Part 2—30 years with the ITBC – Dilemma of the Yellowstone Park Bison

Part 2—30 years with the ITBC – Dilemma of the Yellowstone Park Bison

Bison grazing in Yellowstone Park as a storm rolls in. Jacob W Frank, NPS.

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.

Bison in deep snow in Yellowstone Park. As snow gets deeper in winter, more buffalo leave the mountains for lower elevations. Overpopulation speeds migration out of the Park. Neal Herbert, NPS.

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.

South Dakota Lakota gather near the butchering facility in Yellowstone Park to honor the buffalo. NPS.

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.

Native children enjoy bison burgers for school lunch. Unlike their parents, they have always been familiar with buffalo living nearby in Tribal herds. Courtesy ITBC.






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.

“From the beginning of time, the buffalo have taken care of Native Americans. Now they need our help,” says Robert Magnan. Photo ITBC.


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.

The Yellowstone Park herd at Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Reservation in northeastern Montana. All adults are the same age because they were captured as calves the same year. Curious and friendly, several walk over to sniff the pickup. They grunt their greetings—a magical interchange. Then they move on up the green draw and out of sight. Photo by FM Berg.

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.

First Yellowstone bison out of the trailer at Ft. Peck Indian Reservation. Jacob W. Frank, NPS

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.

Bringing in Yellowstone bulls at the Fort Peck Buffalo Ranch for their final brucellosis tests before they move on to new homes. Photo Davenport, ITBC.

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.

Tribal members cheer and snap photos as 34 Yellowstone Park buffalo come off the trailer and race off into a 1,000 acre pasture on the plains of the Ft Belknap Reservation in northern Montana in 2013. Photo by Rion Sanders, Great Falls Tribune.

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.”

The spiritual eagle staff seen here represents all the Intertribal Buffalo Council’s member tribes. This photo was taken in January 2003 near Miami, Oklahoma. Credit InterTribal Buffalo Council.


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.”

New genetics in the animals arriving from the ITBC to Pueblo tribes of New Mexico enable them to improve existing buffalo herds, start new herds, reintroduce buffalo into Native population diets and generate critical tribal revenue.

“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

Forty Ft Peck buffalo originating in Yellowstone Park were loaded for relocation in 16 tribal herds across 9 states in August 2020. Courtesy Rich Peterson.


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.

“It’s been 27 years since ITBC submitted the first proposals to quarantine—as an alternative to slaughter,” said Ervin Carlson, president of ITBC. Now the first Yellowstone Park buffalo have been trucked to permanent homes on tribal lands.

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.

Jonny BearCub Stiffarm is one of a dozen or so tribal members who came to see the buffalo off. Loring Schaible, Sept 4, 2020.

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.

Buffalo captured in Yellowstone Park as calves and testing negative for brucellosis spend most of their lives confined in fairly small quarantine pastures, until they can be cleared for distribution to waiting Indian tribes.

“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.

Several of the Fort Peck Tribes’ buffalo are rounded up through a series of pens before being loaded onto a semi-trailer on Sept 4, 2020. Robbie Magnan in rear coaxes them along to the next pen with a tarp. Loring Schaible.

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.

Loading in trucks can be hard work and stressful for buffalo and handlers alike. ITBC.

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.

Two bison bulls from Yellowstone Park tussle after their arrival at the Cherokee Buffalo Herd Ranch near Bull Hollow in Delaware County. Courtesy Cherokee Tribe.

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 scopes the grassy draws of his large quarantine pasture to check on their Yellowstone Park herds. Credit Fort Peck Tribes.

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

InterTribal Buffalo Council Restores Herds—and More, Part 1

InterTribal Buffalo Council Restores Herds—and More, Part 1

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

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

Harvey Wallbanger, racing buffalo

Harvey Wallbanger, racing buffalo

Meet Harvey Wallbanger, a formidable sprinting buffalo seen on racetracks of the 1980’s and ‘90s across America, Canada and Mexico, here ridden to a win by his owner and trainer Collin ‘TC’ Thorstenson.

