Non-FictionSpring 2018

Where the Buffalo Roam – Jeanine Pfeiffer

American bison and calf in Yellowstone National Park (Arturo de Frias Marques). [1]
On screen, the man approaches the horse’s back end and grasps the thick of the tail. The man’s face is defined by agony, by intent. The camera shifts, and now we see that the man’s shoulder blades are pierced with sticks attached to long leather cords leading to a buffalo skull. The man is dragging the skull, bleeding angel wings tethered to animal soul. The horse walks forward, his tail tautening as the man allows himself to be pulled. The sticks rip from the man’s back, the cords fall slack to the ground. The camera pans back to show people sitting on the skull. They stand up. The ceremony is complete.

Original range of the American bison. [2]
When our great-great-grandparents were toddlers, stamping one wobbly foot in front of the other, three continental time zones reverberated with millions upon millions of pounding hooves from Nevada to New York, Montana to Mexico. No life was untouched by the American bison (Bison bison): our hoofed ancestors were the original American engineers. In dryness, prairie dogs and plovers sheltered in denuded curves created by bison wallows; in wetness, the wallows became water beds for migrating waterfowl and amphibians. In the cold, bison snow trails opened up grazing areas for fellow grass-chewers: elk, deer, hare, mice, squirrels, whose winter populations and plumpness fed mutual predators. Where bison herds munched tallgrass down to nubs, fire was kept at bay and shrubs emerged, favored nesting sites for prairie chicken and sparrows. [3] Bison being bison: grazing, pawing, dust-bathing, created prairie mosaics as fertile as bison piles emerging from bison backsides, homelands for uncountable species. [4]

Until we exterminated 99.999997% of them.


Of the six hundred thousand beasts we call buffalo in North America, only the Yellowstone herd – around 4800 animals – guard ancient bison secrets. [5] These wild-ranging genetic artifacts, the last ones continuously stepping in their ancestor’s hoof prints [6], relive memories stretching back for millennia: how and where to migrate, how to communicate with each other, when and where to search for food, how to survive adverse conditions and care for one another. Bison are socially complex, with females living in maternal herds, dominant bulls maintaining small harems, and quite a bit of male homosexuality. On the prairie, bison wallows serve as social centers, playgrounds, and open-air clinics, allowing bison to groom, play, reduce skin parasites, and thermoregulate by rolling around in the mud. In woodlands, bison seek out aromatic cedar and pine and rub their horns against the trunks, stimulating plant phytotoxins in the resin that act as insect repellents. [7]

Bison are nomads they move from place to place when feeding, mating, and calving. In winter, like any other wild herbivore, they must travel farther for food. Every ski season in Montana, men with guns position themselves around the invisible edges of Yellowstone National Park, where Park lands melt into National Forests. On forest lands held in trust by every United States citizen, lands ostensibly set aside to conserve and protect wildlife, bison are killed the moment they step outside Park boundaries. Despite the National Park Service’s legislative mandate to conserve, unimpaired, the natural and cultural resources and values of the park system [8], in line with annual quotas, bison not killed by hunters are captured by the Park Service and sent off to slaughter. The rationale for the killings is both complex and simple. Complex because of the ways distinct historical eras overlap with contradictory state and federal policies.

Simple, because we allow it.


“To us, the buffalo is the Western Doorkeeper, the Elder Brother, the Great One.” 

– Winona LaDuke, Anishinaabe leader


“The best cup of chai I ever tasted was from a farmer in Nepal,” I relate to a friend over breakfast. “It was made with buffalo milk. I haven’t had anything that good since.”

“Can’t you get buffalo milk from the place on Route 20?” he asks, referring to a buffalo meat business in nearby Lake County, a landmark featuring a handful of wooly beasts in a fenced enclosure alongside the highway.

“Those are beefalo.”


“An artificial mix of wild buffalo with domesticated cattle. Buffalo won’t mate with cattle, so breeders have to use artificial insemination. Most of the ‘buffalo’ in the US are actually beefalo. Physically, you can’t tell the difference.”

