The Incredible Shrinking Bison

Toward the end of the 19th century the bison faced extinction by extermination.  Today, even after more than a hundred years of restoration efforts, the plains bison is faced with another threat of extinction—the accelerated warming of the Great Plains.

The Plains Bison (Photograph by Kailyn Komro, West Bend, WI.  (

Even before the immense public attention on climate change, there has been great scientific interest in climate processes and extinction events in the Earth’s natural history.    Evaluation of fossil evidence has shown an inverse correlation between warming trends and body size and mass of large mammals.  As temperatures rise, body size shrinks over large geological time scales. Along with this negative correlation a consequent, positive correlation has been established between shrinking body size and extinctions [1].  

The warming trend, which began at the end of the last Ice Age, has been accelerating in recent decades. [2].  Since the beginning of the 21st century the northern Great Plains’ average summer temperature increased by 0.8˚C while for the southern Great Plains the mean summer temperature rose by 0.4˚C with winters rising by 0.25˚C for both the southern and northern Great Plains [3]. Consequently, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Working Group 1 predicts a 4˚C increase in global temperatures by 2100 over the 20th century—a period of 100 years.   This rate of temperature change is much greater than for the Bolling-Allerod period [4]—a warming period 14,700 to 12,500 years ago with a mean temperature 6˚C cooler than that for the 20th century.

The evolutionary history of bison has shown an absolute increase of 4˚C is not unprecedented.  However, the time frame in which the bison has had to adapt needs to be considered. From the end of the Last Glacial Maximum (approx. 14,700 years ago) to the 20th century the earth warmed 6˚C. During the Last Glacial Maximum, bison mass was, on average, approximately 910 kg. (2006 lbs.). The greatest decline in body size of 26% occurred between 12,500 and 9250 years ago. Given a generation time between 3 and 10 years, the change in body size occurred in 325 to 1080 generations, producing an average rate of change of 0.2 to 0.7 kg per generation.   If the current warming trend continues as predicted for the 21st century, bison body mass will likely decline from 665kg (current average body mass) to 357kg.  It is unclear whether bison can adapt their body size to a 4˚C temperature increase within 10 generations [5].

Changes in body size and mass of animals have long been used to indicate large-scale environmental processes over geological time scales, and have become predictors of extinction risk in mammals [6].  In regard to bison B. antiquus and B. occidentalis, these species did go extinct, but through phenotypic [7] and morphologic [8] adaptation to changing climatic conditions, they evolved into what is known today as the North American bison (Bison bison) which has existed throughout the Holocene epoch-the current geological epoch. The importance of body size in dictating extinction proneness is likely due to the fundamental association between size and other key life history traits such as fecundity, longevity, mating system, trophic level (step in a nutritive series, or food chain), dispersal ability and energetic requirements [9].

Bison Size Comparison (from

Fossil bison shrank with global warming probably because large-bodied grazers are disadvantaged both by heat dissipation and by the phenological [10] shifts in plant quality and abundance in warming conditions [11].  Impacts of climate change, then, are two-fold: 1) direct effects of temperature on the animal, demanding energy to compensate for heat, and 2) indirect effects of temperature on the animal’s food supply [12].

Maximum body size of endotherms–an animal that is dependent on or capable of the internal generation of heat; a warm-blooded animal—depends on optimal maintenance for the efficient production of tissues.  This is especially true in seasonal environments when food availability and environmental demands constrain the annual windows for growth.   Optimal maintenance is dependent on thermal loads (amount of heat energy).  High thermal loads increase cost of body maintenance to balance internal and external loads through thermoregulation, which reduces energy for growth.

Thermoregulation is the mechanism by which heat balance is achieved.  It affects the use of energy, water and nutrients such as electrolytes and organic nitrogen which affect resting and foraging behaviors. Thermoregulatory processes usually increase energy use by increasing heart rate and blood flow.  In hot weather thermoregulation increases the flow of body water because water is used for evaporative cooling (e.g., panting, perspiration).  In cold weather thermoregulation generates body heat through such efforts as shivering, increased metabolic heat production, and muscular activity in an effort to conserve core body heat through control of blood flow to the periphery [13].

The negative climate-body size correlation, then, reinforce feedbacks that may increase extinction rates [14].  Both excessive heat (> 40˚C) and excessive cold (< -30˚C) directly increase demands for energy, water and nutrients because thermoregulation outputs increase, whereas indirect effects of rising temperature decrease forage quantity and quality—ultimately affecting the supply of energy, water and nutrients [15].  Smaller body size, then, is more efficient in regulating increased thermal loads due to rising temperatures.

Conceptual model of the direct and indirect effects of elevated ambient temperature on body size of Bison bison from Martin, et. al., 2018.

In regard to food supply, climatic warming tends to exacerbate nutritional stress and reduce weight gain in large mammalian herbivores by reducing plant nutritional quality.  Warming trends have the potential to not only reduce the nutritional quality of plant species, but also by decreasing the relative abundance of nutritionally critical plant species.  For the North American plains bison this is likely to result in an increase protein stress, reducing bison growth and reproduction [16].

Compounding the issue of decreased nutritional quality of grasses, the warming trends have resulted in an increase of droughts in the Great Plains.  The lack of water availability reduces the availability of critical plants necessary for bison growth.  Consequently, droughts cause declines in the number and body size of bison [17].

One of the driving factors in the rising temperatures may be the increasing CO2 concentrations which reduce plant protein concentrations in grasslands [18].  Increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations have been causing Nitrogen to become progressively more limiting to ecosystem productivity.  Nitrogen is a crucial element for many structures and metabolic processes in plants. Plants are required to manufacture the complex molecules by use of minerals from the soil that contain nitrogen such as nitrate ions. Plants too, like animals, need some important macro and micro nutrient elements including nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen and carbon to keep them healthy. The wellness of plant parts (leaves, roots, trunks, etc.) depends on the availability of essential nutrients like nitrogen to enhance the plant’s biological processes including growth, absorption, transportation, and excretion [19].

Science has offered information and theories concerning the effect of warming trends on the size and survival of bison.  The question for us is: how do we respond?   The Great Plains are predicted to warm, resulting in longer, hotter summers accompanied by more severe droughts.   The anticipated warming and drying along the Great Plains will shift the distribution and protein efficacy of vegetation types by mid-and-late century, altering the supply of digestible energy and digestible nitrogen to bison, native wildlife and domestic livestock [20].  Bison are very good at adapting to shifts in environmental processes given the rates of change in the past.  But with the acceleration of warming rates, their adaptive ability comes into question.

With decreasing body mass life history traits that are dependent on body mass will also shift. Age of maturity, reproduction rates and growth rates will be reduced.  Preliminary data already indicate a decrease in the life span of female bison, reducing reproductive rates [21].

In response, there are ways to mitigate the observed effects of the climate shifts on bison according to Dr. Jeff Martin— an integrative conservation ecologist.  Prescribed burns to the land to boost available energy and protein in grasses are one example.   More generally work is needed to determine how best to create landscape heterogeneity for bison to select the best available forage [22].

To achieve such a goal, management questions arise.  For instance, bison diet remains poorly understood which limits the ability to determine the plant species most critical, and consequently prohibits a full understanding of the required management of dietary needs.  Plains bison are considered strict grazers.  This implies they primarily consume grasses and grass-like flowering plants—such as sedges—as opposed to browsing on forbs, shrubs or trees (woody species).  Being strict grazers would suggest that climatic warming may reduce bison performance by altering the productivity and nutritional quality of different grass species. However, earlier analyses may have overemphasized the contribution of grasses and underemphasized the amount of herbaceous and woody species in their diet.  Recent studies have suggested that bison utilize eudicot species to some degree.  If eudicot species constitute a critical component of bison diet, then managers will need to take into account the relative abundance of these and their nutritional quality when considering mitigation strategies [23].

Bison have been wonderfully adaptive to environmental and climatic changes over the course of their history. Until recent times, though, they have had great expanses of time to acclimate to new conditions.  The recent accelerated warming trends have placed another hurdle in their evolutionary path—a shortened time frame in which the species has to respond.  It is unclear whether the species will be able to offset the induced biological stress with a shift in body mass in the allotted time. It is highly unlikely the climate shift underway can be halted or reversed.  Mitigation efforts, then, need to focus on land management to provide the requisite forage.  This will, however, require additional studies and the implementation of known effective practices. 

Simply restoring bison numbers is not enough. To ensure the survival of this keystone species, land and vegetation management practices which will mitigate the current climate effects need to be developed.  

End Notes:

[1] Isaac, Joanne L. 22-May-2008. Effects of climate change on life history: Implications for extinction risk in mammals.  Endangered Species Research. Vol. 7:115-123, 2009.

[2] See IPCC-AR5, 2013; USGCRP, 2018.

[3] Martin, Jeff M. Perry S. Barboza. 06-Dec- 2019. Decadal heat and drought drive body size of North American bison (Bison bison) along the Great Plains. Wiley. Retrieved 19 Oct 2020.

[4] The transition of from the last Glacial Maximum (12,500 years ago) to the Holocene

[5] Martin, Jeff M., Jim I. Mead., & Perry S. Barboza. 10-Apr-2018. Bison body size and climate change. Wiley.

[6] Isaac.

