire on top and bottom for deer to jump over and antelope to crawl under, with four taut barbed wires in between.

“As long as they have grass like this, water and the minerals they need—and we test the soils for that— they’ll stay in,” he says.

If not, they’ll go looking for what’s missing.

“We call them wide-ranging, not free-ranging like in Yellowstone. It’s not realistic to think buffalo will ever be free-ranging without fencing. They will always be in a fence.”

This lovely summer morning Magnan drives over two hours searching for the Yellowstone herd.

“Just one more place to look!”

We bounce over the next hill, down a grassy draw—and sure enough, there they are.

Magnificent, extra-large, extra-dark beauties, 39 young adults.

All these animals are the same age, since they were placed in quarantine as calves in Yellowstone Park, lived there several years before coming to Ft. Peck. Annually they have tested negative for brucellosis.

Although these buffalo are not family, because they were selected for diverse genetics, they have formed a tight family group.

They now have 12 calves and bunch together as they graze.

Curious and friendly, several walk over to surround the pickup, to sniff at us and grunt their greetings for a few minutes. A magical interchange.

Looking for treats, I thought. But they didn’t get any and moved on.

Best of all, there’s a new baby calf, born this morning.

The older calves are turning dark, the crests of their heads nearly black between little nubs of black horns, as it’s already mid-summer.

But this newborn baby is pure red-gold. He shines bright as a shiny new penny in the morning sun.

Magnan has hopes of increasing this cultural herd enough to achieve a natural diversity with a self-sustaining genetic base.

He has worked with the Fort Peck Fish and Wildlife for 20 years, 17 of them with their tribal buffalo herds.

“From the beginning of time, the buffalo have taken care of Native Americans. Now they need our help,” he explains.

In the distance, in another pasture, we glimpse a hundred or so of the Ft. Peck tribes’ other buffalo herd filing down a long hill to water.

Magnan calls the Yellowstone Park buffalo our cultural herd and the others—over there—our business herd.


He waves toward the buffalo surrounding us. These buffalo know him well. They also know his pickup.

“To us these are extremely valuable, like registered cattle. They’ll never be sold. We’ll use them only for cultural purposes.”

As we watched the Yellowstone herd, they spread out a bit, grazing, while several calves take the opportunity to nurse.

Then, still grazing, the herd comes together in a small, compact band and moves on up the green draw around a rocky point out of sight.

“The money we generate from our business herd is to take care of our cultural herd. This is a way we could feed our people if the social programs were stopped.”

One problem that concerns Robbie Magnan: none of these buffalo grew up in a multi-generational herd—since they were separated from their mothers and quarantined together as calves.

He wonders: How will they learn the wisdom of the herd? How will they understand the complexities of normal buffalo relationships?

However, so far the quarantine is working. No brucellosis outbreaks with these maturing young buffalo.

And Magnan and his staff have shown themselves capable. None have escaped.

Then it came time to relocate an additional 145 buffalo.

These were held five years in quarantine on Ted Turner’s Green Ranch near Bozeman—and before that in Yellowstone Park quarantine at Stephens Creek in the northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park—where they’d been captured and held in quarantine.

Montana authorities declared it too soon to divide them among the various entities, as planned. So instead they trucked them to Fort Peck’s quarantine pastures.

Robbie Mangan’s buffalo crew took over managing both Yellowstone herds.

“I enjoy them,” he says. “After 16 years they are still teaching me.”

The local press was on hand when the new herd arrived from Yellowstone Park at the Ft. Peck pasture. It was already dark.

As trucks rolled across the bridge leading to the release site near Poplar, a group of Assiniboine people stood waiting, singing a welcome.

An unforgettable moment for those on the bridge.

“We sang for them—a buffalo song,” said Larry Wetsit, vice president of community services at Fort Peck Community College.

“It’s a special day. Our people have been waiting and praying about this.”

During early reservation days hundreds of tribal members had starved, including his own ancestors, Wetsit said.

“It was all about having no buffalo. That was the low part in our history, the lowest we could go. This is a road to recovery.”

Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation, one of the agencies involved in the Interagency Bison Management Plan for dealing with Yellowstone Park brucellosis problems, was there for the release.

“We believe it’s the right thing to do for wildlife. It’s the right thing to do for the tribes. And ultimately the right thing to do for the landscape,” he said.

“What this means to me is the return of prosperity to our people,” said Wetsit.

An Assiniboine, Wetsit has been the medicine lodge keeper for over 20 years, a ceremony he learned as a young man.

“It’s a celebration of our life with the buffalo.

“What we’ve always been told, always prayed about, is that the buffalo represents prosperity. When times were good it was because our Creator gave us more buffalo.”

Iris Grey Bull, a Sioux member—the Fort Peck reservation is home to both Assiniboine and Sioux tribes—spoke about their close ties to the buffalo.

“The waters of our reservation form the shapes of buffalo,” she said. “One male is to the east and four females to the west.

‘Now they’re bringing back the buffalo. This is a historic moment for us. We’re rebuilding our lives. We’re healing from historical trauma.”

“I watched the bison come out of the trailers,” Schweiger recalled. “I was watching the faces of tribal elders and the women and children watching these big animals charge out of the trailers.

Homecoming on Tribal Lands

“I was so moved to see the reaction—a powerful thing to witness. After the animals were released the drummers sang a blessing. The snow was blowing,” said Schweiger.

“It was cold. It was dark. But there was a lot of warmth.”

On August 22, 2013, the remaining 34 buffalo of the same pure Yellowstone Park strain as those at Fort Peck were released on nearby Fort Belknap Reservation.

Montana’s governor Brian Schweitzer called the event a historic opportunity to bring genetically pure buffalo to this special place on the planet.

“These are the bison that will be breeding stock to re-populate the entire western United States, in every place that people desire to have them,” he said.

Gathered to welcome them with a pipe ceremony were 150 people.

“It’s a great day for Indians and Indian country,” announced Mark Azure, who heads the Fort Belknap tribe’s buffalo program.

The last two big bulls flipped up their tails and ran from the trailer to join the herd.

Mike Fox, Belknap’s tribal councilman, said the tribe’s goal is to manage the special buffalo herd and use it as seed stock for other places wanting to reintroduce the Yellowstone strain.

“It’s a homecoming for them,” Fox said. “They took care of us and now it’s time for us to take care of them.”

Robbie Magnan waited, his most prized herd was not allowed to travel to other tribes, as was planned.