Harvey was an orphan buffalo who thought he was a horse, according to his owner, trainer and jockey Collin ‘TC’ Thorstenson and many fascinated spectators who watched him race.

Thorstenson said he was raised on a Sioux Indian reservation in the hills of North Dakota, was always fond of animals and trained small pets as a youngster.

He drove coal trucks in Wyoming and became a jockey and trainer.

Harvey’s story began in 1980 when his mother was shot by a poacher.

TC, who at that time worked on the Milwaukee Railroad, rescued the orphaned buffalo

Thorstenson kept the little guy in his car and bottle-fed him several times a day—whenever he took a break.

He was just 35 pounds back then, and I fed him by a bottle until he was a year and a half,” he said.

“I carried him in the back of my car until he got to be about 250 pounds.”

As Harvey graduated to living in a barn, he followed Thorstenson around like a dog.

But when TC left the young buffalo alone in the barn, he was not happy. When he grew restless he kicked and slammed his body at the divider wall of his stall.

“I named him Harvey Wallbanger because he was always banging his body against the wall of the pen,” said Thorstenson.

As he grew to full size, his owner rigged a kind of saddle to fit and climbed on.

Harvey took well to being ridden and the two began performing at rodeos.

“I named him Harvey Wallbanger because he was always banging his body against the wall of his pen,” said Thorstenson, who rescued the orphan when he was just 35 pounds and fed him from a bottle until he was a year and a half.

Audiences loved him and by 1985 their interest was enough to get Harvey invited to race at Energy Downs in Gillette, Wyoming.

Harvey Wallbanger made his 6-year-old racing debut under the name “TC and Harvey” in a 110-yard exhibition race against a quarter horse on a real racetrack.

He competed against a horse that was bred for speed and less than half his weight.

Harvey won the race by 2½ lengths and that’s where the legend began.
“It was a great attraction for race tracks because it got young, more enthusiastic, kids out there to watch him do his thing,” Thorstenson said.

Next they travelled to Miles City, Montana, and raced for the second time.

Harvey’s Natural Desire was to Win

Harvey would burst through the starting gate, lean toward the rail and run along it as hard as he could to the finish line.

Thorstenson’s buffalo had a natural desire to win.

Harvey was a tight fit in the starting gate. But he became well-known for his knack of charging out of the gate fast, as well as his tenacity at the finish. As TC told the crowds, “He’s a ton of fun and he thinks he’s a horse.”

TC told the Farm Show in 1989 that about half his audience came to see a buffalo. “The other half came to see Harvey win.”

Most people had never seen a buffalo, and Harvey was one of the only racing buffalos of his time.

“There are two or three other trained buffalo in North America, but Harvey is the only one that races competitively,” TC explained.

“A buffalo’s wild instincts make it difficult to break, and not all of them are trainable.

“Even Harvey may never be completely trustworthy. Buffalo are strong enough to flip a horse off the ground and kill it with their sharp horns. I could have trained 40 good horses during the time I spent training Harvey.”

Harvey enjoyed great racing success in America, Canada and Mexico. His best year was in 1990, when he ran in 20 races and earned $108,000. He won 79 races in 93 starts running against quarter horses, thoroughbreds and harness racers.

His best race was the 110-yard race. He covered the distance in 10.14 seconds. Usually it was an exhibition race with no betting allowed.

Because of his size, snorting and unique smell, most competing horses were afraid to get near him, so he had an advantage running alone there on the rail.

Harvey Wallbanger was led into the starting gate on a 40-foot rope.

As the flashy showman, Thorstenson waved his cowboy hat as he rode into the chute.

“It’s tight,” he said. “But he’ll fit if he inhales on the way in and exhales on the way out.

“Most horses get nervous when they see the buffalo because of his quick movements and unusual sounds, so Harvey usually runs on the rail.”

Electrifying speed out of the gate was his secret weapon

Weighing in at over a ton, he was a pleasure to watch.

As TC told the audience, “He’s a ton of fun and he thinks he’s a horse.”