[7] Pertaining to the appearance of an organism resulting from the interaction of the genotype and the environment—Webster’s

[8] Pertaining to the form and structure of an organism considered as a whole—Webster’s

[9] Isaac

[10] Pertaining to the influence of climate on the recurrence of annual phenomena of animal and plant life—Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language. 2001. Random House.

[11] Craine, J. M., Towne, E. G., Joern, A., & Hamilton, R. G. (2009). Consequences of climate variability for the performance of bison in tallgrass prairie. Global Change Biology15(3), 772– 779.  See also

Martin, Jeff M., & Perry S. Barboza. 06-Dec-2019. Decadal heat and drought drive body size of North American bison (Bison bison) along the Great Plains. Wiley.

[12] Martin, Jeff M., Jim I. Mead., & Perry S. Barboza. 10-Apr-2018. Bison body size and climate change. Wiley.

[13] Martin, Jeff M. Perry S. Barboza. 08-Jul-2020. Thermal biology and growth of bison (Bison bison) along the Great Plains: examining four theories of endotherm body size. ESA Journals.

[14] Isaac.

[15] Martin 2019.

[16] Craine, Joseph M. E. Gene Towne, Mary Miller & Noah Fierar. 16-Nov-2015. Climatic warming and the future of bison as grazers. Nature.

[17] Craine, J. M., Nippert, J. B., Elmore, A. J., Skibbe, A. M., Hutchinson, S. L., & Brunsell, N. A. (2012). Timing of climate variability and grassland productivity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences109(9), 3401– 3405. Retrieved 19 Oct 2020. Also Martin, Jeff M., Perry S. Barboza. 06-Dec-2019.

[18] McKauchlan, K.K., Ferguson, C.J., I. E. Ocheltree, T. W. & Craine, J.M. 2010. Thirteen decades of foliar isotopes indicate declining nitrogen availability in central North American grasslands. New Phytol, 187, 1135-1145.

[19] Tajir, Amir. 02-Nov-2016. What’s the function of Nitrogen (N) in plants? Greenway Biotech.  Retrieved 19-Oct-2020.

[20] Martin, 2020.

[21] Martin,, 2019.

[22] Kobilinsky, D. 16-Dec-2019. Droughts and high temperatures are shrinking bison. The Wildlife Society.  See also Jeff Martin’s website

[23] Craine, et al., 2015.

A Town of Two Tails: Apologies to Dickens

In the midst of the prairie the taller grass gives way to a small expanse of cropped grass interrupted by numerous dirt mounds. Grazing this neatly trimmed lawn, a herd of buffalo watch our approach unconcerned.  However, looking closely, tiny sentinels raise up on their rear haunches to signal an alarm at our intrusion.  We have just come upon a prairie dog town, the residents of which have seen their best times come and go while their worst of times are upon them. This is the tale of the two most notable tailed-dwellers of the prairie dog town—the prairie dog and the American bison.

Picture from Smithsonian National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute

                Like the buffalo the prairie dogs blanketed the Great Plains and the surrounding prairies by the hundreds of millions—with some estimates as high as 5 billion—up into the 20th century. Human intervention, though, has decimated the prairie dogs just as it did to the American bison. The conversion of the rich soil of the prairies to the “true religion” of agriculture tore up and turned over these sculptured underground dwellings.  Those who did not die from the apocalyptic loss of their habitat were hunted down and eradicated by farmers and ranchers who saw these rodents as just another destructive varmint. Prairie dog populations have also declined due to bubonic plague—an indirect human intervention—for which they have no natural immunity.  Sylvatic bacterium, the cause of bubonic plague, was brought to the North American continent by rats which sailed the Atlantic along with the European immigrants. Generally, once infected, an entire colony may be lost.  Another keystone species sacrificed to the god of Manifest Destiny.

                Prairie dogs, a seeming weakling, weigh in at about one-and-a-half pounds. Their numbers, however, more than make up for their small mass providing a significant impact to the prairie economy.  Prairie dogs live in colonies consisting of smaller family units called coteries.  The uniqueness of these rodents lies in their engineering ability to build towns. Not really a town, this unique residential area is a system of burrows engineered and excavated by these furry little rodents.  “Build,” then, is perhaps an incorrect term.  Rather they dig, excavating burrows, constructing complex systems containing sleeping quarters, nurseries, food pantries and even a cemetery of sorts.   A single colony may cover thousands of acres [1].

                Their burrows are wonderfully constructed. The genius lies in how the openings are constructed.  There are actually two openings, one at the front and one in the rear, allowing air flow.  The flow of air is regulated by mounding the excavated dirt at the front entrance.  The mound is usually a few inches—though can be as high as two feet–above the entrance.  The wind across the top of the mound is much faster than at the ground-level of the entrance since the friction caused by the ground and the grass slow the wind.  The faster wind speed at the top of the mound draws stagnant air out of the tunnels thus providing a steady flow of fresh air into the soil-level rear entrance [2]. This lowly ground squirrel utilized the wind as a renewable source long before the thought entered our magnificent brains.

Prairie Dog tunnel-housing also serve as a safe space, providing security against most predators. Too small to withstand many predators the prairie dogs use borrows to evade the horror of being dinner.  The openings, which are too small for most predators—such as foxes, coyotes and wolves—provide a convenient escape route.  However, the openings do not restrict other predators such as the prairie rattle snake or ferrets.  In the case of the prairie rattle snake the prairie dogs do not rely on their burrows for protection.  Instead they “gang-up” on the snake.  Since the snake cannot hide in the cropped grass of the prairie dog town, it is easily spotted and surrounded by the residents of the burrows, quickly turning the tables.  The hunter becomes the hunted.  The prairie dogs fling dirt in the snake’s face, by turning their backs on the predator and kicking up dirt with their hind legs.  Others may dart to the snake’s tail, biting harshly into its tail, and then dart away to escape the answering strike [3].

                Ferrets, on the other hand, are not so easily evaded. Since the ferret can easily enter the burrows—and often will seize occupancy—the prairie dog’s only hope is to out run the ferret.  The Black-Footed Ferret is the natural enemy of prairie dogs, depending almost entirely on prairie dogs for its sustenance, constituting 90% of a ferret’s diet.  With almost a 95% loss of the prairie dog’s habitat, the extermination efforts of ranchers and farmers, and introduction of bubonic plague, the prairie dog has become a threatened species, with the dependent ferret becoming an endangered species [4]. 

Black-footed Ferret

These underground architects are key, then, to the survival of other species, not just as prey, but as providers of affordable housing.  Abandoned or otherwise unoccupied burrows become shelter for prairie rattlers, burrowing owls, toads, jack rabbits, and spiders. And, as in the case of ferrets, the burrows are simply taken over.  With the decline of the prairie dogs, these species have subsequently loss habitat. 

Adept engineers these squirrelly diggers are also wise landscapers.  The prairie dogs transform the landscape around their colonies.  The surrounding grass and other plants are kept closely cropped to the ground, both for eating and for providing a clear view of potential predators.  This well-manicured yard also provides habitat for other species—for instance, birds that live in short-grass environs.

                The mounds of dirt and the cropped grass are also invitations to the largest denizens of the prairie—the bison.  Short grass is a bison’s dream diet.  The closer the blade is to the roots  the higher the percentage of protein and the lower the percentage of cellulose.  By grazing the same ground every day prairie dogs keep the grass short, inviting the bison to a culinary delight.  Closely cropped grass is a necessity to a prairie dog, but it is a treat for buffalo. 

                The bison do not just come for the grass, however.  The mounds of dirt are another attraction.  The excavated soil is perfect to fill their hair, which drives out insects and provides a coolant for hot days.  So the little chimneys of dirt erected in prairie dog town are a venerable day-spa of wallowing for the behemoths of the plains. 

A bison wallowing

                The relationship between prairie dogs and bison is not one-sided, though.  Bison also bring something to the table, or rather, leave something behind.  This other keystone species provide re-purposed grass.  That is, grass processed into fertilizer.   The longer the bison hang around the more they spread their contribution, and the greener the grass becomes.  Buffalo chips are gifts that keep on giving [5].

                Finally, bison make prairie dog towns possible.  Everywhere except in the western short-grass regions, prairie dogs depend on bison grazing to provide short enough grass for the prairie dogs to establish residence there.  This ground squirrel will not live in tall grass since it is less nutritious and hides predators [6].

                 The ending of the tale of the town of two tails is still being written.  The recognition of the prairie dog and the American bison as key to the survival of the Great Plains and the prairies has sparked concerted efforts to restore this excavating rodent and the grass-processing behemoth of these ecosystems.  As prairie dog habitat recovers, a return of other species is seen.  Homes become available for the burrowing owl and the prairie rattler.  Meals become available for the black-footed ferret enabling a retreat from extinction.  Bird populations of short-grass environs recover.  Where the buffalo roam and the prairie dog digs, the Great Plains see a renaissance.     

End Notes:

[1]  Boyce, Andy and Andrew Dreelin. Jul 02, 2020. Ecologists Dig Prairie Dogs and So Should You. Smithsonian National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. Retrieved 22 Aug 2020. .

[2] Lott, Dale F. 2003. American Bison: A Natural History. University of California Press. Berkeley. 127-128.

[3] Lott. 131.

[4] Anderson, Chamois. Nov. 14, 2019. Ferrets and Prairie Dogs and Bison,  Oh My! Retrieved 30-Aug-2020.,birds%20such%20as%20mountain%20plover%20and%20burrowing%20owl.