Film: Return of the Native: 25 Year ITBC History

A wonderful film was made on the history of ITBC. I know our readers will enjoy it when you have time to check it out. Narrated by Mark Azure of the Fort Belknap tribe in Montana.

In this documentary you’ll learn more about the groundbreaking work that Tribal leaders have done to restore buffalo to Indian Country. It’s split into 3 parts—close to an hour long.

Also you may want to watch the related short video: ITBC’s “Returning the Buffalo.”


Just click on this website:
Or you can watch the various parts of the film on YouTube:

But on a rather sad note, the film ends with Robbie Magnan standing a lonely vigil by his empty quarantine pasture—320 acres. Enclosed by walls of 8-foot high woven-wire fences and inside that is a 2-wire electric fence strung within the perimeter.

Well barricaded against escape, but empty and silent.

After 2014 no buffalo came from Yellowstone to his quarantine pasture for years.

Progress was stalled while cattlemen protested the quarantine system in Montana courts. They remained concerned about losing their brucellosis-free status again—which would prevent them from selling their cattle.

Introducing the Indian Buffalo Management Act

Meanwhile new legislation called The Indian Buffalo Management Act was introduced in 2019 by Congressman Don Young (R-Alaska) to assure regular funding for the buffalo restorations programs in Indian country.

It was unanimously approved and passed out of the House Natural Resources Committee but did not make it to a vote in the 116th Congress.

According to his office, Congressman Young would likely need to reintroduce the bill in the 117th Congress. He pledged to continue working with tribal leaders, state and local partners, and other advocates to ensure that herds of these majestic creatures can be restored to their historical sizes.

“For hundreds of years, the American buffalo was central to the culture, spiritual wellbeing, and livelihoods of our nation’s Indigenous peoples,” said Congressman Young.

“The tragic decimation of these iconic animals remains one of the darkest chapters in America’s history, and we must be doing all that we can to reverse the damage done not only to the American buffalo, but to the way of life of Native peoples across our country.

“I am proud to be joined by Congresswoman Deb Haaland and Congressman Tom Cole, in addition to Alaska Native and American Indian organizations and countless tribes, as we introduce this critical legislation to protect a resource vital to Native cultural, spiritual, and subsistence traditions.

“I would like to thank the InterTribal Buffalo Council, in particular, for their advocacy and hard work on the development of this legislation. This bill is an important step to restoring once-vibrant buffalo herds, and I will keep working with friends on both sides of the aisle to see this legislation across the finish line.”

“The Pueblo of Taos greatly appreciates Congresswoman Deb Haaland’s support of reintroduction of Buffalo to Indian lands through her co-sponsorship of the Indian Buffalo Management Act,” said Pueblo of Taos leadership.

“This Act will allow the Pueblos of New Mexico to enhance existing herds, start new herds, reintroduce buffalo into Native population diets and generate critical tribal revenue through marketing.”

“When it becomes law, the Indian Buffalo Management Act will strengthen the federal-tribal partnership in growing buffalo herds across the country and in the process restore this majestic animal to a central place in the lives of Indian people,” said John L. Berrey, the Chairman of the Quapaw Nation of Oklahoma. 

40 Bulls shipped to 16 Tribal herds


Then in August 2020 transfers were announced for 40 young Fort Peck buffalo bulls declared brucellosis-free by the state of Montana and the US Department of Agriculture.

At last, they were cleared for travel and slated for donation to 16 buffalo tribal herds in nine states.

Fifteen bulls were sent out to the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe, Prairie Band Potawatomi, Modoc, Quapaw, Cherokee and Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes.

A few days later more bison were hauled to the Blackfeet, Kalispell Tribe, Shoshone Bannock Tribes, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, Oglala Sioux Tribe, Forest County Potawatomi and Oneida.

Logistics for two more tribes were still being worked out.

Arnell Abold, an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe, is the InterTribal Buffalo Council’s Executive Director. She says this moment is a celebration for tribes, the National Park Service and the state of Montana.

“This is huge for us, and we’re eternally grateful and humbled by this moment, and we look forward to putting more animals back on the landscape and returning them to their homeland,” Abold said.

Megan Davenport is a wildlife biologist with InterTribal Buffalo Council.

“Tribes have been advocating for the last 30 years, particularly with this Yellowstone issue, that there’s a better alternative to slaughter,” Davenport said.

These animals marked the second transfer of bison from the Fort Peck Indian Reservation’s quarantine facility to other tribes, she said. The first was five bison sent to the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming.

On Dec 12, 2020, Ervin Carlson, of the Blackfeet tribe in western Montana, writing for ITBC as board president, reported on how it all this came about.

“It’s been 27 years since ITBC submitted the first proposals to quarantine and transfer Yellowstone buffalo as an alternative to their slaughter,” he said.

“It’s been only four months since this has been actualized, with the first tribe-to-tribe transfer of 40 brucellosis-free Yellowstone bulls sent from Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes’ quarantine facility to 15 native nations through ITBC.

“While this is a massive victory and testament to 30 years of inter-tribal efforts to protect the Yellowstone buffalo, it has not been achieved without significant challenge.

He explains that in 1992 tribes were denied a seat at the table in the process of drafting the environmental impact statement for considering management alternatives for Yellowstone buffalo.

“Despite denied participation, ITBC persisted, introducing proposals and resources to develop a quarantine program.”

In 1997 ITBC submitted their first proposals to build quarantine facilities on tribal lands.

“This achieved overwhelming support from public citizens, nonprofits and federal agencies, though roadblocks persisted.

“ITBC finally won a seat at the Interagency Bison Management Plan in 2009 to protect and preserve the Yellowstone buffalo.”

“Due to the dedication of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux tribes, and the 30 years of arduous activism by ITBC, the tribes completed construction of their quarantine facility in 2014.

“This facility was built to accommodate all phases of quarantine and can handle approximately 600 buffalo on 280 acres surrounded by double fences.

“With the assistance of ITBC, the tribes continue to improve this facility by expanding the number of pastures through cross fencing, increasing the capacity for additional groups of buffalo.

“The construction of this facility was initiated upon the request of the National Park Service.

“The Fort Peck quarantine facility is still not used to its full potential because a Montana law and federal regulations are misapplied to the tribes.

“The capacity of the facilities in and near the Park are not adequate to allow new groups to enter the quarantine program each year resulting in a larger number of buffalo being slaughtered. These facilities cannot accommodate as many buffalo as Fort Peck.

“No animals will enter the quarantine program this winter.

“Each winter, buffalo migrate outside the boundaries of Yellowstone, and either face capture and shipment-to-slaughter (442 animals last winter) or hunting by tribes utilizing treaty-secured rights (284 animals last winter).

