Bison are having a moment, and we couldn’t be happier for North America’s largest—and once widest-ranging—land mammal.
Although an estimated 30–60 million plains bison roamed freely prior to European colonization and westward expansion, by 1889, their numbers had fallen to a mere 512. In one of America’s greatest comeback stories, however, these “masters of endurance” (in the words of Natural Habitat Adventures’ Expedition Leader Sophie Mazowita) found a way to survive.
Today, thanks to a coalition of conservationists, ranchers and Indigenous communities, some 20,000 bison now live in conservation herds in the U.S. (in sum, roughly 500,000 inhabit public and private lands, ranches and zoos). To honor the animal’s vast contributions to America’s cultural and ecological heritage, the National Bison Legacy Act of 2016 federally designated bison as America’s national mammal, and since then, July has been recognized as National Bison Month.
From gaining a deeper understanding of these iconic creatures to getting wild with them in Yellowstone National Park, here are five of our favorite ways to commemorate the monthlong event.
1. Get Better Acquainted With Bison
Descended from one of the few large mammals to emerge from the Ice Age, today’s plains bison measure up to 12 feet in length and can weigh up to 2,000 pounds. Bison also make for voracious foragers, eating as much as 24 pounds of herbaceous grasses and sedges daily.
Surprisingly, their immense size and appetites make them invaluable ecosystem engineers, says Mazowita. “Bison encourage more grass growth than other grazers,” she says, adding that bison bring balance to grassland ecosystems while serving as an umbrella species for their fellow fauna and flora.
Grassland birds, for instance, live symbiotically with bison, hitching rides on their backs while feeding on insects in their fur. That fur, and bison scat, also helps disperse native plant seeds, and when bison “wallow,” or roll around in the dust to rid themselves of parasites or display manly vigor, they create microhabitats where new plants can take root. In the winter, outsize bison footprints even stir up rodents for hungry coyotes that cleverly follow in their wake.
For centuries, Indigenous peoples also lived in harmony with bison, which provided essential sustenance while playing a pivotal role in their spiritual and cultural development. “Buffalo are the reason that I am here today,” says Casey Ryan, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, which has been instrumental in saving plains bison as far back as the 1870s. Appearing in a video produced by the Tribes titled The Buffalo’s Importance, Ryan adds: “Buffalo helped my ancestors by providing them with food, with clothing, with tools and with medicine.”
What’s the difference between buffalo and bison?
And what to make of those two terms, “buffalo” and “bison,” which are often used interchangeably? The word “buffalo,” from the French “boeuf” (beef), traces back to early French fur trappers, though the term “bison” took hold in the American lexicon in 1774 and since then, is often used to distinguish bison from unrelated Cape buffalo and water buffalo found in Africa and Asia.
2. Reckon With America’s History With Bison
It’s a painful past but one that must not be forgotten if America is to fully understand its present. Beginning around 1830, as white settlers continued to embrace the doctrine of “manifest destiny” and make their way west, an effort to exterminate all bison became synonymous with efforts to starve, subdue and subjugate Indigenous people.
The U.S. Army killed countless bison while encouraging civilians and market hunters to do the same (“Kill every buffalo you can! Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone,” Colonel Richard Irving Dodge famously exclaimed.) Tourists shot bison from moving trains for “sport,” while entrepreneurs sold bison furs and ground down their skulls for fertilizer and to refine sugar. Bison tongues were even sold as delicacies, and hides were manufactured into pulley belts to fuel the Industrial Revolution.
From 1872 to 1874, an average of 5,000 bison were killed each day before bison numbers reached their nadir toward the end of the century. It was a time, as Mazowita so aptly states, marked “by a total lack of appreciation or lack of understanding of just how much we could impact these animals, or what it might mean to lose them.”
3. Celebrate Successes in Bison Conservation
Not all Americans were complicit in the killing, however. And fortunately, in the bison’s long journey from conflict to conservation, there have been plenty of heroes.
This starts with Indigenous people, including those from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, whose tribal members brought some of the last surviving bison to Montana’s Flathead Indian Reservation in the 1870s. Later, in the early 1900s, members of this herd were moved to Yellowstone National Park, one of the bison’s last refuges at the time, to boost the park’s heavily depleted herd, whose numbers would eventually rise to some 1,300 by 1954 and ultimately help spawn other herds in the U.S.