[5] Lott. 128. See also the posting dated 26 April 2019, “Dung Cakes and Feces Pie: Yum!”

[6] Lott. 128.

Good Elk Woman

In 1898 a Scottish immigrant, James “Scotty” Philip, purchased a small herd of buffalo from D.F. “Dug” Carlin who was the estate administrator of his brother-in-law, Peter Dupree (Dupuis).  Under Philip’s management the herd grew to more than eighty.  Unlike other ranchers of his day, who sought to interbreed buffalo with cattle seeking financial gain from the venture, Philip did not like mixed blood bison.  Consequently, his efforts were dedicated to weeding out the mixed-blood and establishing a pure-blood herd.

                Scotty died in 1911, leaving the herd to his sons, Stanley and Roderick.  By that time the herd had numbered around 400, but financial problems developed and the sons had to sell off 36 bison—six bulls, eighteen cows and twelve calves.  They sold the buffalo to the state of South Dakota in 1914.  In that same year the South Dakota legislature had designated 60,000 acres in Custer County as a state game preserve.  The 36 bison from the Philips’ herd became the nucleus of the herd now found in Custer State Park today [1].

                James “Scotty” Philip has been given much credited in the preservation efforts of bison, and rightly so.  Raising a sizable pure-blood herd from a small mixed-blood one, and from which came the starter herd for one of the biggest herds in the United States, is to be lauded.  The initial preservation efforts from which this herd originated, however, were expended by Peter Dupree and his parents, Frederick and Mary Ann—also  known as Good Elk Woman.  Further, the vision and impetus to save the bison most likely came from her. 

                Frederick Dupuis (Dupre, Dupree) was a French Canadian fur trader who came to Fort Pierre, Dakota territory in 1838. Eventually, he left the fur trade and became a rancher until his death in 1898. He married a Minniconjou Lakota woman named Good Elk Woman who took the name Mary Ann Dupuis.  Good Elk Woman (Hehake-waste-win) was born in 1824 near Cherry Creek, Nebraska and was the daughter of One Iron Horn and Red Dressing [2].

Good Elk Woman with husband Frederick Dupuis and son Xavier(from Native Heritage Project-

Together they had nine children:  Xavier, Edward, Pete, Fred Jr, Maggie, Esther, Armaine, Josephine and Marcella.  Frederick and Good Elk Woman established a ranch on the north side of the Cheyenne River approximately 35 miles west of where the Cheyenne empties into the Missouri River.  The ranch hosted a camp for Native American activity with at least 50 people served supper daily [3].

                During the 60 years they shared together, the Dupuis’ witnessed the severe transformation of the Plains Indian culture, the Black Hills gold rush, and the demise of the great buffalo herds.  Under the influence of Good Elk Woman, her husband and son, Peter, embarked on an expedition to save the buffalo sometime in the early 1880s. She was not just the visionary, however.  Good Elk Woman was instrumental in attending to the camp and guiding the family. The details of the hunts involved are unclear, but the result was the Dupuis family had managed to capture a few calves and initiate a herd which consisted of 5 cows, 4 bulls and 7 mixed-blood catalo by 1888.  The catalo did not result from any intentional effort on the part of the Dupuis’s management of the herd.  Most likely, the mixed-blooded catalo resulted from the ranging of bison with cattle [4]. 

                That Good Elk Woman was the visionary and impetus for an effort to save the bison from extermination should not come as a surprise.  Being Lakota she would not have perceived her existence and fate as separate from that of the bison ranging across the Great Plains.  The Lakota’s fight to protect their homeland was a fight to protect the Buffalo people’s homeland as well.  Her people were one with the Buffalo Nation (Pte Oyate).  Her authority as matriarch in the family and her prophetic role in the salvation of the buffalo was in accord with White Buffalo Calf Woman—the spiritual mediator between the Pte Oyate and the Lakotas [5]. 

Good Elk Woman (from Native Heritage)

                Today we enjoy the Custer State Park herd—one of the largest in North America.  The credit for seeding this herd has gone primarily to James Philip with perhaps ancillary credit going to Peter Dupree.  Except for Zontek, sources focus on the contributions of Frederick and Peter Dupree and James Philip.  Good Elk Woman is only been mentioned in passing as either Peter’s mother or as Mary Ann, wife of Frederick Dupree/Dupuis [6].  Her contribution, though, is arguably,  the most significant.  The origins of what has become the Custer State Park herd emerged from the vision and inspiration of a Lakota woman—Good Elk Woman.

End Notes:

[1] Dary, David A. 1989. The Buffalo Book: The Full Saga of the American Animal. Ohio University Press. 231-232.

[2] Geni My Heritage Company. Elk Woman. Retrieved 19-Jul-2020.

[3] Zontek, Ken. 2007. Buffalo Nation: American Indian Efforts to Restore the Bison. University of Nebraska Press. 48-49.   See also Looking Back Woman—Suzanne Dupree Blog. . Retrieved 19-Jul-2020.

[4] Zontek. 50.

[5] For an account of the story of the White Buffalo Calf Woman see Walker, James R. 1991. Lakota Belief and Ritual. University of Nebraska Press. 109-112.

[6] Zontek has perhaps honored her most [Zontek. 50-51].

“Werewolf? There Wolf”[7]

The largest North American mammal has only three predators: the grey wolf, the grizzly bear, and the human being.  The First Nations hunted bison for perhaps a millennium until their replacement, the Europeans, arrived with their style of killing frenzy, driving the bison into near oblivion in the 1870s and ‘80s—ironic how the scrawniest predator became the greatest threat.  These days killing by the human denizen is restricted to commercialization and licensed hunts.  In addition, something wonderful happened in human consciousness, a great awakening.  Humans had discovered ecosystems, and how those environmental realms were integral to a human’s well-being.  Further, they discovered that the bison was a keystone species to at least one of those ecosystems.  Will miracles ever cease!  The human predator has been significantly mitigated.

 Grizzlies, the polar opposite of scrawny, have been known, according to historical accounts, to kill bison.  A grizzly taking down a bison may still occasionally occur in Alaska where bears are more numerous.  A buffalo killed by a grizzly, however, is rare.  Typically, grizzlies prey during the spring melt on thawing carcasses of bison that had died over the winter [1].

The wolf is another matter.  It is designed in body and behavior to kill hoofed animals. Though the grey wolf is small compared to the buffalo, its numbers more than compensate for size.  Wolves hunt in packs from as small as six to as large as a dozen.  Essentially, wolves are opportunists, able to capture and eat meat from mice to moose.  As such, they will follow buffalo herds until the right opportunity comes along.  Following a buffalo herd will often provide the pack’s needs without the necessity of a kill since small mammals are often flushed out by the bison’s feet.  But the wolves will watch and target the calves.  So adept are packs in taking down calves that the survival of a small herd of bison can be thrown into doubt.  

Grey Wolf

 Calves are defenseless by themselves. A cow or bull, though, can easily injure or kill a wolf.  A wolf pack may be able to kill a cow or bull in the winter when the bison is in a weakened state, however.  A calf only survives a wolf attack with an alert and aggressive mother and/or help from others; though probably not another cow.    A bull may be recruited in the defense by the mother leading the calf to the bull, or the calf, on its own, may run to the bull.  Typically, the bull will be young, too young to breed, rather than a mature bull.  The older bulls are most likely not present.  They are probably off somewhere grazing, building up energy for the rut.  The primary purpose of a mature bull is to produce as many off-spring as possible.  Natural selection, then, has favored the inattentive father so the maximum number of calves will be born.

When the pack’s hunt is successful, the killing is a gruesome affair. Cats kill large prey by suffocation or biting through the skulls of their prey.  Dogs do not have this mouth power to kill quickly.  Instead, dogs, such as wolves, chew their prey to death, literally eating the prey alive. This is difficult for one wolf to do, but not a pack.

A romantic view, held among some of the supporters of the wolf reintroduction movement, was that of a caring and adorable family life.  This is only a projection of human proclivities, however. Life among a wolf pack is not a canine version of the ideal nuclear family, in which mom and dad tenderly care for the young.  They are not cute.  The wolf-pack life is ruthless and relentlessly structured. Each member lives within a certain pecking order with an alpha male or female at the top. Attempts to reorder the pack are severely treated, even to the point of death.  Cruel despotism is perhaps a more apt description, egalitarianism does not exist.  Yes, wolves are family oriented, but the structure is about survival and reproduction with each member also having a specific function. The wolf family is also territorial, and will challenge any trespassers with pursuit or death.

The nature of the wolf evolved as a competitor to large predators such as the short-faced bear, the American lion, the American cheetah, the saber-toothed cat and the dire wolf, sharing the North American Plain.  The grey wolf was the smallest of these, and the only one to survive the Pleistocene extinction approximately 10,000 years ago.  It developed to become a prominent selection factor for diverse characteristics of large mammal fitness.  Wolves are highly sensitive to symptoms of weakness in their prey.  Victims tend to be debilitated by age, disease or accidental injuries which render them susceptible to the pack.  Thus wolves facilitate natural selection by detecting and removing the effects of deleterious genes, and removing the most virulent strains of a pathogen from a prey population [2]. 

