Bison Power

Bison may be the most ferocious animal in North America, and they are the stars of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.  When you drive through the park, you can see where to find a herd by looking for cars. If bison are near the road, a collection of cars gathers in that location.

bison theodore roosevelt national park sundog

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

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.  A legendary cattle-killing blizzard of 1886 wiped out entire cattle herds. Ranchers who depended on the income from their cattle were devastated.

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 feed cattle all winter. 

Weather Impact

First came at least two years of drought that cut short their hay supply that they would have fed their cattle.

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

Charles M. Russel, Public Domain. http://69.69.245.68/GALLERY/CHINOOK2.HTM

There were no bison carcasses. They had survived the 50-degree below zero temps, accumulated snowfall several feet deep and massive towering snowdrifts.  Dead cattle were everywhere, but no one could find a dead bison carcass. 

(Note: Most of the wild bison herd had been wiped out by ignorant, wasteful wanton bison hunts. Even buffalo hunts by indigenous people were based on the idea of a never-ending supply. Only 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.)

 

Bison in Winter

When they realized the killer storm did not kill bison, a few enterprising ranchers decided to try to crossbreed 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 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?”

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

Eventually, scientists discovered the DNA of these hardy winter-surviving bison were 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.

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 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.” https://www.nps.gov/thro/learn/nature/bison-management.htm

Bison survive because they grow a thick wooly coat, and add additional layers of fat in the fall.  They are so impervious to winter storms, that when one blows in, they just turn in to the storm and wait for it to pass.

 

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.

It was a fitting gesture to bring the animals back to the Badlands and to the Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park. That’s because Roosevelt was one of the conservationists who worked to protect the remaining bison herds. The same animals he once hunted, he now worked to protect. He’d gone from hunter to protector. Had it not been for ranchers, Roosevelt, and other conservationists, the animal could have been lost forever.

Today

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

The bison herds are managed to maintain a balance that can be supported by the ecosystem. Since the South Unit is larger, it can accommodate more bison, 200-400.  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.

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 December 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. 

bison up close

We have discovered that others like our bison images — GO NDSU!  That first image up at the start of this article is our most popular — and is hanging in homes from Oregon to Minnesota, Arizona to North Dakota.

bison buffalo sun sleeping

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

So, if you subscribe to this blog, you’ll undoubtedly see more stories about bison in 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.

You can add to your collection of images from the Badlands. Click on this image to see what is available

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