Return of the Buffalo

More than 30 million bison once roamed North America. Only about 50,000 now live in wild herds, leading ecologists to say the buffalo is “functionally extinct.” Will the nation’s mammal and a symbol of the West endure?


This story originally appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of Backcountry Journal.

By Christine Peterson


Ervin Carlson was in his 20s when he saw a bison.

The creatures were being brought back to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in northern Montana, a place they’d lived for millions of years until they were exterminated nationwide by the early 1900s.

Carlson grew up without buffalo, just like his parents, and just like nearly every other Native American in the United States.

It’s why he couldn’t quite grasp the animal’s power and spirit until seeing it that day, decades ago. Even then, he’s not sure he fully understood.

But he would soon enough.

Carlson has been the president of the Intertribal Buffalo Council for well over two decades. In that position, he’s overseen bison reintroduction onto tribal lands across the country and even helped figure out how to fly three bull bison to Alaska.

“We’re restoring the buffalo for our cultural connection,” Carlson said, “but also because they used to be our economy and past history, and they can take care of us, too.”

He’s one of many Montanans, Westerners, conservationists and hunters working to restore the buffalo to the West. But it’s not an easy road. When pushed too hard, they can be big, unruly and ill-tempered. They don’t always like fences and have little regard for vehicles. But they’re also one of the best original stewards of the land.

And believe it or not, figuring out the logistics of transporting thousands of pounds of living bison to Alaska via container ship, barge and plane is actually one of the least challenging pieces in the effort to bring bison back. The politics of bison restoration is the tough part. They’re a species that once numbered more than 30 million and were systematically slaughtered down to less than 1,000. About half a million bison now roam North America, with more than 50,000 living as wild animals. Even with those gains, the most ambitious goals call for more of these scattered herds, many parts making a whole. Ask those most involved in the bison restoration process if one of the most iconic species of the American West, and the national symbol of the United States, could truly roam free again, and they’ll tell you maybe, sort of, it depends.

But those same bison advocates also say any gains are important, and maybe scattered populations are enough for now.

Unimaginable Slaughter

Most of us likely know the story of the American bison, at least the basic points: Bison roamed across much of the U.S. from Canada to Mexico and New York to Oregon. Their numbers were particularly strong in the Great Plains where they moved in waves across the grasslands, spreading native seeds with their hooves and fur and fertilizing vegetation with their manure. They rarely stayed anywhere long.

Buffalo were critical to the nation’s first people, where humans, buffalo and countless other wildlife lived alongside one another.

But as settlers moved into the West, the bison’s fortune changed quickly. 

Bison were viewed three ways: a commodity to be killed, butchered and sold; a hinderance to an expanding rail system and competition with domestic livestock; and a critical resource for tribes fighting to maintain their homelands.

Bison were viewed three ways: a commodity to be killed, butchered and sold; a hinderance to an expanding rail system and competition with domestic livestock; and a critical resource for tribes fighting to maintain their homelands.

The answer to all of those was mass slaughter, and the numbers are staggering.

In 1870, about 2 million bison were killed on the southern plains, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Their hides were used for leather, their bones used in refining sugar, making fertilizer and fine bone china.

“Bison bones were bought from $2.50 to $15 a ton,” the Fish and Wildlife Service said. “Based on an average price of $8 per ton, they brought $2.5 million into Kansas alone between 1868 and 1881. Assuming that about 100 skeletons were required to make one ton of bones, this represented the remains of more than 31 million bison.”

Slaughter peaked on the southern plains around 1873 with hides selling for $1.25 each and tongues for 25 cents.

“A railway engineer said it was possible to walk a 100 miles along the Santa Fe railroad right-of-way by stepping from one bison carcass to another.”
Some officials made efforts along the way to stem the bloodshed. The Idaho State Legislature passed a law to protect bison in 1864, after buffalo no longer roamed the state. Wyoming and Colorado passed laws making it illegal to waste bison meat, but they were not enforced. The U.S. House and Senate even passed a bill in 1874 to protect female bison and prevent wanton destruction, but President Ulysses Grant wouldn’t sign the legislation.
Ultimately, the bison’s fate was a foregone conclusion. Markets were hungry for hides. Governments and companies were ready for railroad connectivity. Generals William T. Sherman and Philip Sheridan “viewed the eradication of the buffalo as the ‘critical line of attack’ in the struggle with the Plains Tribes,” according to the Western Historical Quarterly out of Utah State University.