As the grey wolf was sharpening its hunting skills over the millennia, bison were not idle, however.  Buffalo were also evolving their defensive arsenal, including cooperation, defense, escape, and synchronized birthing.  The bison herd is a “selfish herd.”  Individual animals cooperate with and use other animals to improve their own survival and reproduction odds, ensuring possibly the survival and reproduction of genetically related kind.  Bison, then, cooperate to the benefit of all in the herd. 

The primary weapons for defense are the horns and the head.  Using its powerful neck muscles a bison can hook, lift and toss an opponent.  This strategy works best in large herds.  By itself, a bison cannot challenge several wolves all at once.  For a cow and her calf, alone she is not likely to defend her calf using her head and horns, as the wolves will separate her from the calf, occupying her attention away from the calf.  In the herd, however, the bison will form a tight formation with the calves either in the midst of the herd or behind it.

Buffalo Tossing Wolf-from Sky Animals–youtube

Escape is exactly what it implies.  It is the “RUN AWAY!” strategy.   Escape involves outrunning and outlasting predators.  Bison have adapted physiologically and anatomically for this behavior.  Even new born calves are on their feet within 10 minutes and able to run within two hours of birth.   Buffalo can challenge all but the fastest horses, yet can out last them, running for many hours over dry, hard prairie ground.  There is a selfish component to escaping, though.  It’s not just about outrunning the predator.  A buffalo only needs to outrun its neighbor.  Escaping exposes the weakest individuals, those who lag due to injury, age or disease.  Predation selects against the least fit, favoring the evolution and maintenance of strength, agility, endurance and disease resistance.  The extreme form of escape is the stampede [3].

A characteristic of social ungulates such as the buffalo in facing predators is synchronous birthing, which has the dual purpose of predation evasion and optimum utilization of high quality forage for lactation.  Due to the behavior of wolves there is little flexibility in the bison gestation period, which leads to a synchronous breeding period.  Predators focused on bison calves must take time eating and digesting the hapless prey and spend time traveling to locate the moving herd.  Additionally, the number of wolves in an area may be limited by territorial behavior.  The number of calves, then, that can be killed by the pack during a short period of time is limited.  Bison reproduction has adapted to take advantage of this window of opportunity.  The larger the cow herd and the shorter the birthing period, the greater is the probability newborn calves will survive.  A cow that breeds during the peak of the rut and calves during the peak of calving, provides the calf with a greater chance of escaping predation [4]. 

Wolves not only have the effect of culling buffalo herds through food usage. The reintroduction of the grey wolf in Yellowstone has actually enhanced the growth of buffalo herds.  Since the reintroduction of wolves, elk population has declined, opening greater forage and releasing bison from interspecific competition and resulting in higher bison densities [5]. Elk are easier prey for wolves, resulting in lower elk densities and a decreased tendency for wolves to use bison as a food source.  The combination of opening more grazing opportunities, and decreasing the predation of bison has allowed for a significant growth in bison populations [6]. 

Predation, especially by wolves, has not only enabled bison population growth.  Co-evolving with the bison, predation has facilitated the natural selection.  Removing deleterious genes and virulent pathogens, the wolf has enhanced the bison’s strength, agility, endurance and mechanisms for preservation.  Just as the bison is a keystone species to the Great Plains and the surrounding prairies and forests, so the wolf is key to the health and survival of the bison.

End Notes

[1] Callenbach, Ernest. 1996. Bring Back the Buffalo! A Sustainable Future for America’s Great Plains. University of California Press. Berkley. 90.

[2] Lott, Dale A. 2002. American Bison: A Natural History. University of California Press. Berkley. 100-104.

[3] Bailey, James A. 2016. The Essence of Wildness: Lessons from Bison. Self-published by James A. Bailey. 24-25.

[4] Bailey, James A. 2013. American Plains Bison: Rewilding an Icon. Sweetgrass Books. Helena, MT. 63-66.

[5] Ripple, William J, and Painter, Luke. Effects of bison on willow and cottonwood in northern Yellowstone Park. 15-Jan-2012. Forest Ecology and Management. Vol. 264. 150-158

[6] White, P. J., and R. A. Garrott. 2005. Yellowstone’s ungulates after wolves–expectations, realizations, and predictions. Biological Conservation. 125. 141-152. See also Ripple, W. J., and R. L. Beschta. 2012. Trophic cascades in Yellowstone: The first 15 years after wolf reintroduction. Biological Conservation. 145. 205-213.

[7] A line from the movie Young Frankenstein, 1974.

Additional Resource:

Blakeslee, Nate. 2008. American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West. Broadway Books. New York.

Rosalie Little Thunder—Giving Voice to the Voiceless

For the bison herd of Yellowstone the winter of 1996-97 was deadly.  Heavy snows had made it difficult to plow through to the forage underneath.  Survival meant finding other grazing land, leading the buffalo to wander down from the mountains in search of grass.  Going north out of the Park was a death sentence.  When the bison crossed the Montana State line, they were met with gunfire.  The only witness to record the atrocity was Mike Mease, videographer and environmentalist.  The video was sent to a Sicangu Lakota woman who, in response, came to Yellowstone National Park to witness the atrocity inflicted upon the buffalo nation, and offer prayers.   That winter, under the leadership of Mease and this Lakota elder, Buffalo Nations was formed (original name of the Buffalo Field Campaign), a nonprofit, grassroots coalition of Native and Non-Native environmentalists with the support of the Seventh Generation Fund, providing a permanent defense along the Yellowstone Montana border [1]. That Lakota elder was Rosalie Little Thunder. 

Rosalie Little Thunder (from Indianz)

When Rosalie prayed over the bodies of the slaughtered buffalo that winter, she was part of a cloud of witnesses who had survived to attest to senseless horrors.   She saw, however, the bison as survivors, as she was a survivor—“Just as I am a survivor of massacre, so too are the Yellowstone buffalo survivors of massacre [2].” She was a direct descendent of survivors of both the 1855 Little Thunder Massacre and the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre.  Her own grandfather had survived the 1855 massacre, saved by his mother covering him with her body when she had been struck by a bullet [3]. 

Born 18-Sep-1949 in Old He Dog Community on the lands of the Sicangu Lakota people (Rosebud Sioux Reservation) to William and Margaret (Good Shield) Little Thunder [4], Rosalie became an avid activist promoting her people, the Lakota, and her brothers and sisters of the Pte Oyate (Buffalo People/Nation).  She served on several non-profit boards including the Buffalo Field Campaign, Owe Aku  International [5], Seventh Generation Fund [6], and South Dakota Peace and Justice.  Rosalie was also an honorary member of Honor the Earth [7], Indigenous Environmental Network [8], Wolakota Foundation [9], and Brave Heart Society [10]. In addition to these, she was an active member of Kat’ela Okalakiciye—a traditional Lakota Elderly Women’s Society—and participated in the Sicangu Constitutional Convention.

As if these activities were not enough, Rosalie was an adjunct professor at Black Hills State University, American Indian Department, teaching the Lakota language and working with the Lakota Bible Translation Department. 

Central to this life dedicated to the Native way, was the well-being of the Pte Oyate, which Rosalie held dear.  She worked to protect the buffalo from the mid-1990s until her death in 2014.  The last wild, free-roaming bison is the Yellowstone herd.  To have witnessed the decimation that winter of 1996-97, must have torn her heart apart.  She did not want the last of the wild buffalo to disappear, and wanted Native peoples to have more say in the buffalo’s fate—“After I am gone, I want there to be buffalo on this Earth. Maybe the buffalo will help us be here a little bit longer. Maybe they will help us survive. [11].”  To bring attention to the killing of the Yellowstone bison and the need to protect the herd and its natural grazing grounds, Rosalie, in 1999, led a group of Lakota Sioux on a 500-mile walk from Rapid City, South Dakota to the Gardiner basin in Montana, carrying a sacred pipe.  The journey was a form of prayer for the bison and a protest against the wanton destruction of the last wild herd of the majestic animal.  In honor of Rosalie, and to keep her memory alive, the Buffalo Field Campaign has continued this prayer practice by instituting an annual Rosalie Little Thunder Walk [12].

Such heinous acts that have been inflicted on the Buffalo Nation can overwhelm and numb a person into a silent resignation. But atrocities not heard breed more atrocities.  A voice must be given to these acts of cruelty and destruction to break the silence and prevent a numbed acceptance.  Rosalie Little Thunder was such a voice.  Even though she has passed, her spirit and voice continue speaking.  Many others, including the Buffalo Field Campaign and the organizations mentioned above, carry her spirit in their hearts and echo her voice through their words and actions.  By offering us an alternative reality to a culture of death, she was truly prophetic.

End Notes:

[1] Buffalo Field Campaign, History.  Retrieved 06-Apr-2020. Also see Basile, Tracy. Unbound Project. 16-Jul-2019. Retrieved 06-Apr-2020.

[2] Rosalie Little Thunder in Rethinking Columbus, which was banned by Tucson Public Schools.

[3] Brister, Daniel. 2013. In the Presence of Buffalo. West Winds Press. Portland, Oregon. 36-37.

[4] Rosalie Little Thunder obituary.  Osheim & Schmidt Funeral Home.  Rapid City, South Dakota.

[5] Owe Aku International is an organization dedicated to protecting our water sources against the effects of oil pipelines and tarsand.  Visit their website at

[6] Seventh Generation Fund for Indigenous Peoples is dedicated to providing support to grassroots Native communities’ projects.  Visit their website at .