“Because there is limited capacity in the facilities in and near the Park and a refusal to use the Fort Peck facilities to their full potential, more buffalo will be slaughtered this winter.

“ITBC’s solution of quarantine and translocation, the alternative nearly 30 years in-the-making, helps offset the number of buffalo killed for migrating outside of the Park’s invisible fences.

“The buffalo that consecutively test negative for brucellosis for years within the program are transferred to tribal lands to preserve their unique genetics and restore Tribal spiritual and cultural relationships.

“They are the descendants of the buffalo our Native ancestors lived with for centuries, and are honored and revered by the many nations with whom they find a home.”

Ervin Carlson, ITBC’s President for the past 17 years stated, “ITBC appreciates the efforts of the state of Montana in supporting quarantine operations and is deeply grateful to the US Department of Agriculture, Yellowstone National Park and to the Fort Peck Tribes for their dedicated partnership in accomplishing this mission.

“Finally, this moment would not be possible without our Member Tribes’ years of participation, support, and tireless work to ensure that buffalo and Native people are reunited to restore their land, culture, and ancient relationship across North America.”

Testing and Quarantine Continue

Before shipping the Yellowstone Park buffalo out to other tribes the Fort Peck tribes did a final quarantine testing.

It was an unforgettable bright August morning in the northeast corner of Montana.

Robbie Magnan, Game and Fish director for the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, rose before dawn to round up and ease the 40 buffalo bulls into closer corrals near the loading chute.

“There’s always been a lot of hoops that we’ve had to jump through, and it’s something that we’ve just worked diligently for a lot of years to get this far for this happening today,” said Carlson.

“So today is real gratifying, just to be able to get some animals out of [the park] and to tribes alive.”

“We have a drum group out here. They’ll sing the prayer songs to send the buffalo safely to their new homes, that they travel safe and receive blessings and say goodbye for us, and we’ll send them on their way,” Jonny BearCub Stiffarm says.

You’ll notice here at this gathering that there’s some real little children. Buffalo will always have been a part of their lives,” BearCub Stiffarm says.

“And so for a lot of us older generation, to be able to see that circle become complete has really been meaningful.”

If you’re experiencing quarantine fatigue, these bulls can relate, their handlers say.

“These guys have been in there for years,” Magnan says. “Most of their life they’ve been in some type of quarantine.”

They endured two years of quarantine at Yellowstone National Park, where they started their lives, before being transferred to Fort Peck for final years of isolation and disease testing.

“But today is a good day, because they’ll go to a home where they’ll never have to be tested again,” Magnan says. “And they have the rest of their life to enjoy being a buffalo.”

Their new homes are as far from here as Kansas, Wisconsin and Alaska. It was to be the largest ever inter-tribal transfer of buffalo.

A semitrailer backs up to the chute to start the first ones on their journey.

It takes two hours and lots of commotion for a group of tribal Game and Fish employees, plus a handful of community volunteers, to coax the 2,000-pound bulls through the chute and onto the trailers.

The Cherokee continue to work with the Council, which awards surplus bison from national parks each year to its member tribes, and hopes to obtain another 25 or 30 cows.

The two young bulls, each between 1,000 and 1,500 pounds, were trucked over 1,000 miles to Delaware County, Oklahoma this week.

Both animals managed the stress of the trip well, said Cherokee Deputy Chief Bryan Warner. They were at first held separately from the others in the herd to be slowly introduced into the population.

The two bulls will put on hundreds more pounds each to reach their massive 2,000-pound adult size, and in the meantime they will find their place in the hierarchy among other bulls and eventually reproduce naturally among the herd, he said.

As descendants of the buffalo that once roamed free more than 100 years ago, the new genetics bring a lineage to the herd welcomed in more ways than one, he said.

“Yellowstone buffalo are significant to tribes because they descend from the buffalo that our ancient ancestors actually lived among, and this is just one more way we can keep our culture and heritage and history alive.”

“This partnership with the InterTribal Buffalo Council continues to benefit the Cherokee Nation by allowing the tribe to grow a healthy bison population over the last five years,” Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr said in a press statement.

“Historically, bison provided an essential food source for tribes. Every part of the bison was used for food, clothing, shelter, tools and ceremonial purposes. These newly acquired bison will help revive some ancient cultural traditions, as well as provide expanded economic opportunities for future generations of Cherokees.”

Although bison are associated more with the Great Plains tribes, wood bison once roamed the Cherokee lands and all along the Atlantic Coast. Prior to European colonization, the animals played a critical role for the Cherokee people as a vital food source.

Until 2014, the Cherokee had not raised bison for 40 years. After spending two or three years working with the InterTribal Buffalo Council, the tribe’s herd now has about 180 bison.

Robbie Magnan says all this hard work is worth it to restore an animal that was once the center of life for many tribes across the Great Plains and Mountain West.

Along with other long-time workers in ITBC he believes contemplating a herd of buffalo can bring Native tribal members a sense of peace, love and strength in dealing with life’s problems.

The ITBC and the Fort Peck Tribes say this is the first of many large inter-tribal buffalo transfers out of the quarantine program.

This winter, they plan to transfer 30 to 40 animals, an entire family group, to one lucky tribe that can prove it has the resources to care for them.

Come spring, the ITBC is expecting a new shipment of buffalo from Yellowstone National Park to the Fort Peck Reservation.

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Part 1—InterTribal Buffalo Council Restores Herds—and More

Part 1—InterTribal Buffalo Council Restores Herds—and More

Whether it is unique training opportunities, large scale restoration goals, more effective marketing or Native cultural issues, ITBC has worked with tribes to restore buffalo on tribal lands. Photo ITBC.

Over and over delegates testify: As we bring the buffalo back to health, we also bring our own people back to health. And that’s what it’s all about.

In February 1991, a meeting in the Black Hills of South Dakota, hosted by the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society, brought Native people from all four directions, as is traditional, to talk about a topic that concerned them all.

How can Indian tribes with experience raising buffalo help other tribes restore buffalo to their lands? Why is this important to us?

Representatives of each of 19 tribes—most of them from the Plains states—spoke of their desire to obtain or expand buffalo herds and grow them into successful, self-sufficient programs.

Many difficult and complex problems were involved that tribes and herd managers had faced alone—with mixed results.

Each tribe that desired buffalo needed to purchase or set aside enough suitable lands for year-around grazing or hay lands, fence that land with high, sturdy fences, and obtain buffalo—all expensive options.

Not all tribal members agreed with the value of such land use.