I sigh, take another bite of bread, and recount history. Bison bison were once the most numerous large wild mammal on earth. Although we will never know the exact numbers, before the 19th century, 30-60 million bison fed, clothed, housed, and served as the spiritual touchstone for uncountable tribes: A’aninin (Gros Ventre), Anishinaabe (Ojibwe), Arapaho, Blackfoot, Cherokee, Cheyenne, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cree, Crow, Dakota, Haidatsa, Ho Chunk, Kiowa, Mandan, Mohawk, Nakoda (Assiniboine [9]), Nez Perce, Oglala Lakota, Osage, Pawnee, Shoshone Bannock, Ute, Winnebago.

When First Peoples lived their lives, unimpaired, within bison territory, the smell, sound, taste, and feel of bison were as ubiquitous as water and grass. Bison shaped memory and speech, song and ceremony and prayer. There are thousands of bison-centric words and sayings and encyclopedic understandings in the tongues of hundreds of native dialects. There is no American creature with greater overall cultural significance.

If you were a tribal member answering the question, “if you could choose only one animal to take with you to a desert island, what would it be,” the unequivocal answer would be “bison.” Before the modern supermarket era, every scrap and smidgen of every bison killed by a tribal hunter and hauled back to the homestead was eaten, drunk, smoked, dried, pounded, carved, scraped, stitched, woven, or worn; their bodies were turned into pemmican, stew, milk, butter, jelly, soap, glue, pigment, paint, thread, rope, yarn, hair-brushes, fly-swatters, caps, capes, moccasins, mittens, snowshoes, robes, headgear, cups, spoons, ladles, hoes, tobacco and medicine holders, kettles, carry-bags, water bags, ornaments, rattles, drums, arrows, arrow-points, arrow-straighteners, bow-strings, whips, shields, saddle-covers, blankets, rugs, teepees, canoes, and sleds. [10] Bison were thanked and sung and prayed to, etched and painted onto rock face.

Good hunters were only-kill-what-you-can-100%-use hunters. There were also hunts where bison were driven over cliffs, onto icy surfaces, or into snow fields or fire circles. Not all bison were brought home: many were left to rot. Yet the original bipedal populations were tiny relative to the quadrupeds, so balance was maintained. Oceans of tallgrass prairie rippled with bison, where pounding hooves mimicked the thunder of waves crashing on landlocked shores. Woodlands echoed with their snorting and bellowing: deep, throaty, musky-gurgle roars with a nasal undertone, not unlike the sound effects for monsters featured in Jurassic Park movies.

Eleven seconds of a male Yellowstone bison bellowing. Source: NPS/Shan Burson, 2005. [11]

Shaggy, humped, horned: there were always bison. Until there were not.

Bison were exterminated to deprive Plains Indians of sustenance. Successive waves of settlers to the Midwest from 1868 to 1881 deliberately and systematically decimated buffalo herds until only five hundred remained in 1885. [12] Killing contests were held, with tourists shooting as many bison as they could from train windows. Traders and trappers took only hides, or only tongues, leaving the rest to rot, turning thousands of miles into a cemetery of carcasses. Skulls were thrown into massive piles, piles as tall and wide as a barn. Ground into fertilizer, buffalo bones sold for eight dollars a ton. For one expert, the bison massacre remains the “most brutal slaughter of wildlife in the history of the human species6,” unless one considers the extermination of billions of passenger pigeons (Ectopistes migratorius) during the same era.

A pile of American bison skulls waiting to be ground for fertilizer (1892). [13]

The killers had no remorse. Buffalo Bill (William Cody), a man who boasted of killing almost five thousand buffalo in eighteen months, was a national hero. His contemporary, another national hero, Mark Twain, condemned Native Americans as “ignoble, base, and treacherous, and hateful in every way. Not even imminent death can startle [them] into a spasm of virtue.” [14] Congressional representatives believed their demise necessary and unstoppable.

“There is no law which human hands can write, there is no law which a Congress of men can enact, that will stay the disappearance of these wild animals before civilization. They eat the grass. They trample upon the plains upon which our settlers desire to herd their cattle and their sheep. They range over the very pastures where the settlers keep their herds of cattle. They destroy the pasture. They are as uncivilized as the Indian.”

