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 explores 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 wondering 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 indicting 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 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.

To read about the arrival of the bison, click here.

Last updated: December 28, 2017

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Hot Springs, SD 57747


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