Lesson Plan

Bison by the Numbers

Bison on the prairie
Bison on the prairie
Larry McAfee, National Park Service photograph


The American bison was an important species to Native Americans on the Great Plains of North America. However, as settlers moved west during the nineteen century, the population numbers dramatically dropped from overhunting. In this exercise, students will learn graphing skills while learning about this species that almost went extinct.


Students will learn about the population changes of the American bison and learn how to chart data using a bar graph.


At the turn of the nineteenth century, an estimated 80 million bison roamed the Great Plains of North America. However, as settlers and the United States moved west, the abundance of bison plummeted to near-extinction levels. By 1900 the number of bison population was believed to have dropped to only 500 individuals.


Bison by the Numbers student worksheetsBison by the Numbers Answer Key, and pencils


Talk about Native American uses of the bison. Mention that there were millions and millions of bison in North America in 1800, but that by 1900 there were fewer than 500. The buffalo nearly went extinct!

Explain that the class will now take a closer look at what happened to the bison population by creating a bar graph showing the changes in bison population over time. Hand out "Bison by the Numbers" worksheet and have students draw a bar graph using the data provided.

Lead a class discussion of the graph and what it means. Remind students that the bison were once tremendously abundant and that they constituted one of the most important natural resources for Plains Indians. This one animal could provide almost everything a person needed to survive in the often-harsh environment of the prairie: food, shelter, clothing, and tools. Examine the graph and notice the timing of the bison's precipitous decline in the mid to late 19th century.

Reiterate the causes of this dropoff: the arrival of settlers on the prairie as the United States expanded westward led to habitat loss and overhunting. The near-extinction of the bison led to huge changes in the way of life of the Native Americans of the Plains. Have students imagine what it would have felt like to have been a Native American alive at that time, forced to give up a lifestyle and long-standing traditions.

Additional Resources

These resources are available through Badlands National History Association (BNHA), a not-for-profit organization established to support education and research efforts at Badlands National Park.

  • America's Prairie and Grasslands by Marianne D. Wallace
  • Local Tracks of North America "Quick Guide"
  • Golden Guide: Mammals
  • Badlands Suite: Land of Stone and Light, From Field to Lab, Multiple Perspectives DVD


South Dakota, bison, prairie, Badlands National Park, national park, North America, Native American, food, shelter, clothing, tools, population, extinct