Next, they needed to manage the herd wisely, so if possible, the buffalo herd would be financially self-sufficient.

Growing the herd, with a healthy calf crop each year—so they produced enough meat for tribal and ceremonial uses and young stock for sale or expansion—was essential.

Furthermore, far beyond the economics of it, most buffalo enthusiasts expressed concerns that they inspire others—not merely to restore live buffalo to tribally-owned pastures across the United States—but that they restore them in ways compatible with their traditional spiritual and cultural beliefs.

Although some tribes and tribal members had engaged in production of buffalo for sale and/or for subsistence and cultural use, these activities were conducted by each individual tribe, with little or no collaboration between tribes.

Frequent droughts on the Plains brought unexpected set-backs.

Some managers were able to fill some needs, and not others. Some herds dwindled and ended. Many managers became discouraged at the high costs and seemingly slight benefits.

Yet, others succeeded well.

As the meeting ended, all representatives knew they wanted to continue the discussion and find ways to work together to help each other.

It was plain to all that an organization to assist tribes with their buffalo programs was sorely needed.

With hard work and dedication of the group, the US Congress was approached with the need to appropriate funding for tribal buffalo programs. That June, in 1991, Congress voted to provide funding and donate surplus buffalo from national parks and public refuges to interested tribes.

This action offered renewed hope that the sacred relationship between Indian people and the buffalo might not only be saved but would in time flourish.

The intertribal group agreed to supervise federal grants and distribution of the animals.
Buffalo began coming home to reservations in earnest.

The Tribes again met in December 1991 to discuss how the Federal appropriations would be spent.

At this meeting, each tribe spoke of their plans and desires for buffalo herds and how to help existing tribal herds expand and develop into successful, self-sufficient programs.

In April of 1992 tribal representatives gathered in Albuquerque, NM.

It was at that meeting that the InterTribal Buffalo Council (initially called the InterTribal Bison Cooperative—ITBC)—officially became a recognized tribal organization. Officers were elected and began developing criteria for membership, articles of incorporation and by-laws.

In September of 1992, ITBC was incorporated in the state of Colorado and that summer established a permanent office in Rapid City, South Dakota.

“Having the buffalo back helps rejuvenate the culture,” says Jim Stone, Rapid City, Executive Secretary of the Intertribal Buffalo Council and a Yankton Lakota.

“In my tribe, like others, the buffalo was honored through ceremony and songs. There were buffalo hunts and prayers to give thanks to the buffalo.”

The council has adopted the mission of “Restoring buffalo to Indian Country, to preserve our historical, cultural and traditional and spiritual relationship for future generations.”

Thirty years of Tribal Buffalo Progress

Today, 30 years later, 69 federally recognized Tribes from 19 states have joined the Intertribal Buffalo Council. Most of these tribes own a buffalo herd, for a total of more than 20,000 buffalo living in tribal herds across the United States today.

Sixty-nine Tribes with ITBC herds in 19 states are divided into 4 regions with over 20,000 buffalo—most are west of the Mississippi River. ITBC.

InterTribal Buffalo Council Member Tribes

  • Alutiiq Tribe of Old Harbor
  • Blackfeet Nation
  • Cheyenne Arapaho of OK
  • Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe
  • Chippewa Cree Tribe
  • Cochiti Pueblo
  • Comanche Tribe of OK
  • Confederated Salish & Kootenai
  • Confederated –Tribes of the Umatilla
  • Crow Tribe
  • Crow Creek Sioux Tribe
  • Eastern Shoshone
  • Flandreau Santee Sioux
  • Fort Belknap Indian Community
  • Fort Peck Tribes
  • Ho-Chunk Nation
  • Iowa Tribe
  • Jicarilla Apache
  • Kalispel Tribe
  • Lower Brule Sioux Tribe
  • Mesa Grande Band of Mission Indians
  • Miami Tribe of OK
  • Modoc Tribe of OK
  • Nambe Pueblo
  • Nez Perce Tribe
  • Northern Arapaho
  • Northern Cheyenne
  • Omaha Tribe of NE
  • Oneida Nation of WI
  • Osage Nation
  • Picuris Pueblo
  • Pit River
  • Pojoaque Pueblo
  • Ponca Tribe of NE
  • Prairie Band Potawatomi
  • Prairie Island Dakota Community
  • Quapaw Tribe of OK
  • Rosebud Sioux Tribe
  • Round Valley Tribe
  • Ruby Tribe
  • Salt River Pima
  • Sac & Fox of Mississippi
  • San Juan Pueblo
  • Sandia Pueblo
  • Santee Sioux Tribe
  • Seneca-Cayuga of OK
  • Shawnee Tribe
  • Shoshone-Bannock Tribes
  • Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate
  • Southern Ute Tribe
  • Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe
  • Spokane Tribe
  • Standing Rock Sioux Tribe
  • Stevens Village
  • Taos Pueblo
  • Tesuque Pueblo
  • Three Affiliated Tribes
  • Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa
  • Ute Indian Tribe
  • Winnebago Tribe
  • Yakama Nation
  • Yankton Sioux Tribe


ITBC is committed to helping each tribe bring buffalo herds on Indian lands in a manner that promotes cultural enhancement, spiritual revitalization, ecological restoration and economic development.

Many are Plains tribes with a long history of dependence on buffalo for food, shelter and clothing.

Others have no known history of hunting buffalo, but desire the cultural experience.

“Today’s resurgence of buffalo on Tribal lands, largely through the efforts of the InterTribal Buffalo Council, signifies the survival of the revered buffalo culture as well as survival of American Indians and their culture,” says Ervin Carlson, Blackfeet, President of ITBC.

Ervin Carlson, president of ITBC, member of the Blackfeet tribe in northwestern Montana, recently stated their goal this way:

“For Indian Tribes, the restoration of buffalo to Tribal lands signifies much more than simply conservation of the national mammal.

“Tribes enter buffalo restoration efforts to counteract the near extinction of buffalo that was analogous to the tragic history of American Indians in this country.” In other words, they see the two tragic events as similar and parallel to each other.

“Today’s resurgence of buffalo on Tribal lands, largely through the efforts of the InterTribal Buffalo Council, signifies the survival of the revered buffalo culture as well as survival of American Indians and their culture.”

“We have many cultural connections to the buffalo,” says Alvah Quinn, a Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate from South Dakota, former manager of the tribal buffalo program.

“I grew up hearing about the buffalo, but we didn’t have any around on the reservation.’

His tribe’s last recorded buffalo hunt was in 1879.

