Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley is perfect bison territory.
You can tell from a half mile away that the dark figures drifting across the prairie near Malta in northeastern Montana aren’t standard-issue Angus. Black heads shaped like anvils, massive brown bodies crowned with humps—they have to be bison. This herd belongs to the American Prairie Foundation, a group trying to restore a tract of rangeland to its natural state, animals included. Get a little closer with binoculars in hand and you can see the shaggy beards, curved horns, skinny hips, alert eyes, and solid muscles that set bison apart from their cattle cousins.
American bison—their memorable scientific name is Bison bison—were once the biggest game on the plains. (You can call them buffalo, although they aren’t closely related to the buffalo species of Africa and Asia.) That’s big as in massive: A well-fed bull can weigh nearly a ton. An estimated 30 million to 75 million bison once crowded the continent from Canada to Mexico and from Oregon to Florida. Perfectly built for the plains, they hit their stride in the open country between the Rockies and the Mississippi. In 1806, William Clark reported seeing nearly 20,000 “buffalow” from a bluff not far from what is now the American Prairie Foundation’s property.
All that roaming meat enabled the Plains Indians to thrive; without bison there could have been no Sitting Bull. The Indians revered the animals even as they hunted them with spears or drove them over cliffs. Settlers from the East appreciated bison too, mainly as easy targets for slaughter. When the herds dwindled, bison became nostalgic symbols of the Old West. Wyoming put a bison on its flag in 1917. Montana’s license plates have sported bison skulls since the 1930s, and from 1913 to 1938 the whole nation spent newly minted buffalo nickels. All the while, a few bison stragglers bided their time around the West.
Now about 20,000 free-ranging bison graze on unfenced lands in Yellowstone National Park; Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Alberta, Canada; and the Delta Junction State Bison Range south of Fairbanks, Alaska. Another 10,000 to 15,000 roam large enclosures in South Dakota’s Wind Cave National Park and the mountainous National Bison Range in western Montana, among other spots. A small herd lives quietly in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, and about 100 bison populate Southern California’s Santa Catalina Island, descendants of extras brought in for a 1925 silent movie. With bison burgers gracing menus across the country, it’s no surprise that most of the animals—roughly 430,000—live on ranches. (About 50,000 belong to media mogul Ted Turner.)
Holdovers from the ice age, bison are stuck with ancient instincts. “They’re smart when it comes to surviving on the plains,” says Brad Bulin, a wildlife biologist and instructor with the Yellowstone Association Institute, which leads educational tours in the park. “Getting out of the way when a car’s coming? Not so much. These are beasts that don’t live in fear.” Their size and loyalty made adults virtually invulnerable to natural predators. “I’ve seen more bison chase wolves than I’ve seen wolves chase bison,” Bulin says. “The herd will defend its members.”
And yet that group fidelity brought them near extinction. Early settlers quickly learned to walk within rifle range and pick off the animals one by one. When a bison hit the ground, the others would mill around the corpse instead of stampeding to safety. “Bison are very peculiar when another bison dies,” Bulin says. “They’ll nudge it with their horns, and they’ll defend it from scavengers. I’ve seen them running to check out a carcass that was two months old.”
Even in Yellowstone, bullets nearly won out. In the decades after the park’s founding in 1872, poachers thinned the herds to fewer than 50 animals before the U.S. Army stepped in to end the slaughter. In 1902, park managers started trucking in purebred bison from Western ranches, and nature took it from there. Today the park supports 3,000 healthy bison.
“At any park or refuge with bison, you can see 90 percent of what these animals are all about,” says Thomas Roffe, chief of wildlife health for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and an adjunct professor of biology at Montana State University in Bozeman. “But to see 500 or 600 animals at a time, to see all of the social structures, to see bulls really battling each other during a rut, you have to go to Yellowstone.”
