Buffalo Are Back — May - June 1993

by Greg Breining buffalo grazing

Imagine you see a cloud of dust. The ground begins to shake. You hear a deep rumble. Suddenly, thousands of animals surround you. They're bigger than horses. It's a buffalo stampede!

Long ago, buffalo swept across Minnesota’s prairies in big herds. Then pioneers and hunters came from the East and began shooting them. It's hard to believe, but they killed almost all of the buffalo.

Now here’s the good news - buffalo are back by the thousands.

Giants from Russia

Buffalo, also called bison, came to North America from Asia. They crossed the "Bering Bridge," a strip of land that connected Russia and Alaska during the last ice age, when the ocean was lower than it is now. The buffalo migrated south through the area that is now western Canada and spread throughout the prairies, where they found plenty of grass to eat.

buffalo herd

The buffalo of the ice age were huge - much bigger than the buffalo we see today. Their horns spread as much as 9 feet from tip to tip. Asian hunters crossed the Bering Bridge into North America, just as buffalo did. They killed buffalo with heavy stone-tipped spears. The hunters later spread throughout North and South America. We know their descendants today as American Indians or Native Americans.

About 12,000 years ago, smaller buffalo appeared in North America. These smaller animals evolved from the larger buffalo. They looked very much like the buffalo we see today. These animals, too, were hunted by American Indians.

During the ice age, herds of buffalo streamed across the Bering Bridge from Russia into North America. Early buffalo were much larger than the buffalo we see today.

Buffalo Hunts

buffalo hunt

Many tribes of Plains Indians, such as the Dakota and Cheyenne, hunted buffalo. It was tough to kill buffalo with only spears and arrows. Sometimes hunters scared the buffalo to make them stampede over a cliff. Other hunters drove herds into canyons and then shot them as they jammed together. Some Indians dressed up as wolves to sneak up on grazing buffalo. After spaniards brought horses to North America in the 1500s, Indians hunted buffalo on horseback.

After the hunt, entire bands would prepare the meat and hides before they spoiled. The people ate the meat. They dried some of it and mixed it with fat and berries to make small cakes called pemmican. They used buffalo hides for warm robes and the coverings of their tepees. They made tools from the bones and decorated the skulls as ceremonial objects.

Nearly Gone

Plains Indians were still hunting buffalo 150 years ago, when white pioneers moved west. Pioneers didn’t want the herds trampling their land and fences. They killed every buffalo they could find. Some white hunters killed buffalo for sport. Often they took only the hides and left the meat to rot. Buffalo bones littered the prairie.

buffalo skulls

Americans acted just in time to save the buffalo. They created parks to protect them. They raised them on ranches. Today there are more buffalo than there have been in 100 years. Many Indian tribes are raising buffalo on their land.

Ranchers like buffalo because buffalo are hardier than cattle. They can stand outside in howling blizzards and stay alive by eating only grass. Ranchers sell buffalo for meat. You can buy the meat in some grocery stores. It tastes like beef.

Raising buffalo can be good for the land. Buffalo chew down old grass and their hooves stir up the soil, so new grass and native plants grow the way they did on prairies hundreds of years ago.

Buffalo once ranged from Alaska into Mexico. Most lived in the Great Plains. Plains Indian tribes built their way of life on the buffalo. As white settlers built cities and farms across America, they hunted the buffalo. Buffalo nearly vanished, and the Indians? way of life changed forever. By the late 1800s, the millions of buffalo had dwindled to about 1,000. Today about 140,000 buffalo live in North America.

mother and calf

Buffalo Biology

If buffalo are free to roam, they wander in big herds. They eat mostly grass. They also eat some broad-leaved plants. Bulls stand 6 feet high and weigh up to 2,000 pounds. Full-grown buffalo cows weigh up to 1,000 pounds. Calves are born in the spring and weigh about 50 pounds. A few hours after birth, they can run by themselves, but they still need their mothers for milk and protection.

Buffalo are so big they don't have many enemies. Wolves sometimes kill a calf or sick animal. The buffalo's chief enemies have been human hunters.

Buffalo sometimes charge their enemies. But they usually run when they get scared. They can run 35 miles an hour, nearly as fast as a horse. They can gallop for up to 10 miles. No matter where a herd runs, the calves know their lives depend on keeping up with their mothers.

Looking for Buffalo

You can see buffalo up close in many state and national parks. Check out the herd at Blue Mounds State Park in southwestern Minnesota near Luverne. It’s easy to imagine you’re seeing buffalo on the prairie just as Indians would have seen them long ago.

If you're driving with your family near South Dakota’s Black Hills, look for big herds of buffalo in Badlands and Wind Cave National Parks and Custer State Park. Also check Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota and Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge in Nebraska. Yellowstone National Park has the nation’s biggest unfenced herd of buffalo.

You can also see buffalo at the Minnesota Zoological Garden in Apple Valley and Como Zoo in St. Paul.

Are you ready for the Buffalo Quiz?

Greg Breining, who wrote this story, works for the DNR's Minnesota Conservation Volunteer magazine.

A complete copy of the article can be found in the May - June 1993 issue of Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, available at Minnesota public libraries.