In the past several decades, through federally protected preserves and wildlife conservation programs, America’s magnificent bison can be seen in the wild once again. Perhaps not the vast numbers of pre 1800’s, but today, 19 bison herds in 12 states roam the Plains and Prairies of America. And, in 2016, the bison was designated as our National Mammal of the United States. So, let’s find where the best places to see bison in America are!
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Best Places to See Bison in America
Back in the very early 1800’s, 40-60 million bison roamed the Great Plains of the United States. But, by 1830, white settlers made their way to the west. The bison prairies became a lucrative hunting ground. And, the senseless mass killings brought the bison population to near extinction.
But, where are we now in federal and nonprofit initiatives to bring back the bison populace? Federally-protected preserves and refuges along with wildlife conservation programs are working around the clock in bringing back the bison herds.
Interesting facts about the Bison
First, before we get on with the best places to see bison in America, let’s learn a little about the mighty bison. We’ll share tidbits of a little of their history, what they eat, how big do they get, and where do they roam.
The scientific name for bison is Bison bison montanae. The Plains Bison, Bison bison bison (that’s not a typo; it’s bison x3), is one of two subspecies/ecotypes of the American bison, the other being the Wood Bison (Bison bison athabascae).
Which is it? Bison or Buffalo?
Now, it’s easy to confuse the bison and buffalo; thinking they are one in the same. But they’re not. The North American scientific name is shortened to Bison from the three Bison bison bison.
However, there is a difference between bison and buffalo. Bison have large humped shoulders, large heads, and thick furs which shed throughout the spring and early summer. Buffalo have smaller heads and are a few hundred pounds heavier. Male bison (bulls) weigh in a little smaller at 2000 pounds. Whereas, water buffalo grow to be a bit bigger weighing in at about 2600 pounds.
But, the most obvious is bison horns and buffalo horns differ from each other. Bison horns are typically shorter and sharper than the buffalo’s. Water buffalo horns are long and curved in a crescent. And Cape buffalo have horns that are thick at the base, curl down and then back up.
However, all that said, the names bison and buffalo are interchangeable. Each may be called the other.
How big do Bison get?
Bison are the largest mammal in North America. And, a herd of bison is also called a gang or obstinacy.
Full grown male bison stand over 6′ tall, up to almost 13′ from head to butt. Bulls weigh in at about 2,000 pounds. The average bison skull weight is about 10-12 pounds. Bull bison don’t reach prime breeding until they are 6–10 years of age.
Female bison stand up to no more than 5′ tall and weigh up to 1,000 pounds when fully grown. Cows begin breeding at the age of 2 and birth only single calf at a time. Baby bison (calves) at birth only weigh anywhere from 30 to 70 pounds. The gestation period of a female bison is about 283 days (9.5 months). Calves are typically born in June and July.
Bison also have cloven hooves for feet to withstand their heavy weight, standing for long periods time and withstanding rugged terrain.
The average lifespan for a bison is 10–20 years, but some may live longer depending on genetics, herd hierarchy, health and environmental concerns.
What do Bison eat?
Bison are year-round grazers. Bison belong to the cattle family as they are ruminants. Buffalo and bison chew their cud. Their diet consists of grasses, wildflowers, thin plants and twigs as well as lichen. In the winter snow, bison will plow the snow using their heads sweeping side to side to find food.
Where do Bison place on the food chain?
Since bison are very large in size, they have very few wildlife predators. That said, buffalo and bison do fall victim to powerful hungry wolves, big cats and bears; especially the very young or elder bison. But also, bison are also legally hunted and may be raised just like cattle for meat, hides and horns. But worry not, our treasured American Bison are protected inside National Parks, Preserves and Wildlife Refuges.
How fast can Bison run?
The top speed of a bison is 35 miles per hour; about that of a horse. Which makes it extremely important to stay away from them. Wildlife viewers should keep more than a 25 yard distance between them and the bison. And, if a bison is approaching, even while grazing, continue to put ample distance between you and the bison.