In winter, adults use their heads to plow through snow for buried grasses. In April and May, clusters of cows nurse fuzzy red calves. Later in summer the gangly youngsters run, kick, and buck like preschoolers on a sugar rush. Old bulls tend to graze alone, pausing occasionally to wallow in dust baths, scratch their backs on lodgepole pines, or look disdainfully at camera-toting visitors standing way too close. By late July and August, bulls start charging and butting heads as they vie for mating opportunities. Park brochures warn that bison can run up to 30 miles an hour. If that doesn’t sound fast, wait until a one-ton bull gallops in your direction at full speed. It’s an explosion, and you wouldn’t want to be in the way.
Yellowstone bison are wild in every sense, but the park isn’t as vast as their instincts to wander. Bison that step beyond its boundaries are either shot by hunters or hazed back in. Many in the Yellowstone herd carry brucellosis, a bacterial infection that, although usually harmless to bison, can make cattle abort their calves. Because of the bacteria, bison aren’t especially welcome in cattle country. However, Roffe believes no U.S. bison outside Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks carry the disease, and he knows of no documented case of bison passing it to domestic cattle.
Bison certainly know their place at the National Bison Range, an 18,800-acre wildlife refuge surrounded by a sturdy fence. Established in 1908, the refuge was the first government site secured to protect wildlife. The 350 to 500 bison here stay hefty despite frequent uphill workouts, and visitors can enjoy lofty vantage points overlooking the Flathead River Valley and the Mission Mountains on the 19-mile drive. The gravel road climbs from a classic Western grassland to a ridge shaded by ponderosa pines. Two short trails let visitors stretch their legs, take in the views, and satisfy any remaining curiosity about the nature of bison patties.
Another 500 bison have found refuge at Antelope Island State Park, a 28,000-acre tract near Salt Lake City. Coyotes and ravens sometimes hang around the herd, looking for rodents and insects churned up by the bisons’ hooves. The big animals don’t pay much attention to the few cars that make the seven-mile drive across the causeway from the mainland, but every year they kick up dust when mounted wranglers appear. Bison roundups are an annual spectacle at Antelope Island, the National Bison Range, and other reserves where the droves would quickly outgrow their quarters. Each fall, herders on horseback—and sometimes in trucks or off-road vehicles—steer the bison into fortified corrals. Spectators watch as the animals thunder, snort, and bellow.
“The bison don’t like it,” says Pat Jamieson, the outdoor recreation planner at the National Bison Range. “We had one bull jump in the air and break all four bolts in the floor. He was a big guy.” The animals eventually calm down. Calves are given identifying microchips or brands, and at some sites vets seize the chance to vaccinate the captives against brucellosis.
Managers also collect blood samples for DNA, a measure that helps them decide which bison get to stay and which will be shipped elsewhere. You’d never know it by looking at them, Roffe says, but almost all bison outside Yellowstone and Wind Cave national parks carry a little DNA from domestic cattle, vestiges of old interbreeding experiments. “Our goal is to preserve the true bison genetics,” Roffe says. “If more land becomes available, we’ll be ready.”
More room for more bison—that’s precisely the vision of the American Prairie Foundation. Except for a few dirt roads, the group’s land in northeastern Montana is largely unchanged from the days when Lewis and Clark marveled at the “moving multitude” of bison just to the south. The present herd of 100 genetically pure animals transplanted from Wind Cave tromps through a nearly treeless landscape that has never seen a plow. A supercharged electric fence, carrying enough voltage to send a person flying backward, keeps them in place.
Still, local ranchers aren’t thrilled at the prospect of having thousands of bison for neighbors, as the Prairie Foundation envisions. “We’d just as soon not have bison here,” says Jerry Mahan, who has run cattle in the Malta area for 38 years. Mahan believes the animals do have a place in the landscape with the native elk, antelope, and bighorn sheep. But he’s for limits. “Bison are very hard to control,” he says. “If the herd gets much bigger, they’re going to destroy the range.”