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

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

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

After three decades, Intertribal Council leaders are even more convinced of the value of these buffalo herds.

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

They’ve seen how bringing buffalo back to tribal lands helps to heal the spirit of Indian people.

Today some tribes own very large buffalo herds, for commercial as well as cultural purposes.

The Crow Tribe has 2,000 buffalo running free-range on their large, mountainous reservation spanning the state line between Billings, Montana, and Sheridan, Wyoming.

Pauline Small on horseback, carries the flag of the Crow Tribe of Montana. As a tribal official, she is entitled to carry the flag during the Crow Fair parade at Crow Agency, south of Billings, Montana. The Crow have one of the largest tribal herds, at 2,000 head.


At Pine Ridge, the Oglala Sioux raise 1,100 including both tribal and college buffalo herds, and Rosebud also raises 300 under a tribal umbrella, reports Stone.

Other tribes set goals for a small herd mostly for cultural and educational purposes, explains Mike Faith, long-time tribal buffalo manager and now tribal chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux, who also serves as Vice President of the Executive Council of the Intertribal Buffalo Council.

Mike Faith, Vice President of ITBC, Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman and long-term manager of the tribal buffalo herd, advises “Quality over quantity is what counts.” ITBC.


Faith has worked with the InterTribal group since its beginnings. He says a new tribe might slaughter only one or two buffalo a year for special celebrations and ceremonial use.

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

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

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

The Intertribal Council offers training and educational programs and coordinates transfer of buffalo and grant funds.

Troy Heinert, ITBC Range Technician, visits Rosebud, SD, helping Wayne Frederick and his crew work 2014 surplus bison “on hold” so they can be released out into the pasture. ITBC, Facebook, October 31, 2014.


Experts are available to help tribal leaders work out management and marketing plans that fit their particular concerns and goals, if desired.

Details like building high, strong fences before the buffalo arrive are essential—and costly.

Big bulls can jump six feet or more.

Round or angled corrals work better than square, as buffalo tend to jump when they hit a corner.
They may get hung up and die of a heart attack.

Corrals work best when built with sorting tubs and alleyways with enclosed sides so animals move ahead without seeing out. Curved alleyways are helpful so buffalo think moving ahead is a way to escape.

There may be grants available to help defray costs, the experts tell the tribes.

A buffalo herd needs plenty of space, grass and water. On request, experienced leaders will visit to help determine goals and advise on land base.

Sometimes they recommend reducing animal numbers to better accommodate the land available.

They also work with federal agencies to help bring fractured lands together.

A manager with training in low-stress buffalo handling is preferred.

Handlers familiar with raising cattle will find surprising differences, Faith explains.

For instance, many cowboys shout at their cattle when chasing them.

But buffalo are essentially wild animals, he says. They feel stressed with noise and pressure, so it’s better to move them quietly and slowly.

Arnell D. Abold, of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux) Tribe, was recently appointed to the position of the Executive Director for the InterTribal Buffalo Council. Ms Abold is the first Native woman to serve as Director of ITBC since its inception in 1992.

Arnell D. Abold, of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux) Tribe, serves as Executive Director for the InterTribal Buffalo Council. The first Native woman Director of ITBC since its inception in 1992, she has served as its Fiscal Director since Nov. 2001. ITBC.


Ms. Abold previously served as the Fiscal Director.  She continues to devote her career to the vision and the mission of the organization.

Her passion, belief, and devotion to the buffalo and the membership tribes that hold the buffalo sacred is what drives her dedication and loyalty to the organization.

Tribal Buffalo Success Stories

One of the first tribes to raise buffalo, the Taos Pueblo, in northern New Mexico in the valley of a small tributary of the Rio Grande, obtained them in 1902 or 1903 from the Goodnight herd, according to Jim Stone, of the ITBC.

The Salish-Kootenae had buffalo too, perhaps descended from the original calves brought by Samuel Walking Coyote to the Montana Flathead reservation.

On South Dakota Indian reservations, the Pete Dupree and Scotty Philip families continuously raised buffalo from the wild in the 1880s.

Some early private buffalo herds did not survive long or were removed during the brucellosis eradication program, says Stone.

Most replacement buffalo now come from the federal park system and have been disease-free for decades.

The Yakama herd grew from 12 buffalo in 1991 to more than 200, producing 40 to 50 calves every year. The tribe, located in south central Washington on the Columbia Plateau, hopes to expand its buffalo herd to 400 over the next few years, and furnish more meat for tribal elders and low-income families.

Eventually the Stillaguamish Tribe near Arlington, Washington plans to share buffalo meat with neighboring tribes and make it available to the general public.

ITBC Buffalo herd arrives at new home in Montana. Photo

In 1997, the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin started their buffalo herd with 13 heifers and a bull from Wind Cave National Park.

When she saw the delighted response of Native People on western reservations to the return of buffalo, Pat Cornelius, now Oneida herd manager and former board member of the Intertribal Bison Cooperative, felt sure her people would be heartened as well by a herd of their own.

She describes the arrival of the first 14 buffalo as an awesome spiritual moment.

“The earth shook!” she said, when the animals jumped from trucks.

By 2007, the Oneidas owned 120 cows and bulls, with 43 calves.

The presence of buffalo has made a big difference to them, Cornelius says, describing the many local people visiting daily in summer and winter from a specially-built viewing mound and shelter.

The Eight Northern Pueblo tribes of New Mexico, like many other Native Americans, live on the land of their ancestors. Five maintain buffalo herds and cooperate to diversify bloodlines.

The Picurís herd began over a decade ago with one female and one bull. It has grown to 80 head, not including spring calves.

Their buffalo are pastured in a field close to the road, so visitors often stop.

Tribal herd manager Danny Sam cautions them that it is not safe to walk among the buffalo.

Sam serves as secretary for the Intertribal Buffalo Council and has been involved with the program since the beginning.

He has seen many changes. One he does not care for is that federal inspections, taken over from the state, require more paperwork, charge a fee and classify buffalo as an exotic species, rather than livestock. 

“They’re not an exotic species,” Sam says. “They’re native to this country.” 

New Bison Herds in Alaska

 Alaska may not seem like a natural home for buffalo. But bones and petroglyphs prove the larger wood buffalo lived and were hunted there in ancient times.

The first Alaskan group to join the restoration program, after Athabascan tribes began introducing plains buffalo, was at Stevens Village near Delta Junction.

The new herd there includes 38 buffalo, 14 of them calves, obtained with help from the Intertribal Buffalo Council.