Unfortunately, as you’ve no doubt, read or heard several accounts of bison attacks. It’s due to peepers encroaching on their territory. Despite regulations (National Park Service and State Parks), bison charges are more prevalent over other animals, including bears, within their region. To say the least, bison attacks are completely preventable.
What is the significance of the white buffalo?
If you’ve watched some documentaries or shows about the Bison, you’ve probably heard about the white buffalo. White buffalo (bison) are extremely rare. Just to give you some perspective, out of 10 million buffalo only one is born completely white.
But several Native American tribes, predominantly the Lakota (Sioux) consider the the white buffalo to be sacred. It’s believed that these very special bison are the bridge between God (Creator) and everything encompassing Mother Earth.
The story continues even after 2000 years of sacred ceremonies, council meetings and tribe storytellers. An interesting write up by Legends of America explains in depth the legend of the white buffalo and why they are considered a spiritual gift to witness.
What happened to the Bison to near extinction?
If you’ve read our Tatanka, the Story of the American Bison article, you’d get a good history lesson on why the Bison drastically disappeared from North America to the point of extinction. Sadly, from 1830-1885, the bison population plummeted from 60 million down to 100. Yes, you read that correctly; 60 million down to 100. All because the federal government thought if they got rid of the Lakota (Sioux) food source and lifestyle resources (the bison), they’d eliminate the Tribe completely. However, there were also other reasons.
People like William Cody, hence why he was nicknamed ‘Buffalo Bill Cody’, were hired to kill at least a dozen bison a day to feed the railroad workers in 1867. He then was hired by the federal government to exterminate at the rate of over 4000 bison in just a matter of 8 months. He got to be so good at it that he became the best bison hunter killing almost 50 bison is just 30 minutes.
Aside from his actions, bison were hunted not only for reasons listed above but the killings became a lucrative business bringing in high prices for bison tongues and skins. And of course, no surprise that the white hunters left the rest of the bison to rot on their own home turf.
If you watched the movie, Dances with Wolves, this was accurately depicted in the productions. Ironically, after Kevin Costner acted, directed and produced the film, he went straight to work to create an educational exhibit in Deadwood, South Dakota, Tatanka, the Story of the Bison. We highly recommend it when you visit Mount Rushmore National Memorial in the Black Hills.
Where are the best places to see bison in the wild?
So, now that we’ve learned all about the Bison, where can we see these majestic National icons of America? There are 11 National Parks, National Park Wildlife Refuges and National Recreation Areas that collectively, are home to several thousand bison. In addition, there are also several state game preserves that protect thriving bison herds in their regions.
You’ll find that South Dakota is what we call ‘Bison Destination’! It’s one of the best places to see bison in the wild in the United States!
During the 1960’s, conservation efforts in Badlands National Park began when 50 bison were reintroduced to the park. In the 1980’s, another 20 bison were introduced to the existing herd. Today, approximately 1,200 bison inhabit the 64,000 acre wilderness area in the western reaches of the North Unit of the National Park. Badlands National Park is working to expand the bison range within the Park.
Wind Cave National Park‘s most majestic and visible mammal is the American Bison. Look for them where fire recently burned and at the prairie dog towns.
Nearly 1,300 bison, one of the largest herds anywhere, roam free in the foothills of Custer State Park‘s 71,000 acres. The Wildlife Loop Road winds through the prime buffalo range in the southeastern part of the Park. Approximately 450 bison make their home in the Badlands Wilderness area of Sage Creek.
If you’re really into getting down and dirty, make sure you plan to attend the Annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup in mid to late September put on by the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks department.
Also, each November, Custer State Park auctions between 200 and 500 head of live buffalo as part of their bison herd management program. Buyers and spectators from around the United States come to watch and participate in the annual auction. Bison are generally purchased to supplement an existing herd, to start a herd, or to eat.
Aside from visiting the world’s largest buffalo in Jamestown, North Dakota, the northern state has made the Bison a state icon. Bison are North America’s largest native land mammal and are considered livestock in North Dakota.