[7] Honor the Earth’s mission is to “…create awareness and support for Native environmental issues and to develop needed financial and political resources for the survival of sustainable Native communities.”  Visit their website at .

[8] Indigenous Environment Network “…was formed by grassroots Indigenous peoples and individuals to address environmental and economic justice issues…[including] building the capacity of Indigenous communities and tribal governments to develop mechanisms to protect our sacred sites, land, water, air, natural resources, health of both our people and all living things, and to build economically sustainable communities.”  Visit their website at .

[9] Wolakota Foundation “…is a grassroots non-profit organization emerging from the needs of traditional Lakota (Dakota/Nakota) people to maintain their cultural and spiritual lifeways for the sake of future generations.”  Visit their website at .

[10] Brave Heart Society, formed by a community of grandmothers from the Yankton Reservation of South Dakota, works for the revival of a traditional cultural society for women.  Visit their website at .

[11] Baisle.

 [12] Third Annual Rosalie Little Thunder Walk. Buffalo Field Campaign. .  Retrieved 07-Apr-2020.

Buffalo Jones: From Hunter to Preservationist

Many people have been involved in the restoration and preservation of the bison over the last two hundred years. Some are well known, such as George Catlin (painter of Native Americans), John Audubon (ornithologist and naturalist), William Hornaday (Dir. of the New York Zoological Park) and Charles Goodnight (of Lonesome Dove fame). But there are many lesser known and obscure persons who were instrumental in saving the bison from extinction such as the Duprees, a Lakota family, Ernest Baynes (American Bison Society), Rosalie Little Thunder (co-founder of the Buffalo Field Campaign) and Charles Jesse “Buffalo” Jones.  Of course many are involved through organizations such as the American Prairie Reserve, the Buffalo Field Campaign, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Inter-Tribal Bison Council (representing 62 tribes). The intent is to bring many of these to light in the blog, not necessarily in any particular order or as a series.  These people and organizations deserve to be honored for their wisdom and contributions in preserving what has become a symbol of our nation—the  American Bison.

Charles Jesse “Buffalo” Jones (Kansas Historical Society)

The life of Charles Jesse Jones, more popularly known in his time as “Buffalo” Jones, is memorialized in Zane Grey’s work, The Last of the Plainsmen.  Grey, early on in his writing career (1907), befriended Jones. Grey, an avid outdoors man, had occasionally attended meetings of the Campfire Club in New York.  One of the club members, with whom Grey became friends, was Alvah James, a well-known South American explorer.  James invited Grey to attend a talk being given by Charles Jesse Jones.  Jones was experimenting with cross-breeding buffalo with cattle, but needed capital for his venture.  The lecture tour was an effort to raise the much needed funds.  The particular session attended by Grey, however, was a disaster for “Buffalo” Jones.  The audience thought his stories too fantastic and accused him of lying.  Grey, however, was a believer, and James introduced them. Later, Grey met with Jones and out of that conversation grew an idea.  Grey proposed to visit Jones in Arizona, stay awhile and gather information to write a book on Jones’ life in which Grey portrays the conversion of Jones from hunter to preservationist [1].

Jones was one of the infamous buffalo hunters of the 1870s and 80s.  Necessity to earn a living compelled Jones into buffalo hunting, providing a livelihood for him and meat to the wagon caravans crossing the plains.  Even at that time Jones saw the extinction of the bison coming, and vowed to do what he could to save the species.  For 10 years he labored, pursuing and taming buffalo, earning him the epithet “Preserver of the American Bison” [2].  Grey would go on to mention “Buffalo” Jones in a later work, The Thundering Herd.

Zane Grey (from the Zane Grey Collection of the Brigham Young University Library)

Born on the prairies of Illinois, Tazewell County, January 31, 1844, Charles was one of 12 children.  His life was a rather prodigious one, including owning a nursery, farming, hunting, and even co-founding a town (Garden City, Kansas).  Early on he developed not only an interest in wild animals, but an ability to capture and tame them.   He possessed a love for animated nature and the power for subduing animals [3]. 

He attended Wesleyan University for two years, but contracted typhoid fever which affected his eyesight, which adversely affected his studies.  He decided to go to the “Far West” to seek his fortune.  First settling in Troy, Kansas he started a nursery for hedge plants and fruit trees.  But in 1867 his nursery was wiped out by locusts.  However, being one not to give up, he tried again the following year, only to be once more destroyed by locusts.  So, he turned his attention to farming, purchasing a small farm.  But his one true passion was hunting and capturing wild animals.

In 1869 he married Martha Walton who would always object to his leaving home for his expeditions.  In the fall of 1871 he left home on horseback to seek more than just game.  He sought cheaper land, acquiring 160 acres in 1872 in Osborne County, Kansas, south of the Solomon River [Jones, Chapter II].

During his time as a buffalo-hunter, he killed both for the meat to supply the flow of settlers crossing the prairies, and at times, simply for the hides.  But in 1872, realizing the eventual demise of the animal, he pledged to himself he would implement a buffalo rescuing project.  Jones had done his share toward exterminating the buffalo, and though it was partly out of his own necessity, he still convicted himself of contributing to the bison’s demise.  Even as he destroyed them, however, he grew to know them and regret their fate.  As the bison faded from the range, it became clear to Jones they would soon be gone forever.  Being filled with remorse, and seeing Congress would not act to implement any game law preserving the wild bison, he vowed to rescue them [4].

Not until the 1880’s did “Buffalo” Jones put his vow into effect.  In the March of 1886 the Kansas plains experienced an unprecedented blizzard.  Jones saw thousands of carcasses of domestic cattle.  Yet, found no carcasses of buffalo except for those that had been hunted.  Witnessing this, he observed,

As I drove over the prairies from Kansas into Texas, I saw thousands upon thousands of the carcasses of domestic cattle which had ‘drifted’ before the chilling, freezing ‘norther.’  Every one of them had died with its tail to blizzard, never having stopped except at its last breath, then fell dead in its tracks.  When I reached the habitat of the buffalo, not one of their carcasses was visible, except those which had been slain by hunters.  Every animal I came across was as nimble…as a fox. [5]

Causing him to ponder over the contrast between cattle and buffalo, the experience led him to formulate the shape his rescue project would take.  Why not domesticate the buffalo which can endure a blizzard, defying storms which would destroy cattle?  Further, he thought to “…infuse this hardy blood into our native cattle, and have a perfect animal, one that will defy all these elements?” [6].

Using his ability to capture wild animals, he planned several expeditions in the 1880s to capture buffalo calves for breeding. The term he coined for the resultant cross breed was Cattalo.   He also managed to capture adult bison as well.  But difficulties were encountered.  Once captured and hobbled, many of the adults would die within 24 hours, as if they would rather be dead than captured.   Jones, though, did manage to create a small herd of 57 bison, rescuing at least a few from the impending doom.  In addition to his herd, Jones’ enabled others to start their own herds by either allowing adventurers to join him on his expeditions or leading expeditions for them, extending his preservation efforts beyond himself. 

Jones did not possess the knowledge we have today of domestication, genetics, and ecology.  He only knew of the doom coming upon the bison, and out of the obligation of remorse, sought to preserve them.   He correctly pointed out the bison were suited to the land while cattle were not.  But instead of replacing cattle he originally thought to blend the two new species into a new animal with the best qualities of both.  In the beginning of his buffalo-rescuing project, then, he attempted to preserve bison for the purpose of interbreeding which proved to be a dead-end since cattalo could not breed.  Additionally, unbeknown to him, his domestication efforts doom the wild bison genome.  But to his credit he saved at least some bison from the slaughter of hunters who gave no mind to hunting down every last buffalo.  This was no small feat.

William T. Hornaday, Superintendent of the Taxidermical Department of the Smithsonian Institution, in 1887, was commissioned by the US Government to capture alive buffalo calves for the purpose of perpetuating the species in the National Park at Washington D.C.  After making a trip to Montana and failing to capture any buffalo, Hornaday had this to say in a report to Congress regarding “Buffalo” Jones:

Mr. Jones’s original herd of fifty-seven buffaloes constitutes a living testimonial of his enterprise, courage, endurance and skill in the chase.  The majority of the individuals comprising the herds he himself ran down, lassoed and tied with his own hands.  It was the greatest feat ever accomplished [7].

For that majestic animal which had thundered across the plains, and Jones’ efforts to preserve that wonderful beast, Zane Grey rightly memorialized “Buffalo” Jones, “Preserver of the American Bison,” in The Last of the Plainsmen and the bison in The Thundering Herd.

End Notes:

[1] Gruber, Frank. 1969. Zane Grey: A Biography. Walter J. Black. Roslyn, New York.

[2] Grey, Zane. Prefatory Note. 1936. The Last of the Plainsmen. Walter J. Black. Roslyn, New York.

[3] Jones, Charles Jesse.  1899. Buffalo Jones’ Forty Years of Adventure; a volume of facts gathered from experience. Compiled by Col. Henry Inman. Crane & Co., Publishers, Topeka, Kansas.  Also  CJ (Buffalo) Jones. Kansas State History.  Retrieved 06 Jan. 2020.

[4] Hough, E. “A Buffalo Hunt Indeed”.  Jones. Chapter VIII.

[5] Jones, Chapter V

[6] Jones, Chapter V.

[7] Jones, Chapter XIII.

