How to Raise a Bison Herd
In 1913, when the American Bison Society began the process of establishing a free-ranging bison (or buffalo as they are often called)herd in the newly created Wind Cave National Game Preserve, they looked to the New York City Zoo to get their animals. Here, William Hornaday had been collecting and breeding some of the few remaining wild bison.
By the time the bison reached the preserve, quite a crowd had gathered to see them released. There was only one problem. The bison were not willing to back out of a crate! The frustrating process was described by Dille, "To suggest to a buffalo that he must back out of the crate by poking him in the head, will work with an elk but not a bison. Your actions are but a challenge to him and he does not propose to give ground." The final operation was more a process of removing the crates from the animals than the animals from the crates. At last however, the bison were released and began their new life on the prairie. Six additional bison from Yellowstone were added to the herd in 1916.
Today, unlike when Estes Suter sat on top of his car to decide which bison to keep and which to cull, park biologists strive to protect the herd through scientific testing. Ideally, "wild" bison would live in free-ranging, naturally regulated herds. But that is not possible. Most herds are confined and subjected to varying degrees of management. Therefore herd size, population structure, levels of genetic variation, and the incidence of domestic cattle introgression must all be considered in the park's management decisions.
Suter, Hornaday, Dille, today's resource managers, and others have taken part in this adventure. They have provided us with the opportunity to see bison born and raised on an "open range". And, if we are lucky, to see a herd so large they seem to fill the prairie.