Interesting Places to Visit
Where to See Genetically Pure Herds of North American Bison
By April S. Kenyon — December 21, 2010
Just a couple of centuries ago, millions of bison freely roamed the plains, prairies and woodland regions of North America. The stampede of a herd of these majestic creatures could be felt for miles around. Today, the thundering rumble that once reverberated across the plains has faded to a barely noticeable roll on a few public and private properties tucked away in the recesses of the land.
a Bison plays road hog and holds up traffic in Yellowstone national park near Fishing Bridge at the northern tip of Yellowstone Lake, the country’s largest high-elevation lake (7,700 feet).
(Photo © Sascha Burkard | Dreamstime.com)
Sometimes referred to as buffalo, the North American Bison is in fact only a distant relative to the buffalo. The only two species of true buffalo are actually native to Africa and Asia. It is believed that the North American Bison descended from a European species that crossed over into the continent by way of the Bering Strait. Once this land bridge was submerged, the bison were isolated from Asia and the species developed into two North American forms, Bison antiquus and Bison occidentalis. While the antiquus species eventually died out, Bison occidentalis thrived and evolved into two separate subspecies, the Wood Bison and the Plains Bison.
As the Native Americans discovered the usefulness of these animals, the creatures were hunted and killed to provide meat, clothing, shelter, and a variety of other materials. The North American Bison became a vital resource of survival to the Native American lifestyle. While the Native Americans may have made a contribution to the beginning demise of these majestic mammals, it was primarily the arrival of Europeans and French fur traders in the early part of the 19th century that led to the near extinction of the great North American Bison.
The North American Bison population dwindled from approximately 60 million in the 18th century to less than 1,000 by 1890. As Europeans continued to push westward, they hunted the bison primarily for the fur hides these enormous creatures provided. A large number of bison were also simply hunted by the Europeans for sport. The large herds of bison that dominated the western plains and prairies stood in the way of progress. In order for the Europeans to expand, it was necessary to eliminate the obstacles.
With the formation of the American Bison Society in 1905, the species has managed to survive through captive breeding practices. Today, there are approximately 350,000 bison grazing on North American lands in both public and privately owned herds. However, the majority of these bison have been crossbred with cattle. Only about 10,000 to 15,000 bison that dwell on public lands are considered to be genetically pure North American Bison. Another 50,000 are privately owned.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
The American Bison herd located in Yellowstone National Park descended from the 23 Wood Bison that hid out in the Pelican Valley during the massive hunting of the 19th century. Twenty-one pure Plains Bison were released in the Lamar Valley in 1902. Through natural regulation, the bison population at Yellowstone has steadily grown to approximately 3,500 or more. This is the only area where bison have continually dwelled since prehistoric times.
Henry Mountains, Utah
The only huntable free-roaming herd of pure North American Bison resides in the Henry Mountains of Utah. Eighteen bison from Yellowstone were transferred to the area in 1941. This herd is now 200 strong. In the winter months, the herd can be observed along the lower benches. They retreat to the cooler high areas in warmer weather.
Fort Worth Nature Center, Texas
A small herd of approximately 24 bison makes its home at the Fort Worth Nature Center in Texas. This 3600 acre Nature Center offers bison feeding hayrides and fun activities for all to enjoy.
Caprock Canyons State Park, Texas
The bison of this herd are descendants of the Charles and Mary Goodnight herd that Charles captured in 1876 to save from almost certain extinction. In 1997, the herd was donated to the state and moved to Caprock Canyons. The herd currently contains approximately 78 bison.
Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota
This 28,295 acre national park is home to approximately 350 head of bison. The bison of this herd descend from 14 bison that were released into the park from the New York Zoological Society in 1913. Three years later, in June 1916, an additional six bison from Yellowstone National Park were introduced into the herd. A bull from Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park was also released at Wind Cave in the 1960s. Because of the small size of the park, the chances that visitors will spot a bison are very good.
Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary, Fort Providence, Canada
The bison population of Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary near Fort Providence actually exceeds the human population of the area. In 1963, a small herd of about 18 North American Bison were discovered dwelling in the wilderness and transferred to the wildlife refuge. Today, over 2,000 head of pure bison dwell at this protected reserve located in the Northwest Territory of Canada.
Wood Buffalo National Park, Alberta, Canada
Established in 1922, Wood Buffalo National Park houses and protects more than 5,000 Wood Bison. Wood Buffalo is the largest national park in Canada and hosts the largest herd of free roaming Wood Bison in the world.
Elk Island National Park, Alberta, Canada
Located just east of Edmonton, Elk Island National Park is home to more than 700 head of both Plains and Wood Bison. In 1907, a pure-bred herd of Plains Bison were transferred to Elk Island National Park from Montana. Their stay here was only to be temporary until the fencing was completed at Buffalo Park. However, when the herd was transferred to Buffalo Park, approximately 70 head of bison hid out and remained behind. Today, it is estimated that 425 Plains Bison graze in the park. The Wood Bison in the area descend from 23 head that were introduced to Elk Island from Wood Buffalo National Park in 1965. The population of this herd is approximately 300.
Prince Albert National Park, Saskatchewan, Canada
The present-day herd at Prince Albert National Park numbers approximately 220 head of bison. These Plains Bison are also descended from the original herd that remained behind at Elk Island.
Ted Turner Ranches
As the largest landholder in North America, Ted Turner owns more than two million acres of ranch land and personal property. Turner’s properties are home to more than 50,000 head of pure North American Bison scattered throughout his various ranches. Ted Turner’s ranches are opened to the public and include the following:
- Red Rock Ranch, Montana
- Bad River Ranches, South Dakota
- Sandhills Ranches, Nebraska
- Z-Bar Ranch, Kansas
- Bluestem Ranch, Oklahoma
- Collon Cura, Argentina
- San Jose, Argentina
- Vermejo Park Ranch, New Mexico
- Armendaris Ranch, New Mexico
- Ladder Ranch, New Mexico
- Flying D Ranch, Montana
(Editor's Note: The Montana-based American Prairie Foundation, World Wildlife Fund and other conservationists are working to bring bison back as a part of their rehabilitation of a 31,000-acre swath of native prairie.)
April S. Kenyon lives in the small city of Salem, situated in the scenic hills of southern Indiana. She received a BA in English from Indiana University in 1997 and has been pursuing a full-time career in freelance writing since the beginning of 2010. April writes for a number of online content sites, providing articles and research on a wide variety of topics for clients worldwide. Some of her favorite subjects to write about include those of an environmental and historic nature.