The Household

Outside of the weather the economy seems to be one of the most discussed topics.  Newscasters and commentators endlessly report and discuss the economic news of the day, which we carry into our thoughts and conversations. We fret about jobs.  We sweat out “the markets.”  We cheer positive economic news.  We groan over the negative.  We wonder about the security of Social Security.  We shake our fists at the national debt—a number most of us cannot fathom. Sitting at our kitchen tables, we pay bills and ponder budgets.  But what lies at the heart of this conversation, which seemingly touches every aspect of our lives?

                Discussions of the economy center around the production and consumption of resources, the wealth of the country, and the consequent effect on our lives.  Such focus renders us too distant from the core question:  what is the heart of the economy? What is the central concern?  The word “economy” originally came from the Greek, meaning household management.  The concern was how to care for the household, which begs a subsequent question:  Who constitutes the household?  Though few would realize it, an unlikely member of all our households is the American Bison.

                Defining who is a member of our household, and how we care for them are burning questions demanding answers.  So, what is our household? Our families and friends have intrinsic value, their worth simply abiding in their persons, since we attach sentimentality to them as persons.  Going beyond the limits of family and friends, however, others tend to take on a more utilitarian value. Their worth assessed more on how they fulfill our needs.  If people or things are not seen as a member of the family, or in our circle of friends, or do not carry any sentimental value, we tend to see them, if we see them at all, in utilitarian terms.  And if we do not perceive them as fulfilling any particular need, we tend to push them out of our consciousness, not even acknowledging they exist or have any particular value.  A member of a household, though, always holds value, both intrinsic and utilitarian, since even as a member of a household, we do fulfill some need for the other members.   The recent awakening to our inter-relatedness and interconnection to the environment has answered the “who.” Animate and inanimate existence upon the earth is interdependent.  All of us humans, along with the flora and the fauna, the air and the water, the soil and the rocks, constitute the household.  The notion of the isolated, rugged individual separated from the environment cannot be logically sustained. Even an isolated human being needs clean air and water, plant and/or animal matter, and a hospitable environment to survive.  

                 Until the late 1800s, the economy of the Great Plains and surrounding prairies was based to a large extent upon the American Bison.  The Native Americans of the region could not imagine their lives without the bison.  The buffalo were everything to them.  Pte (Lakota for buffalo) provided food, shelter, weapons, and even toys. The Pte Oyate (Lakota—buffalo people or nation) were, and still are, a spiritual connection to the creator, providing spiritually, materially, and culturally for the well-being of the plains’ inhabitants.  The bison were key to all life.  “If the buffalo live, everything else will live” [1].  The bison were central to the household of the Plains Indians.  And our recent understanding of the Great Plains ecology bears this out.  We have learned what the Native Americans already knew—the bison have ecological value, being a keystone species to the Great Plains [2]. 

                In today’s world, the bison are still a part of our household, both in intrinsic and utilitarian terms.  Examples of the former include the scientific value of studying bison, the emotional impact of viewing them, and their significance to environmental sustainability.  While for the latter, examples include national park attendance and the commercial value of bison meat production.

                The ecological value, though, has been diminished in favor of promoting beef and certain grains.  Cattle ranching and current farming practice monetizes the Great Plains and the Prairies, converting the land into one condition that maximizes meat and grain production [3].  Cattle and grain do not provide all the ecological values that the bison, which evolved with the Great Plains and the prairies, can fulfill [4].

                The current awareness of the interconnectedness of the flora and fauna within the Great Plains ecology has also proven the scientific value in studying the wild bison.  These studies have provided crucial information regarding predator-prey relationships, mechanisms of disease resistance, social relations of wild bison, etc. [5].  Insights gleaned from these studies aid our understanding of our place in the ecological scheme, and how we ought to act to protect the environment of our home, ensuring our own survival.  One element for the proper maintenance of our home requires an extended range of wild bison not to just increase our understanding, but to guide our preservation efforts [6].

                We also associate an emotional value with the bison.  Millions of people come to Yellowstone each year to take in the scenery but, additionally set their hopes on seeing wild animals; especially the buffalo and the wolves. In a 2016 study of visitors to Yellowstone 83% responded that wildlife viewing was their most important reason for visiting the Park [7]. Perhaps not everyone can verbalize the emotional impact of observing wild bison.  Still, we all do sense something stirring inside of us and feel some sort of connection to nature. The herds of bison inspire, instilling awe.  A feeling that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves finds a home within us.  Somehow we sense that if the buffalo were not here, we would be less than who we are.

                Attaching a monetary value to the emotional value of bison is difficult. So for those of us who want to think in utilitarian terms, and deal in cold, hard facts, here are the numbers worth considering.  First, in regard to recreational value, 4.5 million people visited Yellowstone National Park in 2016, spending $524.3 million, supporting 8,156 jobs.  The cumulative benefits of these recreational and emotional visitations amounted to $680.3 million [8], significantly contributing to the local economy.

An even more utilitarian consideration is the commercial value of bison meat production.  One thousand pounds of buffalo will produce approximately 300 lbs. of low-fat meat, which is healthier than beef.  Sale of bison meat averages $350 million per year with demand outstripping production capabilities, and providing consumers with a nutritional source comparable in protein to beef or chicken but higher in essential nutrients [9].  In these terms bison have greater worth to the household than cattle.

Bison Meat Comparison

                The debates over climate change, renewable energy, national debt, healthcare, and so on are really about one debate: Household management. The underlying issue revolves around who we consider as valued members of the household.  The ecosystem of the Great Plains and surrounding prairies occupy approximately one-third of the United States.  Prudence tells us if we are truly concerned about our well-being, then that ecosystem and its members, particularly the bison as a keystone species, are crucial to our household.  Whether we view the bison as having intrinsic value or utilitarian value, it cannot be denied Pte Oyate is a worthy member to be included in our household management.  The bison nation is, as sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, contributing materially and spiritually to our well-being.

End Notes:

[1] Oglala Lakota Women and Buffalo. Featuring Charlotte Black Elk, Monica Terkildsen, Doris Respects Nothing and Katela Herekasapa. Miho Aida, Producer & Director. Retrieved from 11 Dec. 2019.

[2] See 26 April 2019 Post, “Dung Cakes and Feces Pie, Yum!”

[3] Fuhelendorf, S.D., B. W. Allred and R.G. Hamilton. 2010. Bison as Keystone Herbivores on the Great Plains: Can cattle serve as proxy for evolutionary grazing patterns? American Bison Society Working Paper 4:40pp.

[4] See 26 April 2019 Post, “Dung Cakes and Feces Pie, Yum!” and 26 May 2019 Post, “Bison Air Support.”

[5] Bailey, James A. 2013. 101. American Plains Bison: Rewilding An Icon.  Sweetgrass Books. Helena, MT.

[6] See 21 November 2019 Post, “Not Out of the Woods, Yet—Genetic Extinction (Part 3).

[7] Visitor Use Study 2016. Retrieved 01 Jan 2020.

[8] Tourism to Yellowstone National Park Creates $680.3 Million in Economic Benefits. National Park Service. Retrieved 11 Dec. 2019

[9] Current Status and Bison Perfected by Nature.  National Bison Association.  http:/  Retrieved 01 Jan. 2020.

The Real Old West

In our 30-second sound-bite, social media culture the phrase “the old west” may get confused for “Old Navy.”  But for those old enough or who have studied US History, the phrase may conjure images of cowboys, Indians, wagon trains, and gunfights.  But the period of the cowboys and cattle drives, the US Cavalry and plains Indians, gunfights and outlaws, only lasted one generation, from the end of the mid-1800s to the end of the 1890s. Nowadays, much of the prairies and plains are neatly arranged in arbitrary rows of corn and wheat, oats and soybeans, edged and dissected by ribbons of concrete and asphalt. The real old west, particularly from the Mississippi to the Rockies, the west in which the plains bison evolved, has a much larger and dramatic history; perhaps more than our feeble recollections can grasp. Understanding bison evolution depends on an awareness of the geological and environmental history of the “real old west.”

                From the mid-Cretaceous Period—145 MYA (millions of years ago) to 66 MYA—to the very beginning of the Paleogene Period (66 MYA to 23 MYA) the earth sported a shallow sea. Known as the Western Interior Seaway, it was located in the middle of what is currently the North American continent, roughly splitting that land mass in half.  

Western Interior Seaway

Hidden underneath the earth’s crusty surface, however, a great struggle was taking place.  The tectonic war that had begun since the earth’s infancy was pushing up stone giants to the west of the sea and tilting the seabed, sloping downward from west to east.  The result was the formation of the Rocky Mountains (80 MYA – 50 MYA), known as the Laramide Orogeny [1].  During this time, the sea drained revealing a soil-rich plain.

                However, the tectonic struggle was not the only force imposing its will on the North American land mass.  Cold and warm played a tug of war with glaciation advancing and retreating many times throughout the Pleistocene Epoch—2.6 MYA to 11,600 yrs. BP (Before Present).  During one of those glacial periods—the Mindel Glaciation lasting from 0.5 MYA to 125,000 yrs. BP—the  Bison genera  reached northern Eurasia and by way of the Bering land bridge (Beringia) two of the species spread into North America as far as present day Mexico [2]. 

