Bison Power

Bison may be the largest North American animal in North America, and that’s part of why they are celebrated every November 2.  As you may expect, they are the stars of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. If you don’t believe me, just look where cars are stopped and cameras are clicking. 

And it was a killer blizzard that gave life to bison when their herds were nearly wiped out in the 1880s.

bison theodore roosevelt national park sundog

A faint sundog overhead, bison stroll down the road like it’s a summer day.

Bison Extinct — Herds Nearly Gone

In about 1881, almost every bison was killed by ignorant, wasteful, wanton bison hunts. Even buffalo hunts by indigenous people were based on the errant idea of a never-ending supply. Finally, just a few scattered herds remained.  Many of those were captured by men who had been buffalo hunters, now turned conservationists as they saw the end of the nation’s bison.  A few ranchers kept bison herds.

The near loss of this animal –forever–is well-documented. Once allegedly numbering around 60 million in North America, they were down to a thousand or two.

Ironically, one of the incentives to bring Theodore Roosevelt to the Dakota Territory was to shoot a bison. But he was smart enough to see things were not as expected. The bison were gone. His timing caught the end of the decimation of the great herds and he became a champion for bison preservation.  He was alarmed when a friend who had ridden across the Montana prairies returned to tell Roosevelt he didn’t see a live bison and never were bison carcasses out of sight.

So, as word spread that the thundering herds of bison were no longer here, more people became interested in preserving the animals.

Bison Come to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Bison wouldn’t be here at the Theodore Roosevelt National Park if it weren’t for one of the worst blizzards and coldest winters on record in the Great Plains. 

At the time, open range grazing was getting fenced out in Montana, the Dakota Territory, and Wyoming.  Along with that, ranchers began to raise hay on the unpredictable prairie to try to feed cattle all winter.  Ranching was not an attractive lifestyle. The cattle that were brought here were not suited for the weather. 

Weather Impact

Charles M. Russel, Public Domain.

First, drought came and wiped out at least two years hay supply that would have fed cattle.

Then, in the winter of 1886-87, a massive blizzard hit. It killed hundreds of thousands of cows in the blizzard.  Ranchers rode out to their herds, when conditions allowed, only to find dead carcasses everywhere. There were so many dead cattle that all spring and summer, cattle carcasses washed into streams and rivers to float downstream.

No bison carcasses were found. They had survived the 50-degree below zero temps, accumulated snowfall several feet deep, and massive towering snowdrifts — with no food.

So, as dead cattle lay everywhere, no one could find a dead bison carcass. 


Cattle died but Bison lived through the killer blizzard 

When they realized the killer storm did not kill bison, a few enterprising ranchers decided to try to crossbreed the bison bloodline into their cattle herds. If that worked, they could produce offspring that could be better equipped to withstand winter.  (Some say it was  the ranchers’ wives that pushed for their efforts to save the bison.)

From the National Park Service:

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 akiller 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?”

Seed Stock

From different regions of the Great Plains, conservationists established five “seed stock” herds. They co-mingled the Buffalo Jones herd, the Charles Goodnight herd, the Allard herd, the Dupree herd, and other smaller selections to become the Fort Niobrara Nebraska herd.

Eventually, scientists discovered the DNA of these hardy winter-surviving bison was descended from much larger animals that migrated to America from northern Asia. They came from regions where winters are much longer and much more dreadful.  Fossil discoveries showed some of the migrating large beasts “bison latiforns” had horns nine feet wide from tip to tip.

The bison latifrons Harlan, 1825 – fossil buffalo skeleton from the Pleistocene of North America (public display, Cincinnati Museum of Natural History & Science, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA.)

Bison Herds Shipped to North Dakota

Bison were trucked from the South Unit to the North Unit after the South Unit herd got sufficiently established. From National Park Service “Bison Management.”

They survive because they grow a thick wooly coat, and add additional layers of fat in the fall.  Bison are so impervious to winter storms, When a storm blows in, bison just turn into the storm and wait for it to pass. There is no such thing as a killer blizzard to bison.


The Niobrara herd grew so that in 1956, 29 were shipped north. They came to the young national wildlife area in southwestern North Dakota called the Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park.

family tree of bison

From National Park Service, “Where Our Bison Came From.” Click to see full size.


Today, if you want to see these hardy ferocious animals with impressive ancestry, you can head to the North or South Units of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

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The park manages the bison herds to maintain a balance that can be supported by the ecosystem. Since the South Unit is larger, it accommodates more bison, 200-400.  And the smaller North Unit includes 100-300 head.

A bison sleeps at the entrance of the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Bison Viewing Tip

Tip:  You will most likely find them in the lower ground in the park where it’s easier to feed on grasses. Their highly developed sense of smell helps them find grass even under snow.

Then on warm winter days when the sun heats up the bright hillsides of the Park, you may find the animals moving to the warm hills to take a nap

A dozing bison bull basks in the sun on a west-facing hillside.

When we visit the Park, we love to locate herds and add photographs to our gallery of bison photos.

Sometimes they find us, walk right in and pay us no attention. 

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bison up close

bison buffalo sun sleeping

A dozing bison bull basks in the sun on a west-facing hillside.

So, if you subscribe to this blog, you’ll undoubtedly see more stories about bison in the weeks to come.  They’re a popular topic — but then, so is eating.  Our “Tasty Tuesday” entries sure do get a lot of attention, such as this one from Medora.

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