Rocky Afraid of Hawk, a Lakota Oyate elder and the Council’s spiritual advisor, flew to Alaska from South Dakota for a welcoming ceremony.

He told the Athabascan people that buffalo were placed on earth to teach people how to live.

“You can learn from them.” he said.

Afraid of Hawk presented the village with a buffalo skull to use in ceremonials and prayers. To bless the event, he burned sagebrush in a metal can with coals from the fire. 

Randy Mayo, first chief of the Stevens Village tribal council, carried the smoldering sage to guests and let them wave smoke over their faces.

The village presented Afraid of Hawk with tobacco and salmon strips.

Traditional chief David Salmon, a Chalkyitsik elder, sat on a folding chair beside a wood fire, relating buffalo stories told by his grandfather.

Beside him, Herb George, a Stevens Village tribal council member, stirred a bubbling soup made with buffalo meat.

He said he was making soup the way his father taught him—like a traditional potlatch soup, but with buffalo bones instead of moose.

Mayo believes being around the buffalo can help people work through their problems.

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

He has learned a lot.

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

 Stevens Village leaders encouraged other Athabascan villages to start their own buffalo herds.

A Holistic Approach at InterTribal Buffalo Council

Lisa Colome, Technical Service Provider for the Intertribal Buffalo Council in Rapid City, served as rangeland specialist, but like others who work there, she takes a holistic approach.

A Cherokee elder who came from Oklahoma for training told her of their first herd.

“I can’t tell you what it meant to us,” he said. “I really believe with the return of the buffalo there’ll be an awakening of our people.” 

Teaching young people about traditional relationships and spiritual connections to the buffalo is important to Colome. “This is what tribes are seeking.”

Teaching buffalo values to children are important to Indian tribes. Young people have a natural awe of buffalo, reports Lisa Colome, Technical Service Provider at ITBC headquarters in Rapid City, SD.

“Native kids have a natural connection to the buffalo,” she says, her dark eyes warming.

“They’re just naturally born with this awe. They are never disrespectful and show genuine caring.”

She enjoys bringing children to see the buffalo.

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

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

It’s easy to see that Colome is excited about her work, whether her day focuses on herd and forage health, or cultural and spiritual ties. Not always do tribal herds bring financial benefits, she knows—often quite the opposite. But always she sees cultural value. 

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

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

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

15 Facts About Our National Mammal: The American Bison

15 Facts About Our National Mammal: The American Bison

Department of Interior  5/9/2016

The American Bison was named the national mammal of the United States on May 9, 2016. This majestic animal joins the ranks of the Bald Eagle as the official symbol of our country—and much like the eagle, it’s one of the greatest conservation success stories of all time.

In prehistoric times, millions of bison roamed North America—from the forests of Alaska and the grasslands of Mexico to Nevada’s Great Basin and the eastern Appalachian Mountains. But by the late 1800s, there were only a few hundred bison left in the United States after European settlers pushed west, reducing the animal’s habitat and hunting the bison to near extinction. Had it not been for a few private individuals working with tribes, states and the Interior Department, the bison would be extinct today.

Explore more fun facts about the American bison:

1. Largest mammal in North America

Bison are the largest mammal in North America. Male bison (called bulls) weigh up to 2,000 pounds and stand 6 feet tall, while females (called cows) weigh up to 1,000 pounds and reach a height of 4-5 feet. Bison calves weigh 30-70 pounds at birth.

Bison at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Colorado. Photo by Jim Carr, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

2. Department of Interior Stewardship

Since the late 19th century, Interior has been the primary national conservation steward of the bison. Public lands managed by Interior support 17 bison herds — or approximately 10,000 bison — in 12 states, including Alaska.

A bison calf walks between two adults. Photo by Rich Keen, DPRA.

3. Bison vs Buffalo

What’s the difference between bison and buffalo? While bison and buffalo are used interchangeably, in North America the scientific name is bison. Actually, it’s Bison bison bison (genus: Bison, species: bison, subspecies: bison), but only saying it once is fine. Historians believe that the term “buffalo” grew from the French word for beef, “boeuf.”

A resting bison at Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge. In 1907, the American Bison Society and the New York Zoological Society donated 15 bison to the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma. Today the refuge’s herd includes an estimated 650 bison. Photo by Nils Axelsen.

4. Yellowstone National Park Only Place Continuously Lived*

Yellowstone National Park is the only place in the U.S. where bison have continuously lived since prehistoric times. What makes Yellowstone’s bison so special is that they’re the pure descendants (free of cattle genes) of early bison that roamed our country’s grasslands. As of July 2015, Yellowstone’s bison population was estimated at 4,900—making it the largest bison population on public lands.

: A bison walking by the Grand Prismatic Spring at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. Photo by Jennifer Michaud.

5. Baby Bison called “Red Dogs”

What’s a “red dog”? It’s a baby bison. Bison calves tend to be born from late March through May and are orange-red in color, earning them the nickname “red dogs.” After a few months, their hair starts to change to dark brown and their characteristic shoulder hump and horns begin to grow.

A bison and calf at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Colorado. Photo by Rich Keen, DPRA.

6. Bison and Native Americans are Intertwined

The history of bison and Native Americans are intertwined. Bison have been integral to tribal culture, providing them with food, clothing, fuel, tools, shelter and spiritual value. Established in 1992, the InterTribal Buffalo Council works with the National Park Service to transfer bison from national park lands to tribal lands.

The National Bison Range in Montana. Photo by Ryan Hagerty, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

7. Watch Bison’s Tail for Warning

You can judge a bison’s mood by its tail. When it hangs down and switches naturally, the bison is usually calm. If the tail is standing straight up, watch out! It may be ready to charge. No matter what a bison’s tail is doing, remember that they are unpredictable and can charge at any moment. Every year, there are regrettable accidents caused by people getting too close to these massive animals. It’s great to love the bison, but love them from a distance.

A bison watching over a calf at Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Diana LeVasseur

8. Wind Cave National Park Herd Started New Herds

Wind Cave National Park’s herd helped revive bison populations around the country. The story starts in 1905 with the formation of the American Bison Society and a breeding program at the New York City Zoo (today, the Bronx Zoo). By 1913, the American Bison Society had enough bison to restore a free-ranging bison herd. Working with Interior, they donated 14 bison to Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota. More than 100 years later, the bison from Wind Cave have helped reestablishing other herds across the United States and most recently in Mexico. 

A small herd of bison at Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota. Photo by Tim Ehrlich.

9. Bison look Lazy but don’t be Fooled

Bison may be big, but they’re also fast. They can run up to 35 miles per hour. Plus, they’re extremely agile. Bison can spin around quickly, jump high fences and are strong swimmers.