Skeptics cast Doubt

Some in the stands questioned the quality of Harvey’s competition and the actual integrity of his races. They suggested that the horses let Harvey win on purpose.

One writer charged that “Harvey travelled with horses he could outrun. I think the wrangler brought 3 with him to Portland.”

Another wrote, “The Jockey is holding that horse back! Cool story—but I very much doubt that bison ever beat a good healthy horse.”

On another day a journalist sympathized with Harvey’s loss.

“I watched one of Harvey’s races from 1988, where he was racing two quarter horses. Although he tried, he just never got that load moving and he lost,” he wrote.

“It was bizarre to see a 1-ton monster chugging down the lane, and it just wasn’t a very pretty race, no matter how you looked at it.”

 Other sports writers defended Harvey’s racing style.

“Watched this race at Thistledown in North Randall. GREAT MEMORY!” One reported.

 “I saw this race, it was at Golden Gate Fields, late 70s early 80s or so. Buffalos are FAST,” wrote another.

“I could have trained 40 good horses during the time I spent training Harvey,” said trainer TC Thorstenson. “Even Harvey may never be completely trustworthy. Buffalo are strong enough to flip a horse off the ground and kill it with their sharp horns.”


Sometimes Harvey raced against Thorstenson’s own horses, but he also raced against full tracks of quarter horses.

Pete Monaco, writing sports for The Spectrum, wrote this about Harvey Wallbanger in a story written after his death, titled The Eighth Pole on Aug 18, 2018.

“Being a racing buffalo, Harvey automatically captured the attention of most people—but he also captured their hearts.

“TC seemed to have his hands full before, during and even after the race. To claim the fix was in, concerning a non-wagering event that involved a buffalo seems a bit ridiculous.”

Added Monaco, “I did watch another race

where I swear he stretched his neck out at the wire to win by a long buffalo nose over three horses in a photo finish!

“All contestants were within a half-length of each other at the finish, and Harvey dug in gamely on the rail to get the victory.

“This race was actually a beautiful thing. And I might’ve watered up a bit from the effort of this animal on that day,” he confessed.

End of a Promising Career

Small cowgirl offers up a kiss for Harvey, the racing buffalo, at a wild west event put on by Thorstenson

TC moved to Arizona and became a regular with his buffalo showing up at Arizona Rattlers Arena Football League games.

Unfortunately, Harvey’s career ended abruptly at the age of 13.

In 1991 he died after eating contaminated hay in Tuscon, Arizona.

TC was devastated and sued Kenny and Jimmy Murdock, who furnished feed for the rodeo.

In court the Murdocks conceded that oleander, a decorative and poisonous bush, probably got mixed in with the hay.

TC won his case and was awarded $475,000 in damages.

He started over by training a young buffalo he called Harvey Wallbanger Junior.

“My buffalo aren’t just buffalo,” he said. “They are family members.”

But Junior wasn’t interested in winning. He refused to grab the rail or run hard to stay ahead of the race horses.

However, he found his niche acting in movies and commercials and promoting rodeos and sporting events around the nation for a time.

But Junior also died too soon—of a virus that is unique in affecting American bison from infected sheep.

Thorstenson married Times newspaper heiress Margaret Lesher in 1996, when she grew  enamoured with the flamboyant cowboy showman.  

Together they purchased a Scottsdale ranch, where he kept a small herd of buffalo, and dealt in real estate in Arizona.


“He is the buffalo stuntman who rides a 2,800-pound beast through rings of fire. He’s the mounted shooter with the arena behind the Roadhouse saloon,” according to one sports report.


Unfortunately, Lesher drowned during a camping trip, which cast some suspicion for a time on her new husband, who was much younger.

TC moved to the upscale town of Cave Creek, where he attempted to bring a Western venue that would feature events such as mounted shooting, barrel racing and other western events.

His efforts finally came to fruition with the opening of a Western restaurant, bar and venue he called Hogs and Horses.

In his new digs, TC Thorstenson was described thus:

“He is the buffalo stuntman who rides a 2,800-pound beast through rings of fire. He’s the mounted shooter with the arena behind the Roadhouse saloon.

