During their historic journey to the Pacific, Lewis and Clark reported enormous herds of North American Bison in the midwest, so large that they “darkened the whole plains.” Wagon trains sometimes waited days for passage through herds numbering in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions. But by the early 1900’s the bison were reaching their low-point. Over-hunting, drought, and encroachment on their natural habitat by humans and cattle drove the population of bison down to only several hundred animals (the actual number is disputed) — the bison were almost extinct.
Theodore Roosevelt came to North Dakota to hunt bison, and ironically became one of the first to recognize they needed to be saved. Yellowstone National Park had recently established a bison preserve, so with William Hornaday, former President Roosevelt founded the American Bison Society in 1905. The United States established the National Bison Range in Montana in 1908. These measures were the earliest of efforts that would eventually save the bison from extinction.
In 2013, the population of North American Bison was in the neighborhood of 500,000 and growing. Their genetic makeup however, is different than the herds that once roamed the plains. At the bison’s low-point, animals from private herds were used to propagate the species — animals which had been cross-bred with cattle. Those cattle traits are plainly apparent in some of the bison you see pictured on this page. Today, scientists estimate fewer than 5 percent — some say as few as 1.6 percent — of living bison are non-hybridized with cattle DNA.
These photos were taken in the national park bearing Theodore Roosevelt’s name, in the south unit of the park near Medora, North Dakota. The unbelievable scenery coupled with the wildlife, the history, and the quaint, old west vibe make it North Dakota’s leading tourist destination. If you visit North Dakota, you have to see this. If you live in North Dakota, you have to see this.
See our video on this herd, here.
Photos by Troy Larson and Terry Hinnenkamp, copyright Sonic Tremor Media LLC