A bison charging through a river at Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Donald Higgs.

10. Buffalo eat Grass, Weeds, Browse

Pass the salad, please. Bison primarily eat grasses, weeds and leafy plants—typically foraging for 9-11 hours a day. That’s where the bison’s large protruding shoulder hump comes in handy during the winter. It allows them to swing their heads from side-to-side to clear snow — especially for creating foraging patches. Learn how bison’s feeding habits can help ensure diversity of prairie plant species especially after a fire.

Bison in the snow at Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Neal Herbert, National Park Service.

11. President Teddy Roosevelt Helped save Bison

From hunter to conservationist, Teddy Roosevelt helped save bison from extinction. In 1883, Teddy Roosevelt traveled to Dakota Territory to hunt bison. After spending a few years in the west, Roosevelt returned to New York with a new outlook on life. He paved the way for the conservation movement, and in 1905, formed the American Bison Society with William Hornaday to save the disappearing bison. Today bison live in all 50 states, including Native American lands, wildlife refuges, national parks and private lands.

A bison stands alone in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. Photo by Brad Starry.

12. Average Lifespan 10 to 20 Years

Bison can live up to 20 years old. The average lifespan for a bison is 10-20 years, but some live to be older. Cows begin breeding at the age of 2 and only have one baby at a time. For males, the prime breeding age is 6-10 years. Learn how Interior works to ensure genetic diversity and long-term viability of bison.

Bison herd on the move. Photo by Neal Herbert, National Park Service

13. Buffalo Enjoy a Wallow

A little dirt won’t hurt. Called wallowing, bison roll in the dirt to deter biting flies and help shed fur. Male bison also wallow during mating season to leave behind their scent and display their strength.

A bison rolling around in the dirt of a wallow. Photo by Jim Peaco, National Park Service.

14. Ancient Bison came from Asia

The American bison’s ancestors can be traced to southern Asia thousands of years ago. Bison made their way to America by crossing the ancient land bridge that once connected Asia with North America during the Pliocene Epoch, some 400,000 years ago. These ancient animals were much larger than the iconic bison we love today. Fossil records show that one prehistoric bison, Bison latiforns, had horns measuring 9 feet from tip to tip.

Bison standing in the snow at the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

15. Bison have Poor Eye Focus

Bison are nearsighted—who knew? While bison have poor eyesight, they have excellent senses of smell and hearing. Cows and calves communicate using pig-like grunts, and during mating season, bulls can be heard bellowing across long distances.

A bison checking out a park information sign at Wind Cave National Park. Photo by National Park Service.

 *Although DOI recognizes Yellowstone Park as being “the only place” in the US where bison have continuously lived since prehistoric times, they are overlooking the herd started by the Fred Duprees on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in South Dakota.

The facts are that just before the last wild buffalo herd was finished off on Standing Rock in October 1883, Pete Dupree and his brothers and sisters brought a buckboard wagon, along with extra horses, to the rich buffalo ranges about 60 miles from their home on the Cheyenne River at the mouth of Cherry Creek.

This was in the spring of 1881 or 1882 when calves were newborn. There the Native American Duprees captured 5 buffalo calves and tied them in the wagon. They took them home and nourished them for years until the herd grew to 83 head of full-blood buffalo, running on the reservation.

Meanwhile the Yellowstone Park herd had dwindled to a low of about 25 head. It was replenished with buffalo from a number of sources across the United States and Canada.
Francie M. Berg

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Wood Bison Versus Plains Buffalo

Wood Bison Versus Plains Buffalo

Part 2 to come: Wood Bison in Alaska
Part 3 to come: Wood Bison in Canada

Wood Buffalo bulls tend to be taller and more square at the hump than Plains Buffalo. Historically, they lived in the boreal forests of Northern Canada and Alaska where snow is deep and long-lasting. Parks Canada.

Wood Bison are the largest land mammal in North America.

Adult males stand 6 feet tall at the shoulder and measure 10 feet long.

This is about one-third larger than the Plains Buffalo.

The Wood Buffalo are also considerably heavier.

Parks Canada maintains a bison weight database going back to 1956.

During all that time, the records show only one Plains Bison bull that weighed more than a ton (2000 pounds or 909 kg).

At the same time–when fully grown—one-third of the Wood Bison bulls exceeded this weight.

Wood Buffalo females are considerably smaller than bulls, generally weighing around 1,200 pounds.

Wood Bison are about 15 percent heavier than Plains Bison.

Original distribution of Wood Bison during the last 5,000 years (stippled). Based on available zooarcheological and paleontological evidence and oral and written accounts. Parks Canada.

Scientists say the larger size is an adaptation to the more extremely long-lasting and cold climate of the far north.

Historically, Wood Bison range extends through the boreal forests of Alberta, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and much of the Northwest Territories, Yukon, and Alaska, as in the above map.

Boreal forests are defined as forests growing in high-latitude environments where freezing temperatures occur for 6 to 8 months and in which trees are capable of reaching a minimum height of 5 m and a canopy cover of 10 percent.

The Wood Bison is often distinguished by his taller, more box-like hump that has its highest point well ahead of his front legs.

Parks Canada suggests this kind of hump has evolved in the Wood Bison to support a more massive muscle structure that helps them sweep their head through deep northern snows to provide more access to the grasses and sedges beneath the snow in a long winter.

By contrast, the highest point of the Plains Bison’s hump is directly above the front legs, with the hump more smoothly rounded.

This accomplishes the same result—as a structure to sweep away snow. However, the snow tends not be as deep, long-lasting and formidable in their usual range as that which hits farther north.

Below are noted distinctions between Wood Buffalo and Plains Buffalo as presented by Parks Canada.

The highest point of the hump is well forward of the front legs on Wood Bison. Cape blends smoothly toward the rear. Parks Canada, used with permission.


  • Highest point of hump well forward of front legs
  • Virtually no chaps on front legs
  • A thin scraggly beard
  • Neck mane short, does not extend much below chest
  • Cape grades smoothly back towards the loins with little if any demarcation
  • Forelock lies forward in long strands over forehead
  • Hair usually darker, especially on head

Smoother, more rounded hump, centered over front legs. More pronounced cape ends at shoulder. Parks Canada.


  • Highest point of hump is directly over the front legs
  • Large thick chaps on front legs
  • Thick pendulous beard
  • Full neck mane extends below the chest
  • Sharply demarcated cape line behind the shoulder
  • Thick bonnet of hair between the horns
  • Cape usually lighter in color
  • About one-third smaller than a Wood Bison

In addition to size and hump distinctions the differences between Wood and Plains Bison can be separated into pelage and structural characteristics.