The Bering Land Bridge-more appropriately understood as a plains between modern day Siberia and Alaska

Bison antiquus was most common in the southwestern US and Mexico, while Bison latifrons was found primarily north and inhabited a more heavily wooded or forested environment. B. Latifrons became extinct during the late Wisconsin glaciation (around 11,000 yrs. BP), while B. antiquus survived into the current Holocene epoch during which it evolved into the modern species of Bison bison consisting of two subspecies—B. Bison bison (Plains bison)and B. Bison anthabasca (Woods Bison)[3].

Bison latifrons
Bison latifrons
Bison antiquus
Bison Species Comparison—Modern day plains bison, Bison bison, is on far right (from

                Vegetation development and movements accompanied the withdrawal of the glaciers.  The general withdrawal began after 14,000 yrs. BP and most or all of the ice had disappeared by around 6500 yrs. BP.  During this time, within the region encompassed by the present day Great Plains and bordering prairies, forests and wooded areas were widespread with little open vegetation.  More open vegetation developed during the interglacial periods.

                The Holocene vegetation pattern developed in response to the general continental warming and drying trend that occurred between 11,000 yrs. BP—the end of the Wisconsin glaciation and the beginning of the current Holocene epoch—and 7000 yrs. BP.  The central grassland began to form during the very late Wisconsin glaciation and reached its maximum extent around 7000 yrs. BP [4].

  Meanwhile, the stone giants of the Rockies, sitting silently to the west, formed a rain shadow over the exposed ice-free former seabed, inhibiting needed rain from falling upon the western most regions of the vast plains.  The storm clouds that made it passed the rocky sentinels would not drop their precious cargo until further east.  Eastward from the Rockies the land slopes downward, while the rainfall follows an inverse slope. This factor is significant in the evolution of the grasses. Not enough rain was allowed for forests, but more than enough to prevent a desert.  The mighty forests, found further east, were denied.  Even bushes and shrubs were hard-pressed.  Of course, a lone tree or a small gathering of bushes here and there may have taken hold along a river or creek, but the land was to be ruled by grass, and aridity became the first and most implacable factor [5].

Rain Shadow (from Regional Professional Development Program,

 Closest to the majestic sentinels on the western horizon arose the short grasses while in the east where the dawn’s first light strikes, and the clouds are more willing to release their precipitation, arose the stately tall grasses. This aridity gradation drove the developmental effort of the grasses to be concentrated in the root structures, driving deep into the soil, holding the soil against an unrelenting wind sweeping across the plains.  Thus deep-rooted perennials, both of the short grass and tall grass varieties, took hold. Inextricably tied to the development of the open vegetation of this vast great plain was the evolution of the bison.  The Great Plains and the plains bison came into being together.

  Long before there were wagon trains and US Cavalry, cowboys and gunfights; long before Europeans were even aware of the North American continent, there existed a vast history of land and vegetation movements vying for dominance of a great region.  But it was not just a drama of earth and flora.  Old species of fauna disappeared to be replaced by new ones.  Humans were present as well—the ancestors of the Native Americans who, in this relatively new region, came to depend on one of the new species of fauna—the Plains Bison.  The Holocene Epoch is the real old west mocking our current understanding of the old west, and to which, our social media apps culture is not even a blink of the eye.

End Notes:

[1] The Laramide orogeny was a period of mountain building in the western portion of present-day North America.  This period started in the late Cretaceous, 70 to 80 million years ago, and ended 35 to 55 million years ago.  The word “orogeny” is a geological term pertaining to the process of mountain making or upheaval (Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary).

[2] McDonald, Jerry N. 36. 2016. North America Bison: Their Classification and Evolution. McDonald & Woodward Publishing Co. Newark, Ohio.

[3]McDonald. 36.

[4] McDonald. 22-28.

[5] Manning, Richard. 3. 1995. Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics, and Promise of the American Prairie. Penguin Books.

Not Out of the Woods, Yet—Genetic Extinction (Part 3)

We all have issues.  The strategies and means employed to preserve the wild bison genome and promote genetic diversity is no exception.  As discussed in the previous blog—Not Out of the Woods, Yet—Genetic Extinction (Part 2)—several issues are involved in working toward these objectives.

Inbreeding and Genetic Drift:

The common strategy to avoid inbreeding depression and genetic drift is to create large herds.  It is estimated that herd sizes of 2000 to 3000 minimum are required [1].  Wild, free-ranging bison need to forage over large swaths of land.  For a herd size of 1000 animals it is estimated a land parcel of 100,000 acres or approximately 156 square miles would be needed [2].  Achieving the minimum herd sizes, then, would require land areas from 300 to 500 square miles.   For 500 square miles, this would be a square with each side having a length of 22.4 miles.  The only large conservation herd that meets both requirements for minimum herd size and land is the Yellowstone herd.  The herd of approximately 3500 roams over 3500 square miles [3].  However, much of that is mountainous and so does not represent the actual land available for exploitation by the bison, raising another issue—habitat requirements.  It is not enough that sufficient amount of land is acquired.  It must be terrain that can be exploited by the bison. 

Relatedly, especially where private lands are acquired, restoration of the terrain may be necessary.  Typically, private lands have been plowed-over and fenced-in for farming and ranching practices.  Any fencing has to be removed to allow for movement of the bison.  Other fencing, suitable for bison, has to be established along the perimeter of the reserve or refuge.  Any dams built to retain water for livestock would also have to be removed [4]. 

Then there is the issue of money [2].  The cost to acquire the necessary land and place a herd of 1000 onto that land may run well over $ 1 million. Reaching the minimum requirements to preserve and promote the bison genome could then run $2 to $3 million per herd. Significant funding raising efforts will be needed.

So what land is possibly available?  Bailey concludes that land east of 98 degrees longitude—Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, eastern Oklahoma, eastern Texas and all points east—is  too fully developed to allow for the necessary land areas.  Between farmland and cities is there is no land parcel large enough to support the minimum herd size.  This leaves the plains—lands west of 98 degrees west longitude to the Rocky Mountains—available.  Perhaps some parts of Nevada and Oregon could be utilized [5].  There are still large tracts available in this region to promote such herds.

Cattle-Gene Introgression:

A potential problem has been identified in regard to purifying bison herds of cattle-gene introgression.  Removing bison with cattle genes may inadvertently remove genes of common ancestry.  Authors Kathleen O’Neal Gear and Michael Gear [6] raise the question: Did bison interbred with any prehistoric species of the Bos side of the Bison-Bos family, and if so, is this the source of the cattle genes?  No one really knows. Removing bison having only genes from domesticated cattle requires the DNA testing to differentiate between those genes belonging to both cattle and bison ancestors from genes belonging only to domesticated cattle.  This would require a complete mapping, or sequencing, of the bison genome [Gears], which to date has not been performed.  Except for the Yellowstone and the Henry Mountains herds, and more recently the American Prairie Reserve herd, all bison most likely have at least some cattle genes.  Derr has found cattle genes in approximately 64% of US federally managed herds [7].

The Gear position, though, does not address the cross-breeding that did take place on private ranches in the US and performed by the Canadian government into the 1960s. There is no doubt the cross-breeding occurred and a few studies have suggested that introgression has been detrimental to bison [8].

Purifying the herds of cattle-gene introgression along with the movement to list wild bison under the Endangered Species Act presents another potential issue if such listing would succeed, according to the Gears.  Some are arguing that the scarcity bison without cattle ancestry qualifies wild bison as an endangered species.  Under the ESA the sale or transporting of bison free of cattle genes could be punishable by a $50,000 fine and one year in prison per charge.  Ranchers or farmers owning bison without cattle ancestry could find themselves being charged under the ESA if they would try to sell or move their bison.  The argument to list wild, pure, bison as endangered, then, could lead to conflicts with current legal definitions governing the status of bison. 

Yet, legal recognition of plains bison as wildlife is required if the wild genome is to be restored on federal lands.  But this seems unlikely at this time.  Most states do not recognize wild bison (see March 2019 post, Legal Status of the American Bison), and the federal government will not restore wild plains bison without support from the affected states.  This could change if the Fish and Wildlife Service would recognize the threat domestication represents to the wild genome, and lists the plains bison as a threatened or endangered species [9].

In any event, the greater goal is to restore wildness to the bison genome.  Reducing cattle-gene introgression to low levels and letting nature takes it course, may over time swamp the cattle genes.  Achieving absolute purity may not be needed if the other actions to promote the wild genome are taken [10].

Artificial Selection:

Purifying the conservation herds of cattle-introgression, though, is not enough to preserve the wild genome and promote genetic diversity.  Artificial selection, caused by human intervention, must be minimized as much as possible.  The complete elimination of human intervention may not be feasible.   No matter how large the land parcel may be, fencing will still be required to keep bison out of private lands.  Handling, needed for testing, culling and transporting of animals, will also be involved in implementing the other objectives. 


Various mechanisms threaten the existence of the wild bison genome, requiring various strategies to thwart the threat.  These strategies and their implementation, however, present conflicting objectives, which may require trade-offs, and issues, which demand solutions.  But the restoration of the wild genome and the promotion of genetic diversity cannot wait until all issues have been fully resolved to all interested parties’ satisfaction.  Fortunately, efforts are proceeding to realize the necessary objectives (e.g., The American Prairie Reserve, the Buffalo Field Campaign, etc.) while work continues to resolve the obstacles still in the way.

End Notes:

[1] Hedrick, Paul W. “Conservation of Genetics and North American Bison (Bison bison).” Journal of Heredity 2009: 100(4): 411-420.