–  U.S. Representative Conger, 1874

Yellowstone National Park was founded in 1872, in part to protect the last remaining few dozen wild bison [15], at a time when an average of five thousand bison were being killed every day. [16] Native American tribes see the founding of Yellowstone as a concentration camp for bison, the animals herded into a limited area with insufficient food.

Just as Indians were forced onto reservations.


Our Yellowstone herd is the very last free-roaming herd of bison on this continent, yet they are routinely slaughtered. During harsh winters the bison range out of the national park and onto surrounding national forest lands. If they end up on the Idaho or Wyoming sides, they won’t get hazed. But if they end up on national forest on the Montana side, they’re killed.

During the Depression era, the United States government leased national forest lands, including the forests surrounding Yellowstone National Park, as feeding allotments to ranchers for super-cheap ($1.80 per head of cattle), to help ranchers survive economically. Almost a century later, those laws are still on the books. U.S. taxpayers are subsidizing private ranchers on national lands. It’s a sweet deal if you’ve got cattle, because you can pay $2 per month for a cow-calf pair to run your animals on public lands, instead of laying out $20 per month to take care of them on your own property.

Then there’s the brucellosis issue. In the 1950s, brucellosis – an exotic zoonotic disease brought in by cattle ranchers that causes spontaneous abortions in cows – spread through cattle, elk, deer, moose, wolf, bear, and bison populations. Although we have no documented scientific proof that bison transmit brucellosis to cattle, and no cattle are around in the winter when the bison are looking for food in the forest lands (whereas elk and deer are allowed to graze in the same areas as cattle), foraging bison are specifically targeted by Montana government agencies, rounded up, and killed. No other vector species are subjected to extermination campaigns.

The worst killings took place in 1996/97, an El Niño year that spawned a severe winter and the migration of thousands of bison beyond Yellowstone boundaries. One third of the wild herd was slaughtered. This led to a public outcry, ceremonial prayers by the Lakota, and the formation of an advocacy organization by Rosalie Little Thunder (a Lakota elder) and activist Mike Mease, the sole witness to, and videographer for, the scenes of buffalo killing pictured in the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) nature film The Buffalo War.

Goodshield Aguilar, a Lakota musician and activist, tells the story of the tribal response. “After the killing in 1997, my aunt Rosalie Little Thunder organized a 500-mile march the following winter through Nebraska, Montana, and Wyoming, when it’s really cold – because she wanted to walk while the buffalo were walking [17],” Goodshield recounted.

The year of the march, members of Goodshield’s tribe performed a sacred ritual, the Sun Dance for the buffalo – with one tribal member, Gary, coming forward to dance. Gary enacted the traditional piercing by dancing four times around the circle of witnesses, dragging a buffalo skull connected to sticks inserted into incisions in his back because “the only true offering we can ever give to the Buffalo and to Mother Earth is our own flesh.”

As Rosalie tells it, in a quiet voice portrayed in the last ten minutes of The Buffalo War, “He wouldn’t be able, on his own strength, to tear away from the skulls. So he had some people sit on the skulls, to hold the skulls back, and then Gary’s horse was brought in front of him, and he grabbed the horse’s tail, and the horse pulled him forward, and the sticks tore through his skin, and he was done. He made the sacrifice. And I’m sure that people who are not familiar with the Sun Dance might see it as barbaric, as self-mutilation. But it’s really for us, an offering. We cannot be at a humbler place than [when we are] in pain. It was very hard, but in a way, it made its mark on all of us. Buffalo are important to us. We’re not just saying this. This is how deeply we care. As deep as Gary’s wounds.”

“The march was so powerful, and got so much attention, that for two years they didn’t kill buffalo,” Goodshield told my high school students during an invited talk. “Instead, what they started to do was chase the buffalo back into the park with helicopters. That’s their way of being nice. Can you imagine a baby buffalo, newly born into this world, all of a sudden being chased by a helicopter? The first one, it was only two hours old and could barely walk when it was separated from its mother and chased. Finally, hours after hazing this little animal, it dropped dead. The mother buffalo of that first calf stood watch over her baby, even after its death, refusing to leave until government agents drove her and the rest of her family group away.” [18]

“This is why I do what I do,” Goodshield explained. “I want my grandkids to be able to see buffalo, to eat buffalo, to be with buffalo. Same as with the salmon. I’ve joined their struggle as well. Because up North, the tribes up there believe if there are no salmon, there are no Yurok, no Karuk. We feel the same way. The Lakota and the buffalo have a very symbiotic relationship. At the turn of the century, when 99% of the buffalo died, 99% of the Lakota died as well. We belong together, on this path, right now.”


“Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself. What will happen when the buffalo are all slaughtered? Will there be any of the spirit of my people left?”

– Portions of a thrice-translated speech attributed to Si’ahi (Chief Seattle) of the Dkhw’Duw’Absh (Duwamish, or Suquamish), 1854


“I hadn’t heard about this,” says every friend I relate the facts to. “There haven’t been any alerts in my email about this issue.”

This is why: like most environmental carnage, the killings occur in a remote area, far from urban centers. Members of the Buffalo Field Campaign, led by my friend Mike Mease, go on patrol every winter, documenting what is going on and trying to shoo buffalo back into the Park, but they’re a small group of people trying to cover hundreds of miles of unfenced territory. Every major environmental organization in the U.S. has attempted to pressure governmental officials to do the right thing and failed. The Smithsonian Institute and PBS have created special exhibits and websites devoted to bison. My high school class wrote over a hundred letters asking for the state-sanctioned killings to stop, copied to eight different government agencies. No one – not a single person – responded to their letters.

To conserve an animal’s genetic integrity, the mix of lineages in their bloodlines – the variety of specialized character traits – has to remain intact. If we end up with too few members of a species, or if subpopulations with important traits get killed off, we lose the diversity in their DNA needed for the next generations. Most of us are familiar with genetic bottlenecks, or weird outcomes, that show up when there’s too much inbreeding. This is the risk we’re running.

Each year that government agents kill off a quarter or a third of the Yellowstone herd, we’re crippling the bison, making it much harder for these rare and majestic remnants of our ecological and cultural heritage to persist as a species. Physiological and behavioral traits take hundreds or thousands of years to become fixed in a species genome, the result of countless generations adapting to environmental factors. When large portions of a bison herd are indiscriminately killed, it’s the genetic equivalent of obliterating chapters of their evolutionary survival manual. In our current era of climate change, the bison will be facing longer droughts, extra-cold winters, and other extreme weather events. They need all the help they can get.

Yet in the space of my lifetime, we have slaughtered ten thousand irreplaceable representatives of the national mammal of the United States of America. [19]


“One day when I used to live in a teepee, a huge male buffalo came walking into my backyard and lay down beneath a tree,” recounted Mike Mease at the Twentieth Anniversary Buffalo Campaign Road Show held in San Jose last October. “Looking around in the other direction I noticed vehicles from the Montana Department of Livestock, the Montana Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the sheriff’s office parked up on the hill in front of my teepee. Because the buffalo was lying down behind my teepee, no one could see him. A few minutes later, the local Fish & Wildlife rep drove up to my front yard.”

“‘Mike, have you seen a rogue buffalo coming this way?’ he asks.”

“‘What’s going on?’”

“As it turns out, the woman up on a nearby hill owned a chihuahua with a serious Napoleon complex. You know those chihuahuas who run after everything? Well, the chihuahua tried to attack this two-thousand-pound buffalo. Let’s put it this way: that chihuahua learned to fly. It didn’t die, but it was humbled.”

“‘So, Mike, did you see that buffalo?’”

“‘Yes, Jim, I saw that buffalo. It came walking through our yard, and I think he went down that-a-way, through that valley over there.’”

“After I told him this, all the official vehicles took off that-a-way, driving up and down the valley. This went on for three hours.”

“Finally, they gave up and drove off. It wasn’t five minutes later that the big bull got up and left my backyard – along with a present for me to remember him by – and sauntered on down the road.”


Oh, give me a home.

Where the buffalo roam.

Where the deer. And the antelope.