“He’s a horse whisperer to some, a drinking buddy to others and, as the local newspaper tells it, he is ‘rapidly becoming a Cave Creek land baron.’

“On a warm Tuesday night in April, he works the crowd in woolly chaps and a stars-and-stripes western shirt.

“He holds a revolver on his belt, a buffalo on a rein and a wide grin across his face as he poses at a living history attraction west of town.

“Now it’s Thursday, and he’s on stage, nominated for local ‘Horse Hero’ of 2007.

“Come Saturday, it’s up in the saddle for the annual Fiesta Days parade. He hoists an American flag on a pole as he clops past the Horny Toad saloon and its knowing rival, the Satisfied Frog.

“’Check it out, folks! There’s a shooting match after the parade, behind the Roadhouse,’ he announces. ‘Come and watch it!’ ”

On a warm night in April, Thorstenson worked the crowd in woolly chaps and a spangled western shirt. “He holds a revolver on his belt, a buffalo on a rein and a wide grin across his face as he poses at a living history attraction west of town,” according to one reporter.

He once sponsored a ‘Running with the Bulls-U.S.A.,’ a tamer version of Pamplona, Spain’s annual nine-day festival of San Fermin.

Ever the showman, TC continued to train and show buffalo.

His favorite, Harvey had enjoyed great success in America, Canada and Mexico.

His best year was in 1990, when he ran in 20 races and earned $108,000.

He won 79 races in 93 starts running against all comers—quarter horses, thoroughbreds and harness racers.

Unfortunately, TC never again found a buffalo with a genuine desire to win his race—who could take the place of his beloved Harvey Wallbanger.

“I could have trained 40 good horses during the time I spent training Harvey,” said trainer TC Thorstenson. “Even Harvey may never be completely trustworthy. Buffalo are strong enough to flip a horse off the ground and kill it with their sharp horns.”


Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Low-Stress Buffalo Handling

Low-Stress Buffalo Handling

We’ve reported stories to you in this space about the early days of hard-riding buffalo wranglers running half-wild buffalo. Some amusing. Some tragic.

Often, they rounded-up and stampeded buffalo into makeshift corrals and loaded them into boxcars in some of the roughest ways possible, even dragging them at the end of several ropes.

At the time, it seemed to men who were used to working cattle like the only way to get the job done was to run the buffalo hard, and stay ahead of them.

Hard-riding cowboys in the early days tried to chase buffalo as they did cattle. In this early 1900’s photo Michel Pablo’s wranglers tried to outrun the buffalo, with mixed results. Today’s buffalo ranchers understand that low-stress livestock handling is far more successful than the tough old cowboy techniques. Montana Historical Society.

I know this has been painful for some of our readers. You visualized all too clearly how violently the wild buffalo were sometimes treated. You mourned that some buffalo in their extreme panic simply died a sudden death.

Buffalo are powerful animals and it was also dangerous for the people handling them. Many riders and horses have been injured or even killed.

In the early days of buffalo ranching, hard-riding cowboys expected these half-wild animals to respond like the cattle that they are not.

When they didn’t, they probably shouted louder, swung their ropes higher and ran the animals harder.

I think you’ll be happy to know that today buffalo are not handled that way.

With buffalo, owners have learned to do the job the buffalo’s way—or get little or nothing accomplished.

As Tim Frasier, buffalo consultant, says, “Bison producers, by and large, are extremely conscious of humane protocol because the species dictates that the producer work with them.”

Ranchers and buffalo managers have learned that buffalo are like wild animals—subject to flight or fight reactions when startled or pushed too hard.

In important ways they are still the undomesticated wild animals they’ve always been. They need to be handled more delicately than cattle.

Imagine Handling Wild Deer

Think about chasing wild deer. How would you go about chasing a herd of 3 or 4 mule deer through a gate out of an alfalfa field?

We certainly wouldn’t use the old-style cowboy tactics—just running them hard toward the gate—would we?