[2] Heidebrink, Scott, Bison Restoration Manager, American Prairie Reserve.  Email to author 03-Oct-2019.

[3] Bailey, 180. Baily, James A. 2013. American Plains Bison: Rewilding an Icon. Sweetgrass Books. Helena, MT.

[4] American Prairie Reserve Bison Report 2016-2017.  Retrieved 10-Oct-2019 from  Also, Bailey, 207.

[5] Bailey, 207.

[6] The Gears are well-known authors of over 50 novels.  They may be best known for their People of the Earth series.  In addition to writing novels, they raise bison.

[7] O’Neal Gear, Kathleen and Gear, Michael W. August 2010.“Bison Genetics—The New War Against Bison.”

[8] Geist, Darrell, Habitat Coordinator.  Buffalo Field Campaign.  Email to author 19-Sep-2019.

[9] Bailey, 220.

[10] Bailey, 214.

Not Out of the Woods, Yet—Genetic Extinction (Part 2)

The mechanisms by which genetic extinction of the wild bison genome may occur were described in the September post.  If the prevention of loss of genetic information and the promotion of genetic diversity are to be achieved, how should we proceed?  What avenues are available or can be created? Broad objectives were laid out in the Vermejo Statement (see the Feb. 27, 2019 post From the Brink to the Foothills-Part 2).  More recently Paul Hedrick has laid out more specific objectives.  These include:

  • Keep cattle ancestry at a very low level,
  • Avoid inbreeding and artificial selection for livestock-related traits, and
  • Retain sufficient genetic variation for future adaptation.

Achieving these objectives requires a variety of strategies.

Cattle-Gene Introgression:

The greatest focus of conservation genetics has been identifying herds with cattle ancestry, since the efforts to restore the wild bison have been threatened by domestic cattle introgression.  Reduction of cattle-gene introgression involves several approaches because of various circumstances [1].

The popular tenet from the medical profession—Do No Harm—applies here as well.  The first and most logical strategy is to not introduce bison with known cattle ancestry into herds free of cattle  introgression.  Though this seems to be the easiest approach, there are only a few herds known to be free of cattle ancestry—e.g., the Yellowstone herd, the Henry Mountains herd, and more recently, the American Prairie Reserve herd.  This approach only protects these herds until other herds free of cattle ancestry can be established.  It should be noted the notion of cattle ancestry free is relative.  There may always be the presence of cattle genes.  Additionally, the complete eradication of cattle genes may not be desirable since the genetic testing has not matured enough to differentiate between genes unique to domesticated cattle and genes having common ancestry to bison and cattle (This issue will be explored in more depth in part 3).

A corollary to the above strategy is to introduce bison without cattle ancestry into herds with cattle-gene introgression.  The benefits could possibly include: a decrease in inbreeding depression, an increase in genetic variation, and genetic swamping of cattle ancestry. This would dilute the presence of cattle genes to the point at which natural selection would eventually take over and reduce the effects of cattle ancestry. A variation of the introduction of cattle-gene free bison strategy involves starting new herds.  

Another approach regarding cattle ancestry involves translocation of bison between herds with similar levels of cattle-gene introgression.  This, at least, would not raise the overall level of cattle ancestry, but would have the benefit of avoiding inbreeding depression.  But this requires more accurate tests to estimate the level of introgression and further examination of potential phenotypic effects [2].

Finally, culling may be used to reduce mitochondria DNA (mtDNA) and specific nuclear alleles (one of two or more alternative forms of a gene found at the same place on a chromosome) of cattle ancestry.  Culling involves separating out the undesirable animal with the objective of reducing or eliminating the traits, qualities or disease of that specific animal from the herd.  Undertaking this strategy to reduce the mtDNA, however, incorrectly assumes this also reduces nuclear DNA.  Care needs to be taken to retain variation at the nuclear level, requiring more extensive and accurate testing.  And culling to reduce specific nuclear alleles is also problematic. Unfortunately, this action will most likely have other alleles associated with the cattle ancestry remaining at other unidentified genetic regions [3].

Inbreeding and Genetic Drift:

Inbreeding and Genetic Drift are significant issues.  Most of the conservation herds are relatively small (i.e., less than 1000). Under these circumstances maintaining the genetic information and diversity required to promote the wild genome is difficult if not impossible.  To avoid these processes of genetic extinction, herd sizes of at least 2000 to 3000 are needed [4].  Out of the 44 conservation herds, only 10 herds have more than 400 animals, and out of these, only 4 have more than 1000 bison—Yellowstone National Park, Medano Ranch, Co., Tallgrass Preserve, OK, and Custer State Park, SD).  The herds smaller than 400, are most definitely, losing genetic diversity, and in danger of inbreeding.  Six of these herds are being managed as a meta-population with exchanges of animals.  This practice may alleviate some inbreeding but will not prevent loss of genetic diversity.  Only the Yellowstone herd is large enough (3000 to 4000) to limit that loss [5].  In addition to the four conservation herds mentioned above, the American Prairie Reserve [see link to the American Prairie Reserve’s website in the Favorite Links section of this blog] in Montana has a herd which is currently slightly less than 1000. 

The regular exchange of bison between herds is another method to avoid inbreeding and genetic drift. In moving bison to other herds, though, consideration must be given to disease control, handling practices, and state laws.  Animals would need to be tested prior to transfer to ensure diseases such as brucellosis and tuberculosis would not be transferred.  Handling of bison is difficult.  Care would be required to ensure the safety of the animal, not to mention the personnel involved.  Finally, laws defining the status of bison differ from state to state and would have to be taken into account.

Achieving genetic diversity requires ongoing assessment of genetic variation from which strategy decisions can be made.  In this regard, Hedrick offers several recommendations which are beyond the scope of this post [6].

Artificial Selection/Domestication:

A certain amount of human intervention in conservation herds cannot be avoided.  Even in Yellowstone the herd suffers from human management—the herd size is limited, the herd has been vaccinated, the average age of the herd has been artificially reduced, and  access to seasonal ranges has been restricted [7].  And this is the most “wild” bison we have!

Herd sizes are managed through random culling with the first animals coming through the chute being selected.  It has been observed, though, the largest animals are usually the first.  Bison traits, then, associated with large body size are being artificially selected out.  Thus, even random culling can have a negative effect on natural selection.  Culling along with vaccination is also used for disease control.  However, disease control treats low resistance bison equally with high-resistance bison, preventing natural selection from promoting bison with high-resistant immune systems. Intervention to control disease, then, tends to retain susceptible animals [8].  If the wild genome is to be encouraged, culling to limit herd size and efforts at disease control must be either eliminated or be rare and minimal.  Still, culling to reduce herd size may be necessary due to land and carrying capacity [9].

Keeping human intervention at a minimum is not enough.  As has been found with the re-introduction of wolves in Yellowstone bison have had to relearn their defensive traits. Avoidance of loss of defensive traits will require the introduction of the bison’s natural predators—the wolf and the grizzly. Predation is also a natural selective force. 


The various genetic extinction mechanisms and the circumstances in which bison find themselves—large herds, small herds, land issues, etc.—require several strategies to prevent genetic extinction and promote genetic diversity. The American Prairie Reserve’s bison management approach is a good example of the implementation of some of those strategies discussed above:

  • Their overall goal is to achieve a herd size of 2000 to 3000 within the next 5 to 7 years
  • Their approach is “hands-off” as much as possible. 
  • Manipulation of bison population is minimized to allow for the development of natural sex ratio and age structure
  • Mortality from bull competition, predation, and other natural events is permitted (However, no wolves or grizzlies are currently present on the Reserve)
  • Continue to secure more land and habitat to support the herd and allow for continuous grazing
  • Ensure new bison introduced into the herd are free of cattle-gene introgression [10]

Implementing these strategies involves answering many questions. For instance, land is perhaps the most significant issue.  The common strategy to address the extinction mechanisms is to create large, free-ranging herds, requiring large amounts of land.  But not just any terrain will do.  The habitat must support large swaths of grazing land. How much land is needed for a large herd of free-ranging bison?   What needs to be done to prepare the habitat? Are there state and/or federal regulations involved?

Another concern involves genetic testing.  Ridding herds of cattle genes may cause the loss of common ancestry genes.  How do we differentiate?

If predation is to be re-introduced, what is required to make that happen?

These issues need to be worked out, and will be pursued in part 3 of this discussion.

End Notes:

[1] Hedrick, Paul W. “Conservation of Genetics and North American Bison (Bison bison).” Journal of Heredity 2009:100(4): 411-420.

[2] Phenotypic Effects—Effects on an organism’s observable characteristics or traits and covers the organism’s physical form and structure, developmental processes, biochemical and physiological properties, behavior and products of behavior (Wikipedia).

[3] Hedrick.

[4] Bailey, James A. 2013. American Plains Bison: Rewilding an Icon. Sweetgrass Books. Helena, MT. 179. and Hedrick.

[5] Bailey, 179.

[6] Hedrick.

[7] Bailey, 140.

[8] Bailey, 142-145.

[9] Carrying Capacity—the ability of a habitat to sustain a population (Bailey, 87).

[10] Retrieved 02-Oct-2019 from Also, email to author from Scott Heidebrink, Bison Restoration Manager, American Prairie Reserve. 03-Oct-2019.