But if you want to see our great American Bison in their natural habitat, Theodore Roosevelt National Park is home to a herd of 300-700 bison.
In 1956, 29 bison were obtained from Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge in Nebraska and released in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. And, by 1962, the bison herd increased to 145 ; 20 of which were relocated to the North Unit of the National Park.
Today, the North Unit has anywhere from 100-300 bison and the South Unit of Theodore National Park has approximately 200-400 wild bison. Now the American bison descendants roam freely on 46,000 acres of park land without worry of poachers and hunters.
U.S. Parks wrote: “If it were not for the foresight of a few individuals such as Theodore Roosevelt, the mighty bison could easily have become extinct. Warnings and attempts to protect the bison came as early as 1776, but it wasn’t until 1894 that the first federal legislation protecting this animal was enacted. Killing of bison was now punishable by a $1000.00 fine or imprisonment, and the law was strictly enforced.”
These important laws were put into place to protect our wild bison from another repeat. For more information on how the federal mandates care and wildlife conservation of the bison, we highly recommend reading the National Park Service’s Bison Management article.
Formerly named Sullys Hill National Game Preserve, White Horse Hill National Wildlife Refuge near Fort Totten, North Dakota is home to about 20 buffalo. The White Horse Hill bison herd once played an important role in the conservation of Plains Bison. A small 20 bison herd is now managed for historical and educational value. The population of less than 20 animals is to keep the herd size in balance with the available habitat.
But also, in the Flathead Valley of Montana, thousands of bison graze and roam the Bison Range, formally known as the National Bison Range. It’s a nature reserve on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Moiese, Montana established as a wildlife conservation area for the American Bison. In fact, this Bison Range was established in 1908 to provide a sanctuary for the American bison. It’s one of the oldest National Wildlife Refuges in the United States.
Today, they calculate the herd to be from 300 to 500 bison. The Bison Range 19,000 acre land trust has been recently transferred from the Department of Interior to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
How many bison live in Yellowstone National Park? The bison population fluctuates from 2,300 to 5,500 animals in two sub-populations, defined by where they gather for breeding. The northern herd breeds in the Lamar Valley and on the high plateaus around it.
But the bison herds aren’t just left there to fend for themselves. Federal and state government agencies and organizations manage and monitor the bison and herds to ensure they continue to flourish and remain healthy.
A livestock disease, also known as brucellosis, can be transmitted to bison and elk as well as to cattle through contact with infected fetal tissue. The National Park Service works extensively with other federal and state government agencies as well as tribal agencies to manage and develop policies for bison access to live and roam freely in Montana.
Native to Capitol Reef National Park, a bison herd along with elk and other native animal grazers roam the Henry Mountains that’s maintained by the state. This particular bison herd in the Henry Mountains are managed by the Utah Division ofWildlife Resources since the 1940 when they were brought there.
But also, when we were visiting Salt Lake City, Utah in 2016, we took a day trip to Antelope Island State Park, to see the herd of 600 bison that thrives on the Great Salt Lake! Antelope Island State Park is the perfect destination for anyone who enjoy outdoor activities like camping, hiking, bird-watching, and of course, observing Utah’s largest free-roaming bison herd. Thus, making this one of the best places to see bison graze the grasslands while licking the world’s largest salt lick!
READ MORE ABOUT IT: Bison on Antelope Island State Park on the Great Salt?
In southwest Oklahoma, the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge hosts several herds of bison where they thrive in the vast plains and harsh weather. The Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge’s bison herd includes approximately 650 of these herbivores.
In northern Nebraska is Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge; home to a herd of 360 bison, a herd of elk, and a prairie dog town. Because of the Refuge’s biodiverse fertile grasslands along the Niobrara National Scenic River and wide open space that allows the freedom they seek.