I think our goal instinctively would be to not crowd them—stay back. To move quietly, so as not alarm them. Allow them time to decide how to respond.

Knowing that if we rush them, some of the deer are going to lunge for the fence—over or under, or slam bang into it.

I’m no expert, but have done considerable reading on the topic, as well as trailed a lot of cows.

So let’s go to the experts to learn how to keep buffalo stress levels low.

Instead of running at the deer, it would make sense to hang back and give them time to decide. Maybe then they’d take the easy way—and just trot out through the open gate.

Low Stress Handling

The most important trait for the buffalo handler is calmness, experts say. Establish yourself at the top of the pecking order in a calm and confident way.

For the new buffalo owner or herd manager, whether of a small or large herd, there’s plenty to learn in raising these amazing, magnificent animals.

The modern way of handling buffalo fascinates new owners and old hands alike. With roots in “horse-whispering” techniques, it’s called low-stress livestock handling.

The goal is to develop a calm herd, with the animals content and unafraid.

Buffalo may seem docile, but Grandin says to watch for signs of fear. The goal is to develop a calm herd, with the buffalo content and unafraid, trusting their handlers. NPS.

Fearful buffalo cause great risk both to themselves and humans, warns Dr. Temple Grandin, a well-known expert on animal behavior in the Department of Animal Sciences at Colorado State University, Ft Collins.

She’s a scientist who understands autism and applies some of the related philosophy in her work.

Dr. Temple Grandin, well-known expert on animal behavior in the Department of Animal Sciences at Colorado State University, Ft Collins, uses her experience with autism in understanding fear and stress in working livestock. CSU.

As wild animals, she explains, buffalo are always on the alert for danger, and ready to respond with fight or flight. When alarmed, fear shoots adrenaline through their system and they are ready to react.

People who work with buffalo need to watch for signals of fear, Grandin says. The first subtle signs are licking, blinking, huddling, a raised tail, circular movement—milling—backing up and balking.

As fear and panic increase, so do signs such as hard breathing, frothing at the mouth, vocalizing, bulging eyes, running, pushing, goring, attacking, sitting, jumping or scrambling free of their enclosure.

The last stage of fear is immobility, lying down without responding to stimuli or prodding.

Paying close attention to these signals and responding appropriately teaches buffalo what behavior is wanted. Then they need the opportunity to do it willingly, Grandin says.

The key to helping buffalo understand this is skilled use of their comfort or flight zone, according to Mark Kossler, manager of the Vermejo Park Ranch, New Mexico, writing in the most recemt Bison Producers’ Handbook, published by the National Bison Association.

“The gentle dance of us applying pressure, the animal moving away from the pressure and us releasing the pressure, is the main method of getting our animals to move for us in a low stress manner,” Kossler tells buffalo ranchers.

“This sets up a positive cause and effect relationship. That is, we get into their flight zone putting pressure on them, and they, by moving away from us get released from the pressure.”

The flight zone is the personal space of a buffalo and may differ somewhat for each animal.

An alarm goes off in its brain when someone enters that personal space. The optimal handler position is at the boundary of that zone. This allows him or her to manipulate the animal in a low stress manner.

In moving buffalo, another sensitive place is the balance point at their shoulder.

Movement behind the shoulder causes the animal to go forward. Ahead of that point and it typically moves back.

What causes high stress, Kossler warns, is “putting pressure on them and never releasing it. Or worse, no matter what they do, continually increasing the pressure.”

Too much pressure and the buffalo panics. If unable to escape, he will fight ferociously.

Low stress means handlers work quietly and smoothly.

Former cattlemen have learned what not to do with their buffalo: stop yelling, moving fast or erratically, following a rushed schedule, or “forcing” the buffalo. Instead, they give them time to think it over and respond calmly.

Grandin recommends that the crowding pen should never be filled more than 1/3 full at any given time. By providing sufficient room, the bison are able to maintain their dominant order relative to one another. This reduces stress and intra-herd conflicts.

