Restoring Buffalo to their Home on the Range

Yesterday, I drove a thousand miles across the Great Plains and saw not a single buffalo. I did see domestic cows and sheep, coal-fired power plants and wind farms, miles of power lines and fences. I saw immense open prairie; grass-covered, wind-scoured, treeless hills tumbling out to the horizon. But in a land where 30 million American bison once roamed in herds that would rival the wildebeest of the African Serengeti, we now have to go out of our way to find one.

Great Plains
The Great Plains spread eastward from the foothills of Wyoming (Photo by Sarah Pizzo)
If you want to know where all the bison went, ask Jason Baldes. Jason is an expert on the history of the bison, and as a Shoshone tribal member, he understands this history in a way most of us can’t.

Jason explains that the plants, animals and humans of the American prairie have been evolving together for millennia. Bison were an integral part of the prairie ecosystem: their hooves broke up the soil so seeds could germinate and their wallows – the depressions left when they rolled in the dirt – gathered rain which fed medicinal plants.

The lives of Native Americans were also inextricably tied to the bison. They followed the herds across the plains, relying on the great creatures for food, shelter and tools. They worshipped bison, performing religious ceremonies to promote its abundance and express gratitude for its ultimate sacrifice to them in the hunt.

The U.S. Army recognized this reliance in the late 19th century, when the westward movement of miners and homesteaders led to clashes with the resident Sioux, Cheyenne, Shoshone, and Arapaho. To defeat the tribes and clear the way for “Manifest Destiny,” the U.S. Army used the following tactic: eliminate the tribes’ main food source.

Yellowstone Bison Herd
A herd of wild bison approach the author’s car in Yellowstone National Park (Photo by Sarah Pizzo)
A few hundred bison survived the slaughter. Some took shelter in what later became Yellowstone National Park, where they thrive today as the last source of free-roaming, genetically pure bison (i.e. not interbred with domestic cattle). When I visited the Park on a crisp autumn day last week, a small herd sauntered along the road through a flat valley of steaming geysers. I was thrilled to see a healthy group with many young. As the herd slowly swarmed my car and I rolled down the window, sounds and smells wafted in: musky damp fur, the clip-clop of hooves on pavement, grunting males and bleating calves. The raw power in their thick, swinging necks sent chills down my spine and I felt blessed to be in the presence of these rare and wonderful beings.

NWF has been working for two decades to transfer some of these Yellowstone bison – whose numbers now overwhelm the Park’s capacity – back to their native lands. Our first major victory came last spring when we helped the Fort Peck Tribes move 61 Yellowstone bison to their reservation in northeast Montana. The tribes are thrilled to have these “tatanka” home. The bison and their 21 new calves are enjoying thousands of acres of wild prairie.

Today, NWF is working with Jason and other members of the Shoshone and Arapaho tribes to move a herd of Yellowstone bison to the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. A group of bison awaits transfer on a Montana ranch. The land and the tribes are ready to receive them. Standing in the way is a complex web of legal and political hurdles that we are working to overcome.

Late in the day on my visit to Yellowstone, I came upon a lone buffalo walking the center line of the Park’s loop road. I pulled to the shoulder to give him space to pass and he paused long enough to make eye contact. I stared with a sense of wonder and respect. His return gaze was fearless and unconcerned. And at that moment I knew: we are beginning to restore the balance.

Lone Yellowstone Bison
A Yellowstone bison wanders along the Park road (Photo by Sarah Pizzo)
Donate NowPlease donate to the National Wildlife Federation Tribal Lands Partnerships Program to help return bison back to tribal lands.