The Return of the Bison

Spring Bison Herd on a green field
Spring Bison Herd

NPS Photo

Imagine yourself surrounded by a sea of grass, softly illuminated by golden-tinged afternoon sunlight. A gentle breeze brings with it the sweet vanilla scent of the ponderosa pine. In the distance, a herd of bison silently graze while a nearby meadowlark whistles a pleasant song. This is the sunlit world of Wind Cave National Park. However, it has not always been like this. By the mid-1880s most of the buffalo that had roamed the Great Plains were gone. The elk populations were reduced and scattered in the mountains and the pronghorn antelope had moved west to Wyoming and parts beyond. It seemed like the Great Plains and their abundance of life was fading into the memories of the mountain men and intrepid explorers who had roamed the west.

By 1890, according to newspaper reports, the number of North American bison (Bison bison) in the United Sates was reduced to a woeful 500 animals. There were interested parties trying to protect them and as early as 1874, bills had been introduced into Congress to protect these magnificant animals, but little protection arrived.

A few private ranchers took it upon themselves to start small herds from remnant survivors wandering the plains. Fredrick Dupree saved nine calves on his ranch near the Moreau River in South Dakota. Charles Goodnight, Walking Coyote, Scottie Phillips, and Charles (Buffalo) Jones also rounded up remnant herds. These and others protected groups are the source of most of today's bison herds. But it was not until a concerted national effort was made that the survival of the species was assured.

This began on December 8, 1905, when a group of 16 people assembled in the Lion House of the New York Zoological Society, all of them were interested in working to preserve the American bison. This organization became known as the American Bison Society; its primary goal was the preservation of the American buffalo. Among its founders were William Hornaday and Theodore Roosevelt. Wind Cave was one of several bison preserves they created and because of their efforts the future of the species was assured.

But it was not an easy task to start a bison herd. First the preserve had to be established. For Wind Cave National Park that started in 1910. The Bison Society was looking for a place in South Dakota. Because of the rich habitats within the park, Wind Cave caught their eye and by 1911 a study by Mr. J.A. Loring was done indicating the park would sustain these massive animals. Stanley (Seth) Bullock, the US Marshall supervising Wind Cave NP at the time, provided his support saying:

I do not think they could find a better location…. There is plenty of water and shelter in the Park, and horses and cattle ranging there this winter are in better shape than any that I have seen elsewhere. … the Park is an ideal location.

Historic sepia-toned photograph of bison in a pen waiting to be shipped
Bison waiting to be shipped

The arrangements to provide bison to the preserve started quickly. William Hornaday of the New York Zoological Society (the Bronx Zoo) arranged to provide animals that would be the nucleus of the Wind Cave herd. In his letter he states:

The New York Zoological Society authorizes me to offer the American Bison Society a herd of ten buffaloes, consisting of males and females of various ages… to stock the Wind Cave National Bison Range, whenever it is established by Congress… I need hardly assure you that these will be animals of absolutely pure blood.

The Bison Society replied:

This gift is a most valuable one... It comes when Congress has under consideration the establishment of the Wind Cave National Game Preserve. The gift of this nucleus herd will be a strong argument with Congress for establishing the Game Preserve.

A request to the Secretaries of the Agriculture, James Wilson, and Interior, Richard Ballinger, was made. Through these efforts, Congress established a 4,000-acre Wind Cave National Game Preserve in August of 1912 to begin the reintroduction process not only of bison but of many other animals being threatened by the changes occurring on the Great Plains. The Preserve was to be administered by the Biological Survey under the Department of Agriculture on land within and adjacent to Wind Cave National Park.


The Zoological Society not only furnished 10 buffalo, but increased the number to 14 - seven males and seven females. On Monday, November 24, 1913, the 14 individually crated animals were placed in two new steel express cars and shipped on the 25th by rail to Hot Springs at an express charge of $850. The Society reported:

A great deal of interest was taken in the shipment at all stopping points... The explanatory labels attracted attention... crowds gathered quickly and asked many questions or climbed up to get a look at our strange charges.

The herd arrived Friday, November 28th at 9:30 AM in excellent condition. The total cost to get them to the park was $1,150 and the total time was 63 hours for the trip of two thousand miles.

The Bison Society reported:

By noon the unloading (from the train) was completed and the crates securely lashed or chained to wagons provided by citizens of Hot Springs. It was 7:00 PM when the caravan reached the park. The first animal took its release very calmly and disappeared into the darkness. However, the unloading by the uncertain light of our lanterns and bonfire proved to be a more or less difficult task. Greatly to the surprise and disappointment of some of our spectators, we had a good deal of trouble in getting some of the bison out of their crates.

Fred Dille, of the U.S. Biological Surevey, in charge of establishing the herd explained it this way:

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 result according to the Bison Society's report was:

In several cases the operation was more like removing the crate from the animal than the animal from the crate. At last our task was over, and it was with something of a feeling or relief that we realized that our trip had been brought to a successful conclusion.

Protection Assured

By the end of 1913 the Secretary of Agriculture, D. F. Houston, reported to the American Bison Society:

…the Government now has about 315 buffalo, distributed in six herds, the fifth and sixth having been established this year on the Niobrara Reservation, Neb. And the Wind Cave Park, S. Dak. In this connection it is interesting to recall that the nucleus of the first herd, the one now in the National Zoological Park, was acquired twenty-five years ago through the late Eugene Blackford, and consisted of a pair of buffalo captured near Ogallala, Neb. Soon after, four others were presented by Dr. V.T. McGillicuddy, a pubic spirited citizen of Rapid City, S. Dak. It happens that after the lapse of a quarter of a century the buffalo in each of the States from which the original herd was secured. The future of the species now seems assured.

Last updated: February 9, 2019

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