The Wood Bison is distinguished by darker color, absence of chap hair on the front legs, and a less distinct, but darker cape of the shoulders, hump, and neck region that grades smoothly back onto the loins.

They have a thin pointy beard; shorter and less dense hair on the top of the head, around the horns, and beard. A skimpy neck mane and longer and more heavily haired tail.

Their head is large and triangular, with large shoulders and long dark brown and black hair around head and neck.

Males possess short, thick, black horns that end in an upward curve, while females have thinner, more curved horns.

Wood Bison vocalizations are also different from the sounds made by Plains Bison. And the Wood Bison’s social interactions during the rut tend to be less violent.

Hardy from birth, Wood Bison calves can stand when they are only 30 minutes old and run alongside their mothers within hours of birth.

Plains Bison tend to have hair character which is lighter, larger and more obvious—with more variation in color. A yellow-ochre cape spreads over the shoulders and ends with noticeable separation in texture and color.

They grow a thick bonnet of hair between the horns, covering the lower horns, and a full neck mane extending below the chest.

The Plains Bison sport a full beard and large chaps on the front legs, and the tail is short and thin.

For their part, the National Park Service in the United States offered these 2 sketches in a Bison Bellows feature in April 2018.

Wood Buffalo sketch reveals differences with Plains Buffalo. Courtesy van Zyll de Jong et al. NPS.

Wood Buffalo

  • Highest point of hump forward of front legs
  • More abrupt change of contour along back
  • Tail longer and more heavily haired
  • Penis sheath tuft shorter and thinner
  • Horns clear of hair cover
  • Hair on forehead lower and longer
  • Neck region longer than in Plains Bison
  • Absence of chaps

Plains Buffalo sketch shows more long hair cover in front parts of animal. Courtesy van Zyll de Jong et al. NPS

Plains Buffalo

  • Highest point of hump over front legs
  • Declining back slope
  • Tail shorter and thinner
  • Penis sheath tuft longer and thicker
  • Horn often covered by dense hairs
  • Yellow-ochre cape
  • Sharp separation from cape in texture and color
  • Chaps (skirt)
  • Larger beard

Two Subspecies Recognized

Wood Buffalo prefer boreal forests of Canada. They are largest land mammal in North America. Parks Canada.

Modern American buffalo are identified in 2 subspecies well suited to their respective environments.

The prolific Plains Buffalo grazed throughout the open country and the shy Wood Buffalo clustered in small groups in forest and mountain terrain, especially favoring the far north.

Under scientific classification, the American Plains Buffalo is listed as genus Bison, species bison bison, and subspecies Bison bison bison.

The Wood Buffalo is Bison bison athabascae, named for an Indian word, a lake.

“Athabascae” recognizes the Cree native name for the large Lake Athabasca and surrounding watershed in Canada. Athap-ask-a-w means grass or reeds here and there.

Drawing of Wood Bison (top) and Plains Bison (bottom) bulls during summer at Elk Island National Park, Saskatchewan. Sketch courtesy of Wes Olson.

Interestingly, early scientists of the 19th century marked these differences and gave the two subspecies their scientific names.

It was thought that Wood Buffalo were “the finest specimens of their species, superior in pelage, size, and vigor to those of the Plains whose descendants today exist in our parks.”

Then came a time of debate. Many argued the differences were not genetic, but simply a function of the environment where they live.

However, a large-scale study in the early 1990s analyzed Canadian data and found the two subspecies maintain their respective traits regardless of where they live and what they eat.

More recent research at the University of Alberta reveals genetic differences, thus supporting those early scientists. Sufficient difference was found between Wood Bison and Plains Bison, it was thought, to warrant two different subspecies names.

Yet scientists have discussed through the years whether the two subspecies are simply ecotypes.

In other words, if Wood Bison were placed in Plains Bison habitat, or vice versa, might they eventually assume the traits of typical Bison there, simply due to environmental pressures?

 Subspecies Still Questioned

Science, of course, is always open to revision.

Not all scientists agree with the subspecies designation.

One who disagrees is Matthew Cronin, University of Alaska Fairbanks professor of animal genetics. He is based at the Matanuska Experiment Farm in Palmer.

In 2013, Dr. Cronin and colleagues studied 65 Wood Bison from 3 herds and 136 Plains Bison from 9 herds in Alaska, Montana, Utah, Wyoming, New York, Alberta and the Northwest Territories, along with a database of differing cattle breeds.

The Cronin findings are published in the online May 10, 2013 issue of the Journal of Heredity.

Cronin pointed out that the term subspecies denotes a formal category and that evolutionary history is a primary criterion for subspecies designation.

For instance, European cattle and tropical cattle have separate origins, are genetically distinct and thus have a scientifically supported subspecies designation, he says.

“This creates a paradox for biologists because subspecies can be designated by one author, rejected by another and still others reject the entire subspecies ranking.”

He contends that Wood and Plains Bison originally had ranges adjacent to each other, rather than separate origins.

Therefore they should be considered differing geographic populations, not subspecies.

He notes that some Plains Bison are more genetically different from each other than they are from Wood Bison.

Despite Cronin’s evidence, Parks Canada and conservation groups in Alaska operate under the guideline that Wood Bison are a distinct and separate subspecies and ideally, should not be hybridized with Plains Bison.

Spokesperson Cathy Rezabek says that US Fish and Wildlife contends the two groups of bison are separate.

“We based our finding on the scientific information available, which indicated that there has been historical physical separation in their ranges, as well as behavioral and physical differences and genetic differences. “

“Worth preserving whether or not they are formally recognized as a subspecies.” At Elk Island Park the two subspecies are kept separate.

In this light, bison conservationists agree on several things, she noted:

1) Multiple morphological and genetic characteristics distinguish Plains Bison from Wood Bison;

2) Wood Bison and Plains Bison continue to be morphologically and genetically distinct, despite some historic forced hybridization; and thus

3) Wood Bison constitute a subspecies of bison, and therefore, should be managed on a par with Plains Bison.

An eminent Canadian wildlife biologist once observed that “debating taxonomy does not absolve humans of the responsibility to protect intra-specific diversity as the raw material of evolution.”

Another suggests that the Wood Bison population is in a class by itself, “Worth preserving whether or not they are formally recognized as a subspecies.”

Therefore, park authorities keep separate the two subspecies to retain their natural traits.

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

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