Visions of bison in the morning
When I woke up in the primitive campground in South Dakota’s Badlands National Park, I raised the window shade to see a bison lying about 100 yards away. He lazily munched on grass, and then, as the air warmed, lumbered to his feet and wandered off.
We have seen bison all across the plains – Texas, Kansas, South Dakota – but usually behind fences or, stuffed, in museums. Here, in the Badlands and in Custer State Park, they roam freely, grazing, scratching their backs against tree stumps, meandering across roadways, glancing, with little interest, at the cars.
Bison, whose ancestors came across the Bering land bridge from Siberia are, perhaps, the most American of all iconic wildlife.
“What is life?” Crowfoot, a Blackfoot warrior is quoted as asking. “It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.”
The words bison and buffalo are often used interchangeably because the first Europeans who saw the bison thought they resembled African buffalo. But their true genus is bison.
We marveled at the skull of an ancestor, Bison latifrons, hanging at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City. B. latifrons roamed North America for about 200,000 years, but became extinct about 20,000–30,000 years ago. It stood over eight feet tall at its shoulders, weighed more than 4,000 pounds, and had horns that span seven to eight feet, used to fight off saber-toothed cats and bears. It’s modern day equivalent is Bison bison, which stands five to six feet at the shoulder, and weighs about 2,000 pounds. It can run up to 40 miles per hour.
The Indians relied on bison for food, shelter, clothing, tools (bones), bowstrings (sinew) and pouches (bladders, intestines). The plains tribes revered the massive animal’s stamina and courage, admiring how it would face the wind, even during the howling blizzards on the plains, and swing its huge head to carve into deep snow to find grass.
In Dodge City, Kansas, we watched a video showing how Indians skinned and butchered the animal, using stone and bone tools, carefully harvesting all the parts.
The Lakota people, who hunted this South Dakota area for centuries, said it provided everything they needed, and we found it teaming with wildlife: bighorn sheep, pronghorn, prairie dogs and ferret.
It was named Badlands by French trappers and explorers who found the landscape of stark spires and eroded, chalky crags daunting to cross, the water undrinkable.
The White River has a milky look from sediment particles that carry a slight charge of electricity and repel each other, rather than settling to the bottom.
We hiked the area shortly after 17 inches of late-spring snowfall had melted into shallow pools and hundreds of Boreal Chorus frogs had awakened to sing their mating calls.
But it is the bison, and their story of slaughter, survival and regeneration, that fascinates so many. The wholesale destruction of the great herds, once numbering more than 30 million, was seen as a way to solve the “Indian problem,” by eliminating their “shaggy commissary.”
Buffalo hunters, with new rifles, accurate at long distances, could hide and shoot hundreds of animals at a time. Unless the bison saw the threat, they wouldn’t run. They stood still as, one by one, the animals around them fell. One hunter killed 120 in 40 minutes. “Buffalo” Bill Cody killed more than 4,000 in two years. By 1880, only a few thousand were left.
Railroads provided a way to ship the hides and bones back East, where they turned into belts to run ceiling fans and fertilizer.
In Goodnight, Texas, we visited the house of Charles Goodnight, whose wife, Mary Ann “Molly,” could hear the orphaned bison calves crying at night on the prairie. She told Charles to go fetch them, and he started a bison herd that later would be used to repopulate Yellowstone, as well as zoos around the country.
We also learned about William Temple Hornaday, an American zoologist and conservationist, who in 1896, as director of the Bronx Zoo, and with Theodore Roosevelt’s support, brought bison to New York. By 1903, his herd numbered about 40, and eventually was used to help reestablish bison in Oklahoma.
In Kansas, a ranger drove us into a herd of bison on the Sandsage Bison Range, pointing out the pregnant females, telling us how once, he had turned his back on a bull, who spooked and ran over him, goring him in the back.
“They’re definitely wild,” he said. “I don’t walk out there unless I need to.”
As we watched the grazing herds, he realized we had a flat tire and called for someone to come collect us. He turned off the engine and the bison wandered up to windows, peering in, their snouts at the edge of the glass.
Actor Kevin Costner became fascinated with the animal and the area while filming Dances With Wolves. In Deadwood, South Dakota, we visited Tatanka, his tribute to the buffalo, which includes a beautiful sculpture of Indians participating in a bison leap, running them off a cliff as part of their hunt.
But of all these experiences, the moment I will always remember is the sound of the prairie grass rustling against the legs of the bison as it moved across the campground in the Badlands, a sound that is nearly as old as the continent, but unheard for so long.