Yellowstone, Part Two: The Buffalo…er, Bison

There were once an estimated 60 million bison in North America. They ranged from Alaska to Mexico and from California to New York. They’re the largest land mammal on the continent, with no true predator save for humans. And they were EVERYWHERE. The Native Americans hunted them, and used nearly every part of the animal for food, shelter, clothing, and ceremonial objects.

When the Europeans showed up on the continent they saw two problems with the bison.

Problem 1: They were in the way of expansion. (Let’s face it, 60 million is a lot of bison when you’re trying to build a railroad.)

Problem 2: The Native Americans relied on them for their survival, and the new American Republic had declared war on the tribes.

The Solution: Kill all the bison. Doing so opened up space for settlers and railroads, but more importantly it was an efficient war tactic – the Native Americans would starve or freeze to death without the bison. It was this country’s very own version of the Final Solution.

Bison skulls being prepped for transport. They would be ground down and used as fertilizer. Photo from Wikipedia Commons
A park ranger shared an anecdote that during the building of the railroads a person could walk a hundred miles an never touch the ground there were so many dead bison lining the tracks. Photo via American History.

By the time Yellowstone was named the nation’s first national park in 1871 by President Roosevelt there were only 28 wild bison left there. Let that sink in for a minute – from 60 million to 28. (There were around 500 bison in zoos and being farmed, but only the ones in Yellowstone were wild). Today, there are about 5,000 bison that have free range in Yellowstone.

When visiting Yellowstone you may not see a wolf or a coyote, but it would be a rare visit if you didn’t spot at least one bison. If you’re caught in a traffic jam in the park, it’s probably because the bison are crossing the street.

They are a miraculous sight. It will fill you with awe. They’re large, lumbering beasts, but there’s something so very peaceful about seeing them in their herds.

We humans do sometimes see the errors of our ways before its too late, and we can come together to preserve something magnificent.

The bison herds in Yellowstone have free range – literally nothing is stopping them from going wherever they want. There are no fences in the park. Photo by Ryan.

The bison herds will never reach the same numbers they had originally, but they are back in sufficient numbers that they are again an important part of the ecology of the U.S.

By the way, it’s relevant that I’m calling them bison and not buffalo. We use the terms interchangeably to discuss the same animal, but a bison and a buffalo are two different animals. What we have here in the U.S. are bison. Buffalo are found in Europe and Africa.

We only ended up in a traffic jam when the bison were around. The rangers have to use their loud horns to move them aside so that the traffic can move. Photo by Ryan.

Also important – if you are riding a motorcycle, the sound your engine makes when it starts or revs is very similar to the sound the bulls make when they’re in their mating season.

Learning this was another of our Dayenu moments. We were out on the bikes around Wind Cave in South Dakota and R’s battery died. We jump started it, but of course had to leave it running to recharge the battery. About 10 minutes later we came across a number of bison, who were making this sound. We wanted to turn the bikes off and just be present to what we were witnessing, but we couldn’t without potentially stranding ourselves.

Later that night we went to a ranger talk and the lady explained to us that we could have been molested by a bull in heat. The battery didn’t have to die, but it did! Dayenu! (And it’s not died since).


  1. Amazing history – I didn’t know – but now wondering if it’s really bad to eat the occasional bison burger?


    • Not bad at all provided you’ve no underlying ethical qualms with eating animals. I had a bison burger for lunch yesterday. Just don’t hunt them on federally protected land. 🙂


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