And the bison extermination worked.

By the late 1870s, bison in the southern portion of the U.S. had all but been eliminated, and by the mid-1880s, only around 1,000 wild buffalo remained.

Above: Bison hunting scene depicted on Newspaper Rock, near Canyonlands National Park, Utah. Photo: crbellette


It’s impossible to tell the story of the buffalo without the nation’s tribes.

Buffalo were not only food for most native people living in the middle of the continent, they were also the source of housing, clothing, tools and, perhaps even more importantly, they were brothers, spiritually connected to one another.

“The tribes and buffalo go hand in hand,” Carlson said. “We lost a lot of our culture coming in with settlement. They took our language, and we’re bringing that back. They took our way of religion and our land. A lot of things we lost in our culture and so to me, restoring buffalo is helping to bring back a part of our culture that was lost.”

The Intertribal Buffalo Council formed in the early ‘90s to “restore bison on Tribal lands for cultural and spiritual enhancement and protection,” its website reads.

Almost 75 tribes now belong to the organization, and bison have been restored to almost 1 million acres of tribal land across the country including the Assiniboine and Sioux on the Fort Peck Reservation in northeastern Montana, the Shoshone and Arapaho on the Wind River Reservation in central Wyoming, and the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate at Lake Traverse Reservation in northeastern South Dakota. About 20,000 wild buffalo now live on tribal lands managed as cultural herds.

The hope is for bison to once again be part of the tribes’ cultural connection but also used in their economy.

“The Blackfeet are getting back to eating the healthy meat and lifestyle we used to have,” Carlson said. “Diabetes is so rampant in Indian Country, that just eating healthy foods again can help.”

But even restoring bison to tribal lands has been met with resistance from nearby cattle ranchers worried about bison potentially spreading disease, breaking down fences and competing for forage.

“I hear from the non-Indian ranchers that they don’t want to lose their land,” he said. “I know the feeling.”

Restoration Efforts

Ask any bison expert, or most anyone in the West, if bison will ever reach close to the numbers they once had, and they’ll say no.

The time where the Western landscape could support 30 million creatures that weigh up to 2,000 pounds and stand 6.5 feet tall that need space to move around is gone. But efforts are underway to restore at least some of what’s been lost.

And ironically, some of the first attempts to preserve and restore bison came from the very people who participated in their destruction.

In 1905, the Bronx Zoo’s first director, William Hornaday, and former President Theodore Roosevelt launched the American Bison Society to create wild bison reserves.

“People were saying bison were going to go extinct and the Wildlife Conservation Society needed to buy up bison from people who saved them and set up lands for them to be protected,” said Cynthia Hartway, science lead with WSC’s Rocky Mountain Program. “They bought some bison and negotiated to have bison brought to them at the Bronx Zoo to set up a breeding program. Then they found lands on the Wichita and Niobrara refuges, and that was the start of modern conservation of bison.”

Now of approximately half a million bison roaming the U.S., about 33,000 to 34,000 are managed as wild herds. Roughly 4,500 of those are in Yellowstone National Park. The U.S. National Park Service only wants about 3,000 in the herd, and any that wander north out of the park into Montana are either hunted, rounded up for slaughter or sent to quarantine to then go to tribal lands and other reintroduction efforts.

The rest are dispersed on wildlife trust lands, federal public lands like Book Cliffs in Utah, state lands like Custer State Park in South Dakota, and places like the American Prairie Reserve in Montana and Southern Plains Land Trust in southern Colorado.

Nearly every species on the Plains evolved with bison and in some ways relied on them. Bison created large landscape variations perfect for grassland birds. They distributed seeds from plants and kept encroaching trees at bay. The plants and flowers then supported pollinators. Prairie dogs and bison needed one another, and black-footed ferrets relied on prairie dogs.

“Bison are the best gardeners to put out on the grasslands and build healthy soils,” said David Carter with the National Bison Association. “North American grasslands are like the North American rainforest. The grasslands are an incredibly effective carbon sink and … are a more resilient carbon trap than forests.”

Which is why private groups like the American Prairie Reserve are buying up land and reestablishing wild herds.

