People and Bison

Whether thought of as a resource to be utilized or symbolic of more, bison and humans have been intertwined for centuries.

Importance of Indigenous Cultures

Members of the eight reservations take turns signing the Buffalo Treaty
The "Buffalo Treaty" represented many entities, including 12 Native American tribes, coming together for the good of bison.

Photo by Stephen Legault.

The American bison or buffalo (iinniiwa in Blackfoot, tatanka in Lakota, ivanbito in Navajo, Kuts in Paiute) is the most significant animal to many American Indian nations. For thousands of years, Native Americans relied heavily on bison for their survival and well-being, using every part of the bison for food, clothing, shelter, tools, jewelry and in ceremonies. The decimation of millions of bison in the 1800s was pivotal in the tragic devastation of Indian people and society. Today, bison are central to many American Indian traditions, spiritual rituals and healthy diets, and more than 60 tribes are bringing their sacred Brother Buffalo back to their families, lands and ways of life.

The Brink of Extinction

Men standing with severed bison heads, black and white photo
Posing with eight confiscated bison heads.

NPS Photo/Yellowstone National Park

The westward expansion of European settlers across the continent in the 19th century was the primary driver in the rapid decline of bison in North America. Railways, rifles, and an international market for buffalo hides led to “the Great Slaughter” from about 1820 to 1880, when the bison population plummeted from 30-60 million (estimates vary) to fewer than 1,000 animals by the 1890s. Other factors including the military’s directive to destroy buffalo as a way to control American Indians, the introduction of diseases from cattle, drought, and competition from domestic livestock (horses, cattle, sheep) contributed to the reduction in bison numbers as well. At their lowest numbers, some estimated that there were only 300 bison that survived the slaughter, bringing the species to the brink of extinction.

Saving the Last of the Buffalo

As bison were notably vanishing by the 1860s, public outcry prompted some states to pass laws to protect bison, but enforcement was lacking and the massacre continued. The earliest efforts to rescue bison began in the late 1860s when a handful of private citizens independently began to capture and shelter bison, saving the species from extinction. These bison served as the foundation stock for most modern public and private bison herds today.

In the 1870s and 1880s, hundreds of bison occupied Yellowstone National Park. Despite the presence of the First U.S. Cavalry soldiers the park’s mission to, in part, protect wildlife, poaching of bison continued until Congress passed the Lacey Act in 1894. This legislation authorized the in Yellowstone to prosecute people that were killing or removing wildlife from the park.

In 1905, the American Bison Society (ABS) was formed to support bison recovery efforts, compelling Congress to establish several public bison herds at Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge, the National Bison Range, Sully’s Hill National Game Preserve, Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, and Wind Cave National Park. These efforts help save bison from extinction and the ABS disbanded in the early 1900s having accomplished their mission, however in 2005 the ABS was once again reestablished to help advance the ongoing restoration of bison to our lands and cultures.

Wild and Domestic Bison

Today, about 360,000 plains bison are privately owned as domestic livestock, while about 31,000 bison are stewarded as wildlife in publicly owned herds in the United States and Canada. The Department of the Interior manages about 10,300 bison as wildlife, including approximately 8,000 bison in ten national park units; 1,600 bison in seven National Wildlife Refuges; and 700 bison on Bureau of Land Management Lands in Utah.

Our National Mammal

In 2016, the North American bison was declared the national mammal of the United States. National Bison Day has been observed annually on the first Saturday in November since 2012. Explore our Bison Bellows series to learn more about the herds, the people and the stories honoring bison as our national mammal.

Last updated: March 1, 2018