One of the highlights of our trip to South Dakota was driving the Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park around dusk. Loved it so much, we did it twice! Driving through the open grasslands and pine-speckled hills of the park, wildlife sightings of all kinds are guaranteed. But taking center stage, is one of the most powerful icons of the American West, the majestic Bison.
The bison, or buffalo as people commonly refer to them, is the official logo of Custer State Park and its main claim to fame as a world-class wildlife refuge. Nearly 1300 buffalo, the second-largest public herd in the US, roam free in Custer State Park's 71,000-acres.
Home on the Range
"Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam Where the deer and the antelope play Where seldom is heard a discouraging word And the skies are not cloudy all day"
~ John Denver
On the Brink of Extinction
Once millions of Bison had free range over the continental United States and Canada, and would wander throughout this whole range. The species was virtually wiped out in the 19th century as settlers moved west across America, slaughtering bison as they went. The US army had a policy to kill off bison to harm the Native American tribes that relied upon them, as well as to make way for farmland and for food. By 1900 it is estimated that fewer than 1000 bison remained on the entire continent.
“We fundamentally killed every bison...We had taken this animal
that was an incredibly important symbol of our country, of America,
and incredibly important, religiously, for Native Americans —
we got to the point when these animals were on the brink of extinction.”
~ John Calvelli (Wildlife Conservation Society)
Peter Norbeck, often known as the "Father of Custer State Park", took action to preserve this native icon. In 1914, the park (then known as Custer State Forest and Game Sanctuary) purchased 36 bison to start its herd. By the 1940's the size of the herd had swelled to over 2500. Today the park inventories range conditions each year and manages the size of the herd to keep the buffalo numbers compatible with available forage.
National Bison Legacy Act 2016
This month President Obama signed into law the National Bison Legacy Act, which designates the bison as the official mammal of the United States. The bison now joins the bald eagle as a national symbol.
Cristian Samper, president of the Wildlife Conservation Society, calls this designation a “milestone” in the effort to “prevent the bison from going extinct and to recognize the bison’s ecological, cultural, historical and economic importance to the United States”.
He added, “The bison will serve as a great national symbol for the United States as it is as strong as the oak, fearless as the bald eagle and inspiring as a rose...an icon that represents the highest ideals of America: unity, resilience and healthy landscapes and communities.”
Bison are the largest animal in the United States. Bulls can grow up to 6 feet tall and weigh up to a ton (2,000 lbs.); cows grow to 5 ½ feet tall and can weigh 1,400 lbs.
Though their eyesight is not spectacular, they have excellent senses of hearing and smell; if they sense danger, they can run up to 40 miles per hour and easily jump a 6-foot tall fence.
Longevity for wild bison is typically 12 to 15 years.
Bison are ordinarily sedentary, quiet, and peace-loving by nature, interrupted only by mating season, typically from August to September.
Bison have distinctive thick brown fur, long beards and horns. They also have a distinctive hump, which comprises powerful muscles that allow bison to move snow out of its way by using its head as a sort of snowplow.
The bison was seemingly custom-made for the American continent, being impervious to the extreme heat of its summers and also to the bitter cold of its winters. They have a thick, dense mass of hair in the winter, and shed nearly all of it for the summer. This shedding occurs unevenly; during April, May and June, the body and hindquarters will shed off hair in island-like patches - indeed it can make the bison appear sickly. But by the end of June, the body and hindquarters are bare skin.
During this time, the bison's skin is exposed to the burning sun, and biting flies, and they are more prone to wallow: The bison will search out a pool of water or mud, and failing that, will create one of its own, using its hooves and its horns to systematically clear a circular depression in the ground around its body until it fills with groundwater.
Bison are migratory animals and once performed a key role in ecosystems by tearing up vegetation to allow new plants to grow.
Witnessing these majestic creatures up close while in South Dakota, and learning more about their history and what they have endured, gives me a greater appreciation for our new national symbol!