The APR, as it’s often called, started in June 2001 as a response to a late ’90s report highlighting the need for conserving critical areas of the Great Plains, especially one portion of northeastern Montana.

“Our main focus is to purchase and permanently hold title to private lands that glue together a vast mosaic of existing public lands so that the region is managed thoughtfully and collaboratively with state and federal agencies for wildlife conservation and public access,” according to organizational story.
The organization’s ultimate goal is to pull together 3 million acres of public and private lands because that’s about how much biologists say it would take to create a fully functioning ecosystem in the prairie with migration corridors.

It has, according to its online reports, acquired almost 105,000 acres of private land that works together with more than 315,000 acres of public land.
For Carlson, the APR concept is a dream come true.

But local communities aren’t so sure.

“I see them coming in with big money, buying up ranches and walking over the top of the people who are already here,” said Montana ranch owner Conni French in a 2019 interview with National Public Radio. “For them to be successful in their goals, we can’t be here, and that’s not OK with us.”


Steaks and Burgers

Of the half a million bison in the United States, about 440,000 of them are living on private bison ranches. You’ve likely seen them off Interstate 25 in northern Colorado, near Gillette, Wyoming, or around Jackson Hole. Like cattle, ranchers have herds as small as 10 or as big as 50,000. Most average about 75, said Carter.

Bison ranching is a relatively new phenomenon. Carter started in 2003, after 25 years with the Farmer’s Union and two years as executive director of the Bison Association.

The first thing he’ll tell you when you ask about raising bison is that they are not “beefalo.”

“Our code of ethics prohibit any cross breeding, but when people hear there’s cattle genetics with bison, they think there’s a black angus hidden behind the barn to mate with females,” Carter said. “When you measure it today, most of the bison out there have less than 1.5 percent of their genetic makeup as cattle.”

Likely about 150 years ago, when bison were nearly gone, a few cattle ranchers lost their cows to a brutal winter storm and noticed the bison had survived. Perhaps, they figured, they could breed the two and have an animal with the temperament of a domestic cow and the hardiness of a bison.

Instead, they got the opposite, Carter said.

Ranchers quickly abandoned the idea, and bison haven’t been crossed widely with cattle in well over a century. But because so few bison remained in the country at the turn of the 20th century, some of the bison now have trace amounts of cattle genes.

“A lot of people say, ‘look, they look like bison, they taste like bison, they’re doing what bison do, let’s not worry about it,’” Hartway said. “I think, let’s acknowledge it’s there, but not make it worse.”

Bison ranchers generally don’t castrate their bulls, use growth hormones, cut horns or brand their herd, and the National Bison Association has a memorandum of understanding with the Intertribal Buffalo Council and works with the Wildlife Conservation Society.

While bison ranching is important to overall numbers, Hartway cautions that pure strains of bison can also be domesticated as ranchers or even wildlife refuge managers may select for more passive traits since bull bison have a tendency to fight – sometimes to the death.

“That’s an outstanding question now: How can we manage bison in a way that minimizes the artificial selection? It comes down to the bottom line: why have a bunch of males busting your equipment and hurting each other?” Hartway said. “It’s a delicate dance and an open question of how can we thread that needle.”

Fears of Competition, Disease and the Unknown

Plenty of ranchers in Montana raise bison, but the concept of restoration of wild bison on public lands is a bit more of a touchy subject.
For more than a decade, the state of Montana worked on a bison restoration plan to bring bison back to the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and public land near the Blackfeet Indian Reservation that would allow U.S. bison to connect to Canada. The plan was championed by conservation icons like the late Jim Posewitz but was also feared by some local ranchers. In April, Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte decided to end the state’s bison management plan.

Fears over buffalo are often twofold: worries over a loss of forage and grazing opportunities for cattle and worry about the spread of disease, particularly brucellosis.

Bison in Yellowstone National Park can carry brucellosis, a bacteria that causes cows to abort their first fetus. While the loss of calves is bad enough, the biggest concern is the regulatory hurdles that come after someone’s cow herd tests positive. If the disease can’t be cleared through culling and testing, sometimes an entire herd must be sold. Federal assistance helps but rarely covers the cost of losing every cow.

Elk also carry brucellosis, which is how it typically spreads.