The South Bison Range sits alongside the Woodlands Trace National Scenic Byway across from the Homeplace 1850s Working Farm; south of the Tennessee state line. Elk and bison roam free within this 700-acre protective enclosure. Visitors are to travel only in a fully enclosed vehicle on the 3.5 mile paved loop road. You’ll be able to watch bison roaming in two adjacent 100-acre pastures from the road.
If you and your family are visiting during summer, the best time to see bison is just after sunrise and right before sunset. However, take caution when in the presence of bison during breeding season from July to September. Bulls (boy bison) can be especially aggressive during the rut. But also, bison are extremely protective of their calves.
Be aware that to be able to view the bison, you must be in an enclosed vehicle. Also, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians are NOT PERMITTED inside the park due to safety reasons.
Beginning in the early 20th century, conservation herds were established to prevent extinction by re-building the bison populations. Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) manages one of these conservation herds today, usually numbering 50-70 animals.
The bison herd lives and roams in the 800-acre fenced bison and elk management area. Sometimes, you can see the bison (and elk) from your vehicle on the auto tour route, the Tallgrass and Overlook Trails and the Visitor Center.
Catalina Island plays host to a bison herd 22 miles off the southern California coast. Fourteen American bison were brought onto the island for a movie set in 1924 Zane Grey film, The Vanishing American.
Today, the original herd’s descendants roam the 75 square mile island. Over the decades, the bison herd grew to as many as 600. But now, the Catalina Island Conservancy maintains Catalina’s 150 bison to protect both the herd and the island’s landscape. And, as I just read from the Conservancy (2021), they are expecting 2 more bison to join the herd.
These magnificent animals are popular with the tourists and buildings have painted images of bison and bison weather vanes. The bison seems to prefer grazing near Little Harbor Campground in Catalina. Or, you’d like to take your family on a cool adventure, go on a Bison Expedition.
We learned recently that there are two buffalo herds in Texas. One herd was donated to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and brought to Caprock Canyons State Park in the Texas Panhandle in 1997. What’s astounding is these particular buffalo’s DNA and genetics are not found anywhere else on the continent. Even more, this herd are the last of the Southern Plains bison variety. Hence, making them the Official Texas State Bison Herd. Another bison herd lives at San Angelo State Park. However, I’m unsure how many bison are at each.
Bison Viewing Safety Tips
If you’re going to be in the bison habitat, there are some important precautions you must adhere to for both, yours and the bison’s safety. Even though bison may not show signs of stress, the presence of people can influence their normal behaviors and physiology.
Bison are wild animals. While they look slow and docile, agitated bison or buffalo can be dangerous and may charge without provocation or warning. So, it’s important to keep safe distance between you and any wildlife, including bison.
If you are going to view bison during July and August mating season or when bison mothers are calving in April and May, this is the time bison are more aggressive and protective. If you get too close, they WILL defend themselves and it won’t end well for either of you.
So, really, ANY time of year, you should give bison their much needed space of at least 25 yards between you and them. If you notice a bison becoming agitated, scratching or pounding the ground, grunting, it’s time to leave completely.
And lastly, NEVER attempt to approach a bison (or any wildlife) to get that perfect Instagram shot. It never ends well just like the woman who was gored by a bison. And, don’t be stupid like those motorists who put a baby bison in their car causing it to be euthanized later. The National Park Service did a case study on bison selfies in Yellowstone that is a must read.
Final thoughts on finding the best places to see bison in the wild
Though we failed early on as a country in protecting one of the most important natural resources, we’ve shown that we can slowly bring them back from near extinction. Equally, it’s important that we educate and instruct future generations to never allow that to happen again.
So, we encourage you and your family to take a road trip to one, two are several of these amazing places to see the bison. After all, they are America’s National Mammal and we owe it to them to learn about them and protect their legacy.
Great books about the history of the American Bison:
|The Extermination of the American Bison:|
If you’re interested in great “up close and personal bison experience”, check out what we did at Cook’s Bison Ranch near Elkhart, Indiana! You can hand-feed bison while also learning about responsible bison ranching.
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