Friday, August 3, 2012

The Yellowstone Bison

By: Peggy L. Henderson

Bison have roamed the area known as Yellowstone probably as long as they roamed the Great Plains in the millions. It was a common belief that these bison were escapees and survivors of the mass slaughter that occurred in the 1800’s on the plains. Actually, the historic Yellowstone bison were a subspecies of that group, and lived there for thousands of years.
Fur trapper Osborne Russell, has mentioned the large numbers of bison in an area of Idaho, about 30 miles from the present park. Members of the earlier park expeditions commented that "buffalo skulls are strewn by thousands" in the Yellowstone valley about 40 miles north of the park. From these and other accounts of wild bison within what is today the park, and in adjacent areas, dating from 1860 through 1902, it is clear that a great number of bison inhabited the Yellowstone Plateau at all seasons, and long before the killing of the northern herd of Great Plains bison in the early 1880s.
Rifleman shooting bison ca 1880 NPS photo 
After the park was established in 1872, there was no regulation in place for the killing of animals, and poachers freely killed bison. By 1902, less than thirty bison remained.
In 1886, the army took control of Yellowstone, and one of their main objectives was to regulate the killing and decimating of the natural features and wildlife. While the soldiers worked to stop illegal hunting, they were pretty much powerless to do anything other than escort the offenders outside of park boundaries, confiscate their kills, and tell them not to come back.
One brazen poacher, Ed Howell, came back time and again, and boasted of his exploits. Luckily, this backfired on him when the public finally heard about his poaching activities, and in 1894, the Lacey Act was passed by Congress, making poaching illegal and punishable.
In 1906, the Lamar Buffalo Ranch was established within Yellowstone to preserve the last free-roaming herd in the US. The bison that were brought to the ranch to mix with the last of the native mountain herd were plains bison, and as a result, today’s Yellowstone bison are a hybrid of the two.
Lamar Buffalo Ranch 1930  NPS photo
By the 1950’s the herd grew to over 600 animals, and ranching was stopped. The bison were set free to once again roam the park. Today, there are two distinct herds in the park – the Lamar herd, and the Mary Mountain herd. Their numbers fluctuate in any given year, but is usually somewhere around 3000 head.
Seeing bison in their natural habitat is one of the great joys when visiting Yellowstone. What many people need to remember, is that these animals are wild and dangerous. Unfortunately, many ignore the warnings, and year after year, injuries and even deaths occur from encounters with bison.
bison calves
The best place to see these magnificent animals is in the Hayden and Lamar Valleys. “Bison jams” are a common occurrence, since bison cross and even travel on the park road.

present day bison jam


Unknown said...

Wonderful post, Peggy. When I've written novels about how important these animals were to the existence of the American Indian, it's easy to see why they took great offense to the meaningless slaughter of something that sustained the red man's lives. It's amazing how the tribes used almost every part of each animal they killed...from the muscle sinew for bowstrings to the bladder for carrying water from the streams and rivers. The hides covered their lodges and warmed their families and the dried meat (pemmican) saw them through many winters when game grew scarce. I enjoyed this.

Devon Matthews said...

Great post, Peggy. With all the millions of buffalo that ranged over the plains a couple of centuries ago, it's horrendous that they came that close to being completely wiped out because people wanted their hides to make hats and coats. Hmm...and I just reminded myself of a related topic that had nothing to do with the hides. I'll have to see how much info I can dig up.:)

Peggy Henderson said...

You're right Ginger. Sadly, wiping out the buffalo was a means to wipe out the Indians. This post could have been so much longer, but I simply wanted to touch on the bison in Yellowstone. The Great Plains bison is worthy of a future post of its own.

Peggy Henderson said...

It was a tragedy, wasn't it? Just to think of killing all these animals simply for their hides and tongues....I had a few more gruesome photos, but chose not to post those.

Paty Jager said...

Bison are such awesome animals it's a shame that they were hunted so exhaustively.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Peggy, each of your posts makes me long more to travel to Yellowstone. Great post.

Ellen O'Connell said...

The comeback of the bison is one of the great things that has happened in my lifetime. There are now buffalo ranches right here in Colorado. It's hard to believe anyone could be foolish enough to mess with an animal that size, but since people do silly things with the Yellowstone bears....

Jacquie Rogers said...

We were in a bison jam. One big guy walked right up to our car and brushed against my window. I was sure hoping that window would hold! Up close and personal, they're intimidating animals. But what an experience. Thanks for the background info and photos--I wasn't aware that the Yellowstone bison were a subspecies.