Sunday, March 22, 2015

Where the Buffalo Roam...

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

Peggy L Henderson is a laboratory technologist by night, and best-selling western historical and time travel romance author of the Yellowstone Romance Series, Second Chances Time Travel Romance Series, and Teton Romance Trilogy. When she’s not writing about Yellowstone, the Tetons, or the old west, she’s out hiking the trails, spending time with her family and pets, or catching up on much-needed sleep. She is happily married to her high school sweetheart. Along with her husband and two sons, she makes her home in Southern California. 


  1. Hi Peggy,
    Thanks for sharing facts about the Yellowstone bison herd. I had a private herd in Kansas for over a decade, and really enjoyed watching them roam our pastures.

  2. Hi Peggy, Thoroughly enjoyed this history lesson on bison. Since I'm a NYS girl, I've only seen a few bison and they were at exhibitions. I long for the day, I'll see them just roaming around out west. Hope to get there soon. And I loved the picture of the calves--just so cute and sweet. Of course, you probably can't tangle with them any more than you can with their mamas and pappas, can you. Great post, thanks.

  3. I enjoyed this post on bison. I was lucky enough to travel with friends back when I lived in Omaha, Nebraska for a year. I got to see wild bison in Wyoming just doing their thing They are impressive--and scary up close. It's not like looking at cattle for certain.
    Good post, Peggy.

  4. What a heart-tugging post, Peggy. My heart breaks at the wanton murder of these grand beasts. Gosh. On an island off Los Angeles, Catalina, bison were brought over for a motion picture, I thin in the 1930's. and their descendants are still wandering the hills! You can take a bus tour into the hills and see them.

  5. Hello Peggy, I enjoyed your post on the bison herd in Yellowstone. It brought back memories of the time my husband and I rode our motorcycles through the park and came upon a huge herd! I was wishing I was in a car!!

  6. Of course, we are appalled at the killing of all these magnificent animals. It's easy for us to judge, and I do believe it was a criminal act to do this, but in that day and time, things were different. I doubt any of the early hunters were remotely aware of what harm they were doing to a species. They were making a living.
    I've always loved reading about people and groups who have taken the matter in hand and done something about protecting the bison.
    We were fortunate enough to tour Yellowstone, stay a couple of nights at the big lodge next to Old Faithful, and see a couple of herds of buffalo. At one stop, the guide warned everyone to stay back, close to the bus to take photos. I swear, there were two stupid women who paid no heed and began to walk out in the pasture close to the buffalo. They were not harmed, but could have been. the guide tried to stop them, but did nothing except watch. I was horrified. Those things are huge! And there were numerous babies. Mama's don't want you near their babies.
    Thanks for the post--and the photos.

  7. I meant to ask--I should know the difference, as a biology major..but what is the difference between a buffalo and a bison?
    Inquiring minds want to know.

  8. The three types of bison are: Plains bison (most common in U.S.), Woods bison, longer legs and more square hump (mostly seen in Canada now) and the European Wisent bison.

    Buffalo is just a nickname for the bison, especially in Kansas due to the "Home on the Range" song.

    The cape buffalo and water buffalo are not related to bison.

    Hope this helps with the difference between bison and buffalo.


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