Montana has been adamant that bison heading north out of Yellowstone be shot or removed. Bison captured out of Yellowstone for relocation are tested and quarantined. Then mature bulls are tested for an additional year and up to 2.5 years for young females.

The bison located on the Blackfeet and Fort Peck reservations are far removed from their kin in the park that could carry the disease. Brucellosis transmission from bison to cattle has been documented in the laboratory, but never in the greater Yellowstone area – the only place in the country where bison carry brucellosis, according to the Centers for Disease Control, which is “probably because of ongoing rigorous management actions to keep cattle and bison spatially and temporally separated,” the CDC stated.

Then come fears about places like the American Prairie Reserve buying up land that used to be cattle ranches to create the American Serengeti. The dissent against an out-of-state organization funded by out-of-state money turning former cattle leases into prairie grew so strong that billboards dot Montana highways with the words: “Save the Cowboy, Stop the American Prairie Reserve.”

A Montana lawmaker even proposed a bill in in early 2021 aimed at prohibiting “certain nonprofit corporations from purchasing agricultural land,” the bill read.

The bill died, but the sentiment remains.

Leah Latray, a Lewistown-area rancher, told the Billings Gazette that the American Prairie Reserve is “not my idea of the American dream.”


Photo: Bison along Rose Creek in Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park, NPS/Neal Herbert

The Remaining Piece of the Plains

Few sportsmen championed the restoration of wild bison as a huntable species more than Posewitz.

In a 2014 video, he called restoring wild bison to portions of the Plains, specifically the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, “a moral responsibility. This was the most abused animal on the continent, and we have a chance to correct that.”

It’s a sentiment his son, Andrew Posewitz, echoes.

“I would tell you, and this extends from my dad, the one undone piece from the North American Wildlife Recovery Model is bison,” he said.
Wild bison means restoration of the last huntable species on the plains. It means another opportunity for sportsmen and women, one that has been gone for well over a century.

Andrew Posewitz understands concerns from local ranching communities, but said instead of being afraid of the losses, because we don’t know what they will be, “we should find smart ways to mitigate the risk, so the landowner isn’t paying the full cost.”

States have predation accounts for species like wolves and grizzly bears that help offset losses in certain areas. Bison could be no different.
For many in the conservation community, including on the American Prairie Reserve, the ultimate goal is to have enough bison to hunt. That’s the compensatory management part of restoration.

But exactly what restoration means depends on who you ask. The National Bison Association has a goal of returning 1 million bison to the U.S., either in wild herds or on ranches. Carlson was reluctant to state a specific number as a goal; it will depend on the amount of habitat available.

Whatever the number, Carlson has no doubt buffalo will be restored, eventually.

“All through American history, it’s been the sportsman hunter that has carried the conservation ethic forward and restored wildlife to an entire continent.”
-Jim Posewitz.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced plans recently to “engage Tribes and stakeholders on the topics of bison and bighorn sheep reintroductions,” into those areas of Montana where some ranchers and legislators hope to keep them out, according to the Associated Press. Native American lawmakers, including Montana Rep. Tyson Running Wolf, a Blackfeet member from Browning, asked the Biden administration to work on the plan. Running Wolf also urged the administration to look at bison in the Glacier area.

Advocates like the late Jim Posewitz believe that sportsmen and women should lead the charge.

“All through American history, it’s been the sportsman hunter that has carried the conservation ethic forward and restored wildlife to an entire continent,” said Jim Posewitz. “Wildlife conservation began in America when Theodore Roosevelt set us on that course, and it’s going to be up to the sportsmen to get behind it to bring that last animal back to where it belongs on this landscape.”


Christine Peterson has written about outdoor recreation and the environment for the past decade from her home in Wyoming. When she’s not chasing trout or trapping grizzly bears and bighorn sheep, she’s wandering the West’s public lands with her daughter, husband and Labrador. She was the 2020 recipient of BHA’s Ted Trueblood Award.


BHA is actively committed to work that will restore wild bison to public lands and rebuild expansive bison habitat across North America. We, along with other committed partners, including those that are part of the Continental Bison Working Group, will work to affect positive change in management and policy that will grow our wild bison herds for generations to come.  Keep watch for exciting updates and opportunities to take action in the coming months!

About Christine Peterson

Open Spaces reporter for the Casper Star-Tribune.

See other posts related to the campfire backcountry journal bison