“When bison are tightly confined with other bison, their fear manifests as aggression in the form of goring and pushing those around them. Bison that are to be held in close proximity to other bison should be held with similar bison of the same age and gender.”

On the other hand, buffalo are herd animals and fear being alone in a pen.

A page from the Alberta 4-H Leaders Bison Guide makes a clear point: As a herd animal the buffalo fears being alone.

Grandin also points out, “The first experience an animal has in a new situation is the foundation for subsequent behaviors in similar situations. If the first time a bison enters a squeeze chute—bad things happen to him, he will be reluctant to re-enter.”

“But if the first few times he enters, the experience is neutral or positive, he will be more inclined to reenter the chute.

Only one buffalo at a time in the chute leading up to the headgate avoids pileups. Then work bison quietly and release them quickly, say experts. Parks Canada.

“Likewise, if the last experience the animal has just prior to leaving a facility is positive, such as receiving a highly palatable food reward, the animal will be more receptive to being worked the next time.”

If the handler tries to get buffalo to move by electric shock, yelling, or arm waving, which are all at the extreme end of the pressure gradient, warns Grandin, the bison will immediately become fearful. This fear results in a traumatic experience for the bison and often the handler.

Because of their ability to hear higher and lower frequencies than humans, she suggests that subtle sounds are often effective to move animals forward. The best are novel noises; a rustling newspaper or plastic bag, snapping of the fingers, pennies in an aluminum can, or a shh, shh sound.

Livestock handlers have learned a lot from Grandin, says Clint Peck, Director, Director, Beef Quality Assurance at Montana State University, Bozeman.

 “There’s not a rancher in this country that isn’t aware of her work. We have all been influenced by Temple. There is no question her work has helped us all understand more about our animals and how to handle them in a caring and humane manner.”

Because of her work and her perseverance, the beef industry looks very different today than it did 30 years ago, says Peck.

Buffalo handlers are especially following the Grandin techniques today, because they understand that her methods work far better than the tough old cowboy ways of forcing the buffalo.

Temple Grandin has researched, written extensively and developed workshops, teaching her low-stress methods to livestock handlers for more than 30 years. CSU.

Mark Kossler, manager of the Vermejo Park Ranch, New Mexico, writing in the most recent, 2015 edition of the Bison Producers’ Handbook, published by the National Bison Association, warns that “Handling problems may have more to do with how people approach and try to control them than with the livestock themselves.

“Could it be that we are the root problem with poor handling and performing livestock?”

“Low-stress livestock handling should create an environment, in facilities and handling methods that keep animals mentally calm, content and unafraid,” he suggests.

Its essence is handling buffalo in such a way that suits them and keeps them “mentally intact.”

Low-stress methods keep them from becoming “mentally fractured”—which results in wild, erratic and often aggressive behavior.

This involves, he writes, developing an environment on the ranch that “responds to what the animals show us they need.”

Buffalo are continually communicating with us by what they do or don’t do, but are we listening? he asks.

“Do we manage and handle our animals in such a way that we minimize the stress they experience or do we manage and handle our animals in way that increase their stress?”

Stress occurs, he says, when we place demands on buffalo that they can’t calmly meet or respond to naturally. “This has undesirable consequences that include poor animal performance, aggressive behavior, death loss, injuries, increased disease and health problems, increased handler stress and economic loss.”

Buffalo people know it’s important to keep a watchful eye on the buffalo, and respond to their actions in helpful ways.

Dave Carter, long-time director of the National Bison Association, who runs his own buffalo herd, puts it this way, “Through the years, these magnificent animals have taught us a lot.

“Every day spent with bison will provide great insight and understanding.”

The goal is to develop a calm herd, with the buffalo content and unafraid, trusting their owners and understanding their signals and movements.

This is accomplished by establishing yourself at the top of the pecking order in a calm and confident way, being relaxed and consistent—never pushing too hard.

Patricia F. Lee, Lee Buffalo Farms, BSU of Ill, Attica, Indiana, says generally buffalo are quite docile but can change in an instant. They may appear to be sluggish, but are really extremely active.