Jeff Hagener, the Prairie Foundation’s managing director, knows his group would meet far less opposition if it just sold off the herd and settled for prairie dogs and sage grouse. But for Hegener, the prairie isn’t complete without bison. “They just seem to fit right in,” he says.
From ranch to plate
More than 10 times as many bison graze on ranches as on public lands. Most are bred, as are cattle, to be sold for meat. Bison or buffalo—you’ll see both terms on menus—is leaner than beef, with a similar flavor. Here’s a short list of great restaurants that feature it.
Belgrade, Mont. At the Mint Bar & Cafe, bison filet is seared and roasted, then topped with a melting pat of butter seasoned with red pepper, shallots, and parsley.(406) 388-1100, themintmt.com.
BOISE Berryhill & Co. jazzes up its buffalo burger with red pepper aioli, smoked provolone, and bacon marinated in brown sugar. Seasonal specials include bison mixed grill basted with preserved-lemon chimichurri. (208) 387-3553, berryhillandco.com.
DENVER Visit the Buckhorn Exchange—the city’s oldest restaurant—for smoked buffalo sausage with red chile polenta. Or choose the buffalo prime rib, either slow roasted or blackened. (303) 534-9505, buckhornexchange.com.
JACKSON HOLE, WYO. At the Gun Barrel Steak & Game House, trophy-mounted bison, elk, and moose don’t stop diners from feasting on bison carpaccio, ribs, sirloin, and prime rib. (307) 733-3287, gunbarrel.com.
PORTLAND Chicken-fried bison steak in bacon-and-sausage gravy is a fixture on the Sunday brunch menu at Simpatica Dining Hall. (503) 235-1600, simpaticacatering.com.
SEATTLE Zig Zag Cafe—known for its encyclopedic bourbon bar—serves bison rib eye with horseradish-beet relish. Best pairing? Satan’s Soulpatch: bourbon, vermouth, Grand Marnier, orange juice, and bitters. (206) 625-1146, zigzagseattle.com. —Erin Klenow
Photography by Chuck Haney
This article was first published in July 2010. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Where to bet on seeing bison
Herds of all sizes, ranging from thousands of bison down to just a handful, are scattered around the West. Below are some of the best places to see them. For an in-depth cultural view, visit The Bison: American Icon, Heart of Plains Indian Culture, a permanent exhibit at the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, Mont. (406) 727-8787, cmrussell.org.
UP TO 3,000 BISON
CUSTER STATE PARK Custer, S.D. Bison stop traffic on the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road in the 71,000-acre park. During a public September roundup, park staff sort, brand, and vaccinate the herd. The event includes an arts festival and chili cookoff. (605) 255-4515, sdgfp.info/parks/regions/custer.
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK Bison roam the park, but the best viewing sites are Lamar Valley between Cooke City, Mont., and Tower Junction, and Hayden Valley between Canyon Village and Yellowstone Lake. (307) 344-7381, nps.gov/yell.
500 TO 1,000 BISON
GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK Jackson Hole, Wyo. Bison can often be seen along Mormon Row and Antelope Flats Road, and in meadows and sagebrush by the Snake River from near Moran Junction south to the National Elk Refuge. (307) 739-3300, nps.gov/grte.
LESS THAN 500 BISON
AMERICAN PRAIRIE FOUNDATION Malta, Mont. Free self-guided tours. (877) 273-1123, americanprairie.org.
NATIONAL BISON RANGE Moiese, Mont. Steep roads with switchbacks lead to the herds. You’ll also find interpretive displays, a bookstore, and restrooms. (406) 644-2211, fws.gov/bisonrange/nbr.
WIND CAVE NATIONAL PARK Hot Springs, S.D. Bison are often seen grazing beside roads in this 28,000-acre park. (605) 745-4600, nps.gov/wica.
WRANGELL–ST. ELIAS NATIONAL PARK Copper Center, Alaska. Two small herds populate the remote Chitina and Copper River valleys. (907) 822-5234, nps.gov/wrst.