For millennia, tens of millions of bison, also called buffalo, roamed the North American continent, critical to the Great Plains ecosystem and to the cultural and spiritual lives of Native Americans. But not long after white settlers arrived, bison hunters overexploited the bison population for meat, hides and other products. By the end of the 19th century, America’s bison population had been reduced from a high estimate of 60 million to just a few hundred animals.
In 1905, the New York Zoological Society, now called the Wildlife Conservation Society, created the American Bison Society (ABS) with conservationist and avid hunter Theodore Roosevelt appointed honorary president. By 1907, the ABS was breeding bison and transporting them in crates by railcar to the West, cultivating small, protected herds from scratch. With these efforts, the population reached 1,000 by 1910.
“The American Bison Society went dormant when folks felt like extinction was no longer imminent,” said Cristina Mormorunni, director of U.S. Field Conservation Programs for the Wildlife Conservation Society. “But we realized about 100 years later that there was still a huge need to restore buffalo ecologically and culturally.”
Achieving that, Mormorunni said, requires an entirely new approach to conservation, one that rectifies how Native American communities have been excluded from U.S. wildlife conservation talks to date. The landmark Buffalo Treaty of 2014 laid the groundwork. It was the first formal effort to acknowledge and elevate the importance of bison to Native Americans and First Nations peoples. In its ratification, 13 nations from 8 reservations formed an intertribal alliance around the reintroduction of wild bison across the U.S. and Canada. New signatures to the treaty are still being added.
“I think it’s kind of like a rebirth of the old Indian way of doing things. Our people are coming together to find a common cause to work on,” Dr. Leroy Little Bear, professor emeritus of Native American studies at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, told Windspeaker News of restoring bison to the Northern Great Plains and of the Blackfeet Elders’ guidance of the process at the time. “We know the buffalo is not the only aspect of culture but it’s a very important part of culture. It is used in religion and sacred societies. Stories revolve around the buffalo. If we were able to bring the buffalo back into our midst, if the kids were able to see the buffalo on a regular basis, that part of our culture would come back to life.”
In the spring of 2016, that progress, and the urgency of continued work, was acknowledged federally, when President Obama signed legislation naming the bison the United States’ first national mammal. The Wildlife Conservation Society and its partners like the Blackfeet Nation are now focused on restoring bison as free-roaming wildlife. Today, about 20,000 bison roam wild on tribal, state and federal lands, and close to half a million more can be found in privately owned herds.
Where to See Bison
You can see these bison in the wild across more than 20 different Department of Interior-managed lands, plus a number of Native American reservations and other private properties. We’ve compiled a list of eight places you’ll be most likely to spot bison roaming free, with the stories of how they got there in the first place.
Before you go: In the fall and winter, you may see bison out on the range, or they may take shelter from the cold in more wooded areas. Bison calves can be spotted between March and May. Bison rutting, or mating, season is at its peak in July and August.
Sightings of these massive animals are exciting, but don’t forget to give the animals lots of space, for their safety and yours. The American Prairie Reserve, in Montana, tells its guests to maintain a distance of at least 300 feet from a bison, reminding us that bison can run up to 35 miles per hour. Be sure to follow other wildlife safety guidance, including never approaching bison or trying to scare or chase them away.
Yellowstone National Park
Idaho, Montana, Wyoming
Yellowstone National Park is perhaps America’s best-known place for viewing bison. The park is home to the largest population of non-commercial, free-range bison. Today, close to 5,000 purebred animals live freely within Yellowstone. According to the National Park Service, it is the only place in the country where bison have lived continuously since before their near-extinction and rehabilitation. Yellowstone Guidelines leads private tours into the park to spot large wildlife, including bison.
American Prairie Reserve
Since 2004, American Prairie Reserve, a nonprofit wildlife reserve in northern Montana, has been gradually purchasing and leasing tracts of grasslands in an effort to reconnect 3 million acres of public lands and foster them back to unfenced, undeveloped plains wilderness. On the 31,000-acre Sun Prairie parcel, a bison herd roams freely. If you visit in the fall, the bison herd tends to gather in big groups.
Antelope Island State Park
The 42-square-mile Antelope Island preserve in the middle of the Great Salt Lake is separated from mainland Salt Lake City by a 7-mile causeway. The herd of as many as 700 bison are easy to spot. The ancestors of this herd have roamed freely on the island since 1893, making it the second-oldest publicly owned bison herd in the nation, after Yellowstone. An annual bison roundup takes place in the park each October, where horseback riders corral the herd, but due to COVID-19, spectators were discouraged from attending this year.
In 1924, 14 bison were brought to Catalina Island off the coast of California, allegedly for the filming of a Western movie. Whatever their origins, these bison number around 150 today. When numbers have exceeded that in the past, bison have been relocated to Native lands, including that of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota and elsewhere. Catalina Island Conservancy, a nonprofit land trust that protects nearly 90 percent of the island, offers Eco Tours that provide an opportunity to see bison and learn about the Catalina Island’s history. Catalina Island Company also leads a two-hour, off-roading bison expedition to spot the herd from a safe distance.
Today, the Henry Mountains in southern Utah are home to between 300 and 500 free-roaming bison. You can spot them from the low grassy plains to the mountain-top flatlands at elevations up to 10,000 feet. The managers of this herd have also begun to send bison to seed herds in other places, including the Book Cliffs in eastern Utah, where a new herd is being formed along with bison sent from the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation.
Grand Canyon National Park
Grand Canyon National Park covers approximately 1,900 square miles and the bison that reside there are most concentrated on the Kaibab Plateau and near the highway that leads to the North Rim. In 2017, park officials began exploring options for how to responsibly reduce the number of bison there to avoid overpopulation, by means of corralling, relocating and controlled hunting. Bring binoculars and look for the herd on the North Rim.
Wind Cave National Park
An estimated 350 bison roam freely amongst Wind Cave National Park’s 33,851 acres of grassland prairie above the protected cave formations. The herd originated from a handful of bison donated by the ABS beginning in 1910. You don’t have to go far to spot the herd: They often hang out on the park roads or in plain sight on the edges of the forest.
National Bison Range
This preserve near Flathead Lake was established by Teddy Roosevelt in 1908 with an initial herd of 40 bison from the ABS. Now, the National Bison Range is home to a few hundred bison who have the run of its nearly 19,000 acres of grassland and timber, alongside elk, pronghorn, bighorn sheep and Rocky Mountain goats. Drive the 7-mile gravel Prairie Drive for a chance to see the area’s wildlife in its natural habitat.