They can outrun and outmaneuver a horse. They can jump a standard woven wire fence with 2 barbed wires on top from a complete stand still. And they can charge through most any fence and tear it down, if they really want to.

Buffalo today are in a semi-domesticated process, but still cannot be fully trusted, says Lee.

They retain all their natural instincts for survival—and when crowded panic into a “fight or flight” response.

Owners say a buffalo bull can turn in an instant, outmaneuver a horse, jump a woven wire fence with 2 barbed wires on top from a complete stand still or charge through a tight-looking fence and smash it down.

Livestock handlers have learned a lot from Grandin, says Clint Peck, Director, Beef Quality Assurance at Montana State University, Bozeman in 2011.

“There’s not a rancher in this country that isn’t aware of her work. We have all been influenced by Temple. There is no question her work has helped us all understand more about our animals and how to handle them in a caring and humane manner.”

Because of her work and her perseverance, the beef industry looks very different today than it did 30 years ago, he says.

Most especially, buffalo breeders are following the Dr. Grandin handling techniques today—they find her methods work far better than the tough old cowboy methods.

Dr. Grandin has spent her career looking at the beef industry through the eyes of a cow. She has laid down in muddy corrals, crawled through metal chutes, and even stood in the stun boxes where factory workers deliver their fatal blows.

“There is no question her work has helped us all understand more about our animals and how to handle them in a caring and humane manner,” writes Peck.

Her methods have become even more important in the Bison industry, in which she notes that the problems in handling these “large, skittish animals . . .range from stampeding to intra-herd aggression to ‘suicide.’”

Her studies, she writes, have “focused on bison behavior during handling in squeeze chutes, alleys, holding pens and trucks”

Kossler lists 8 foundational principles to work on to develop one’s buffalo ranch into a low-stress operation.

  1. Realize that it is our fault, not theirs, if our livestock live in a high stress environment. We need to change how we operate to affect a better outcome for them. Our attitudes towards our animals and philosophies of animal management will have to change, as they are just operating the best they can in the environment we provide for them. 
  1. Consistently use signals that livestock can respond to naturally so they can understand our meaning or what we want them to do.  Get consistent in how we move our bison in the pasture, from pasture to pasture or in the corral.  Realize that if they become unsettled or emotionally fractured, it is caused by something we did.  Analyze the feedback we are getting from our stock–this is how they are communicating with us.  If we are not getting the desired feedback, then we are the problem and need to change what we are doing.  
  1. Apply only the amount of pressure needed to get the desired response, not an ounce more! 
  1. Stop “forcing” our bison to do what we want.  Replace force with consistent sound handling principles that allow them to learn what we want and gives them opportunity to do it willingly. 
  1. Stop doing things that cause immediate “high stress” in our bison such as yelling; moving fast and erratically; not giving them time to think, analyze and respond. Or putting continued unrelenting pressure on them with no release. 
  1. Stop having a definite schedule when working with our bison. We need to realize that our “schedule” puts pressure on us that is often transferred to our bison, which causes its own problems. In working with animals, not every day is the same and how we approach it often affects the outcome. If we are on edge and in a hurry, the animals will pick up on this and react accordingly. 
  1. Start thinking from the bison’s point of view—getting on the “other side of the horns.” Spend time thinking about what we do with our bison and how it may look or feel from their perspective. If we can get inside them and see what we do through their eyes, it well may change how we do things.  
  1. If one approach does not work, even if it did yesterday, try another. Conditions are constantly changing and we need to account for that with our method and approach.  Be flexible in what we do and how we do it.

He suggests that learning the techniques will take some reading, research, and lessons from those who know how to do it.

Tim Frasier of Frasier Bison LLC is a bison rancher, consulting specialist, marketer and bison-operations design specialist. He has an Applied Science degree in Livestock Technology and jokes that he also has a PhD. from the-school-of-hard-knocks. 

He has been writing in the field and helping ranchers working with buffalo for 20 years. His customers are both large-scale and small buyers.  

