On National Bison day today, we are reminded of the magnificent role that bison play in the prairie ecosystem. Oral history, diaries and journals, and paintings by early explorer/artists like George Catlin tell us that large herds of bison were awe-inspiring (and intimidating) sights. Imagine standing on the high cliffs above the Missouri River and looking across the rolling plains. Not only do you see a blanket of bison across the land, but the sound of bison bellows carries through the air like a howling wind.
That was the experience of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. On July 11, 1806, Lewis stood at the Missouri along its long meander through Montana. He reported:
The morning was fair and the plains looked beautifull….The air was pleasant and a vast assemblage of little birds which croud to the groves on the river sung most enchantingly….Proceeded with the party across the plain to the white bear Islands…through a level beautifull and extensive high plain covered with immence hirds of buffaloe. It is now the season at which the buffaloe begin to coppelate and the bulls keep a tremendious roaring we could hear them for many miles and there are such numbers of them that there is one continual roar. our horses had not been acquainted with the buffaloe they appeared much allarmed at their appearance and bellowing.…The missouri bottoms on both sides of the river were crouded with buffaloe I sincerely belief that there were not less than 10 thousand buffaloe within a circle of 2 miles arround that place.
More than two hundred years later, visitors to this same region can experience bison on the plains. American Prairie Reserve reintroduced bison in 2005 with just 16 animals from Wind Cave National Park, and the herd is now thriving with almost 300 animals thanks to partners like Canada’s Elk Island National Park and World Wildlife Fund. And we’re not alone. Bison from Yellowstone National Park now roam the neighboring Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Reservations, which tribal members have described as a long-awaited homecoming.
In celebration of the historical, economic, ecological and cultural contributions of North America’s largest land mammal, we put together some of our favorite bison photos from American Prairie Reserve in the gallery below. Visit our website to learn more about our goal to build the largest conservation herd of bison in North America — and plan a trip to see it for yourself!