Play. [20]



1. American bison. Wikipedia commons, 2013. URL accessed on November 14, 2017.

2. Ibid.

3. “Native species that… are particularly grassland-dependent are the greater prairie chicken, upland sandpiper, northern harrier, horned lark, field lark, grasshopper and Henslow’s sparrows, dickcissel, bobolink and the eastern and western meadowlarks.“ Paul A. Johnsgard, “Birds of the Tallgrass Prairies,” in the July 2012 edition of Prairie Fire Newspaper. URL accessed on October 7, 2017.

4. AK Knapp and 6 others. 1999. The Keystone Role of Bison in North American Tallgrass Prairie. BioScience 49(1):39-50.

5. Population estimated at 4816 in August 2017 by the National Park Service.

6. Of the six hundred thousand buffalo extant in North America, about fifteen thousand live in areas without fences; about sixty-five herds (of a few dozen to a few hundred individuals) are considered “genetically pure,” but live in areas they were transported to from somewhere else (Desmond Morries. 2015. Bison. Reaktion Books, London).

7. Tom Edwards. 1976. “Buffalo and Prairie Ecology.” Midwest Prairie Conference. Proceedings of a symposium on Prairie and Prairie Restoration, Galesburg, Illinois. Reproduced in Wikipedia Commons.

8. Summary of the National Park Service mission statement on their official website. The National Park Service Organic Act (16 U.S.C. l 2 3, and 4), consists of the Act of Aug. 25 1916 (39 Stat. 535) and amendments. Full text of the act is available at

9. Assiniboine is a Chippewa word meaning “one who cooks with stones.” Nakoda means “The Generous Ones.”

10. Desmond Morries. 2015. Bison. Reaktion Books, London.

11. Short clips of male bison rutting and bellowing can be found on this National Park Service website:

12. InterTribal Buffalo Council ( A summary of the issue is contained on Harvard University’s The Pluralism Project research report on Bison in Yellowstone National Park, Montana, 2005 ( Also see Congressional Bill H.R. 3446, a bill to provide for the protection of the last remaining herd of wild and genetically pure American buffalo. An 1870s photo of bison skulls, and maps depicting the changes in historical bison ranges, is available on Wikipedia at

13. Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library. American bison. Wikipedia commons. URL accessed on November 14, 2017.

14. From “The Noble Red Man,” Mark Twain, 1870, republished in Mark Twain: Collected Nonfiction, Volume 1, Selections from the Autobiography, Letters, Essays and Speeches, Everyman’s Library, A.A. Knopf, New York, 2016, pp. 503-507.

15. Yellowstone National Park should not be considered as the bison’s optimal habitat. Yellowstone is simply the last refuge of the genetically pure and wild-ranging bison.

16. Desmond Morries. 2015. Bison. Reaktion Books, London

17. “On March 7, 1997, during a winter when 1,084 buffalo were killed, American Indian tribal leaders from around the country gathered near Gardiner, Montana, to hold a day of prayer for the buffalo. The ceremony was disrupted by the echo of gunshots. Lakota elder Rosalie Little Thunder left the prayer circle to investigate the shots. Less than two miles away, Department of Livestock agents had killed fourteen buffalo. Walking across a field to pray over the bodies, she was arrested and charged with criminal trespass. To Little Thunder and other tribal members present there was no question of coincidence: “They shot the buffalo because we were at that place on that day at that time,” she said.”

18. The full movie can be viewed here:

19. The Buffalo Field Campaign maintains a table “Yellowstone Buffalo Slaughter Totals” from 1985/86 to the present.

20. “Home on the Range,” lyrics taken from the poem “My Western Home” written in 1872 by Dr. Brewster M. Higley; arranged as sheet music by Daniel E. Kelley in 1925. In 1947 it became the state song of Kansas. Wikipedia, accessed on November 14, 2017.



Author Bio: An ethnoecologist focusing on biocultural diversity, Dr. Pfeiffer has published meta-analyses in scientific journals and coauthored/edited micro-documentaries and books on conservation. Her award-winning essays have been twice nominated for Pushcart Prizes and appear in Bellevue Literary Review, HippocampusThe Guardian, High Country News, Sky Island Journal, LangscapeNowhere, and elsewhere; her poetry routinely appears on public radio.  More at

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