Frasier says “Bison are not cattle and, if you ever forget that, they will quickly remind you.”

He sees three basic causes for bison misbehavior—fear, separation anxiety, and escape.

When buffalo feel too confined they often become “mentally fractured”—which can result in wild, erratic and aggressive behavior. National Bison Association.

“There are many Wild West stories about how unmanageable bison are, how dangerous they are, and they all begin with intentionally and forcibly, but unwittingly, causing the bison to act upon one or all of these three behavioral roots.”

“The recipe for success in handling bison is to mitigate fear, manage separation anxiety and allow escape.”

Over the years, producers have learned that you can make a buffalo do whatever they want to do.

This well known and widely used throughout the bison industry, Frazier says.

For instance, he points out the most efficient method of gathering bison is to feed them where you want them, and simply close the gate after they move there.

Feeding them in a large corral or in close proximity to the corral in a smaller control pasture is the best way to mitigate their fear of being contained.

On the other hand, he notes that in working buffalo, once in the squeeze chute, all three become factors.

Fear — they are afraid of close contact with humans. Separation anxiety — they are alone and they know it. Escape — they will exhaust all escape options.

“Never plan to gather bison and work them the same day,” he says.

“Always gather a day or two before you plan to work them. This allows them time to accept containment and will reduce stress and benefit labor efficiency while working them the next day.”

He suggests clients keep a record of what is not working well. If the holding pen is not big enough, negative behaviors, if noted on a clipboard, will become obvious and can be addressed for the future.

Stress reduction and labor efficiency are both moneymakers and components of a humane protocol.

Bison need extra room when they are contained and/or in waiting to be allowed through the handling facility. Extra space allows them to escape from each other and reduces the incidence of bison-on-bison injuries and losses.

Staying slow, steady and relaxed is the best approach.

When bison become frantic or reckless, stop what you are doing and wait until they calm down and regain their behavioral bearings.

One of the most common causes of elevated behaviors in bison in tight pens is having too many people helping. This can easily result in too much distraction for the bison, says Frasier.

Ultimately the most productive scenario is to have the pen constructed in such a way that the bison perceive they are escaping every time they move to exactly where you need them.

Curved alleyways and pens with solid sides offer bison the illusion of escape ahead without the risk of being caught in a corner. Alberta 4-H Manual.

Grandin corrals offer detailed plans on easy movement of the animals, through a smoothly working system.

Dr. Grandin makes the point that an increasing awareness of animal welfare and rights issues means that routine procedures that were considered adequate in the past are no longer acceptable in today’s society.

Thus, it is especially important that zoos, parks and other conservation systems have healthy, vibrant bison herds for public education and enjoyment and that they are treated well.

She writes, “A favorable public perception of captive animals is critical to park funding and reputation.

“Calm, beautiful, picture perfect animals are powerful advertisements for parks.”

Drivers wise in the ways of wildlife parks and refuges allow buffalo to cross highways when and where they choose, without interference. NSP.

Therefore, she urges that calm, knowledgeable, low stress handling techniques are essential.

Low Stress handling also implies an appropriate set-up of corrals and chutes.

Following Dr. Grandin’s advice and research, owners round corral corners and build solid walls so buffalo don’t spook at distractions or attempt an escape back to the hills.

Resources for Low-stress Buffalo Handling

Bud Williams Schools. ; Excellent videos on Low-Stress Handling. No longer provide workshops.

Cote, Steve. Stockmanship: A Powerful Tool for Grazing Lands Management. Natural Resources Conservation Service; Arco, Idaho. USDA. 2004.

Grandin, Temple. The Calming of American Bison (Bison bison) During Routine Handling., written with Jennifer L. Lanier, Department of Animal Sciences, Colorado State University, Ft Collins, CO.

InterTribal Buffalo Council, Resources; for more information, 605-394-9730. Website.

Kossler, Mark. Low Stress Bison Handling. Bison Producers’ Handbook, National Bison Association. 2010.

National Bison Association. Contact NBA for references and recommendations for members who are using Low Stress Livestock methods on their ranches.

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

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