Notable pioneers of bison conservation also include American zoologist William Hornaday. The first president of the Wildlife Conservation Society, Hornaday spurred 1894 federal legislation that banned bison killing and in 1905, worked with President Theodore Roosevelt to form the American Bison Society, which helped breed bison to live on reserves. By 1935, collective conservation efforts would revive bison counts to some 20,000 in the U.S.
Fast forward to modern times, and a range of private, government, NGO and Indigenous forces remain vital to the bison cause. The InterTribal Buffalo Council, for example, formed in 1992 with a mission of “restoring buffalo to the Indian Country, to preserve our historical, cultural, traditional and spiritual relationship for future generations.” Comprising 58 tribes across 19 states, the council manages a collective herd of more than 15,000 bison.
At the federal level, recent wins for both bison and Indigenous people in the U.S. include the 2020 Bison Conservation Initiative, meant to expand bison preservation over the next 10 years. Additional 2020 legislation turned longstanding federal management of the National Bison Range in the Flathead Indian Reservation back to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
How we’re helping bison
For its part, Nat Hab partner World Wildlife Fund works with Indigenous communities such as the Sicangu Lakota Nation and Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes to help ensure the bison’s survival. In 2012, for instance, this collaboration brought 60 bison from Yellowstone National Park to the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes’ Fort Peck Reservation in Montana. Subsequent transfers and births have since grown the herd to 300-plus while bringing ecological benefits, including the return of native grasses and grassland birds.
Among other successful collaborations, in 2020, WWF also helped transfer 100 plains bison from Badlands and Theodore Roosevelt national parks to the Wolakota Buffalo Range on South Dakota’s Rosebud Indian Reservation. More good news: In April 2021, the range, which is expected to host some 1,500 bison in the future, saw the birth of two bison calves—the first on these lands in 140 years!
4. Help Make the Future Bright for Bison
“The future of bison is looking brighter,” says Mazowita, but sizable hurdles remain for America’s national mammal, whose conservation status now stands at “near threatened” and whose numbers in conservation herds (some 20,000) remains the same as in 1935.
Loss of genetic diversity and limited support for public bison herds in rural areas also threaten the bison’s resurgence. In places such as Yellowstone National Park, where bison now number some 5,500, there’s also a fear that bison that slip the park’s barriers will transmit brucellosis (aka undulate fever) to cattle. Climate change—and resulting shifts in landscape—also pose a growing threat, as evidenced by the park’s unprecedented flooding in June 2022.
So, how can we lend a hand? Communication and collaboration are both essential, according to the National Park Service. “Get to know all the people and agencies for whom this issue is important,” the NPS states on its website, “including state legislators, congressional representatives, and the members of the Interagency Bison Management Plan,” which helps guide the management of bison in and around Yellowstone. “We’ll need to work together to find a future that includes wild bison.”
Another idea for celebrating National Bison Month: Make a symbolic bison adoption through WWF to bolster its efforts to preserve plains bison and their wild habitats.
5. Roam With Bison in the Wild
When done right, seeing bison in the wild can be a life-changing experience, both for bison and their beholders. Take Nat Hab’s small-group Hidden Yellowstone & Grand Teton Safari, which helps fund WWF’s conservation efforts and brings travelers to the parks’ remote, off-the-radar spots so they can quietly commune with wildlife, including huge herds of bison.
“When I’m guiding tours in Yellowstone, I tend to promise that bison is the one animal you’re guaranteed to see,” says Mazowita, adding they often “stand out like little chocolate chips … across the land.” Nevertheless, she warns against taking the animal for granted ever again, recalling a time when only 23 bison lived in the park. “I try to remember that it wasn’t always a given that there were this many bison in Yellowstone and that they were so easy to see.
“I hope that someday soon,” she adds, “we’ll be seeing even more wild-ranging bison across this land and that we’ll all get a chance … to experience these incredible animals.” Here’s to those future travels and many more guaranteed sightings—and to ensuring that bison’s big moment extends far beyond the month of July.