Where are These Bison From, Anyway?

A chart showing the lineage of Theodore Roosevelt National Park bison
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NPS / Hazel Galloway

Like most of the visitors that stream into the park during the summer months, the bison herds roaming the buttes and plateaus today aren’t locals. After their near-extinction in the late 1800s, bison were absent from the area until 1956, when 29 were released in the park's south unit.

But where did these 29 bison come from? Nearly all bison alive today are descended from a few hundred individuals forming five crucial "founding herds." The one exception is the truly wild Yellowstone bison — a few dozen survived the 1800s tucked away in the remote Pelican Valley. Bloodlines from each of the five founding herds, as well as the unique Yellowstone lineage, are present in the bison of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. (Click the image to the left to check out the full history.)

During the 1880s, in the years of the last buffalo hunts on the plains, a few ranchers headed out to capture, not kill. Some were conservationists before their time; others, enterprising cattlemen motivated by the promise of cold-hardy livestock.

1886 was an especially brutal winter, bringing feet of snow and temperatures as low as 50°F below zero. Around 90% of the cattle pastured on the open range perished in the blizzards and driving winds. But this disaster led to a revelation: A Kansas rancher later to be known as "Buffalo" Jones noticed that not a single frozen bison carcass was found the following spring.

“I commended to ponder upon the contrast between the quality of the white man’s domestic cattle. I thought to myself why not domesticate this wonderful beast which can endure such a blizzard, defying a storm so destructive to our domesticate species? Why not infuse this hardy blood into our native cattle, and have a perfect animal?”

Jones made good on his speculation — he eventually roped 56 bison, the largest of the five founding herds. (He later acquired most of the descendants of the McKay and Alloway herd from Manitoba, Canada, another of the original five.) And following in his footsteps, nearly all early ranchers experimented with bison-cattle crosses, a fact that plagues the remaining bison bloodlines to this day. But that is a story for another blog post.

Other ranchers set out to save a vanishing species from extinction. It was the wife of Charles Goodnight, a Texan rancher, who convinced her husband to begin what would become the third founding herd. According to Goodnight, she “noted the slaughter of the animals on the plains and desired to perpetuate the race.” Although the couple had arrived in 1876 to a canyon thriving with bison, by 1878, “the slaughter had been so great in the preceding three years that the animal was already nearly extinct, being only a few scattering ones left.”

Goodnight had entertained the idea of a domestic bison herd before, and even experimented with roping wild bison calves while living in Colorado. He describes his technique:

“The first time I went out to get buffalo calves, I moved them up a little until three calves fell behind. I cut them off and they followed me home into the corrals. When night came I roped them and put them to their foster mothers, Texas cows.”

Near his ranch in the Palo Duro country, Goodnight captured a male and a female calf, and later acquired three more from local ranchers and relatives. The descendants of these five bison today form the modern-day Texas State Bison Herd, which roams Caprock Canyons State Park.

Frederick Dupree, a rancher in eastern Montana, was the original owner of the fourth crucial founding herd. In 1882, he set out to capture bison along the Yellowstone River. He used a different technique, which he later described to a judge in his hometown of Fort Pierre:

“…they would gather as close to the herd as they could, and on the windy side, so the buffalo wouldn’t know they were there. The buffalo cows would graze away, leaving the calves awhile … the calves were asleep when the cows left them; they would creep up and capture them and … carry them back to … their camp.”

Human intrigue and interpersonal drama play a starring role in the tale of the fifth and final founding herd. In 1877, a man of the Pend d’Oreille tribe, Whista Sinchilape (“Walking Coyote,” also known as Samuel Wells) traveled north with a hunting party to spend the winter in Blackfoot lands, near the northern border of Montana. While there, he entered into a second marriage as was accepted among the Blackfoot, but heavily punished by the Christian mission police in his home tribe. When he returned to Pend d’Oreille lands the following spring, he captured and drove four bison calves with him over the mountains to present as gesture of reconciliation. Whether his gambit to avoid the penalties for polygamy succeeded is unknown, but records show that his small bison herd was purchased five years later by a pair of local ranchers. He himself died shortly thereafter, and his body was found washed up under a bridge in Missoula, MT, supposedly following an excessive drinking spree.

Twenty-four years later, the descendants of those same four bison were sold to the Canadian government when, after years of negotiations, the US Congress proved unable to agree on a reasonable offer to buy them. The aggrieved rancher took great pains to ensure that not a single animal remained on American soil by the year 1912; at the time, those 631 bison constituted almost 30% of the world’s bison population.

The long and winding roads our bison have (often literally) walked to reach these 70,466 acres are paved with strong personalities, violent culture clash, and, yes, some good intentions. But these circuitous tales also offer a valuable window into the wellsprings and tributaries feeding our herd’s small but storied genetic pool.

The bison which founded Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s herd in 1956 included descendants of each of the five “founding herds” which survived the species’ near-extinction in the late 1800s. The Charles Goodnight herd (Texas), the Pablo and Allard herd (Montana), and the C.J. Jones herd (Kansas) all contributed to the 1909 founding of the National Bison Range in Montana. Part of that herd, along with representatives from the Dupree herd (South Dakota), Yellowstone National Park, and bison of unknown origins, were contributed at different times to the herd at Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge. In 1956, 20 individuals from Fort Niobrara were transported to Theodore Roosevelt.

The Charles Goodnight herd, the McKay and Alloway herd (which later contributed to the C.J. Jones herd), the C.J. Jones herd, and the Dupree herd each is known to have experimented with bison/cattle hybridization. As a result, all of the founding herds either have documented hybridization, or obtained possibly hybridized bison from a rancher that did. The only non-hybridized source of DNA in the park’s gene pool comes from Yellowstone National Park, via two males brought to Fort Niobrara in 1913.

Last updated: March 6, 2018

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