Wind Cave National Park is celebrating the anniversary of 14 American bison donated to the federal government in 1913 that would endure and grow to become the healthy herd of 400 that now roams the Southern Black Hills.
Today we visit descendants of those original bison with park personnel to discuss the herd’s history and the surprising story of their origin.
Okay, this is one of those “Don’t DO this yourselves” scenarios. I’m sitting in my car in a remote area of Wind Cave National Park. Tom Farrell, Chief of Interpretation for the park, is in the passenger seat. Two national park service rangers are in their vehicles on a nearby hill. They’re with us as a precautionary measure. About 25 feet away, scratching her head on a standard brown road sign, is a bison cow.
“Bison are one of those animals that…if there’s not a windshield between you and them, they look really large,” says Tom Farrell.
Which they are, notes Farrell, as he explains the reaction of most visitors when they see the animals up-close-and-personal for the first time.
“I think they’re surprised at just how big they are,” Farrell observes. “From a distance they don’t look that large, but if you get up close to them in a car…and you put your windows down, it’s surprising how big they can be. And there’s a real danger. We will cite you if you get within a hundred yards of a bison, because the danger of a bison is they’re very fast runners, they’re ill-tempered and they’re very unpredictable. So, you can be walking down the road and if you’re not careful, you can get injured by them.”
As if on cue, our discussion is interrupted by the sounds of a hiker approaching the area where I’m parked – with more than a hundred bison scattered on the hills around us.
After a brief exchange, one of the rangers watching us invites the hiker into his vehicle and escorts him from the area – for his own safety, while Tom and I return to the topic at hand: the Wind Cave bison herd.
“When Wind Cave National Park was created in 1903, there weren’t any bison here,” Farrell says. “They didn’t return until 1913 when the American Bison Society and the New York Zoological Society worked together with the Department of Agriculture to bring them back in. And they actually created the Wind Cave National Game Preserve…and that’s where they were put.”
For those who may not recognize the New York Zoological Society, the group is more commonly known for creating the first facility to hold animals in an environment that closely resembled their natural habitat. That facility became known as the Bronx Zoo.
”What you find in the conservation history of North America is that there was this group of what you might call champions for conservation that were forming all different kinds of entities to support that,” says Keith Aune.
The senior conservationist and bison coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society adds that among those early conservation champions were Theodore Roosevelt and William T. Hornaday, who formed the American Bison Society in 1895. Their goal was to gather and preserve the dwindling numbers of the iconic mammal that once roamed the continent by the millions. The first place they put the bison was the Bronx Zoo.
“I wished I could give you a simple answer that they all came from this place, but they didn’t,” says Aune. “They assembled bison in this zoo from several places. And that is because the situation with bison if you know at the turn of the century…it got down to…principally there were two wild herds left…one at Wood Bison National Park in Canada, and one small herd in Yellowstone.”
There were only 23 bison in the Yellowstone herd in 1902 – down from the estimated 3 million that roamed the plains in 1865. But several people across the country with the same vision as Roosevelt and Hornaday had also begun gathering their own small herds in hope of preserving the species. One was South Dakota’s James “Scotty” Philip. Still, Keith Aune says there’s really no way to track where the Bronx Zoo bison came from.
“Five individuals, basically, begin to capture animals from the wild and formed herds,” Aune explains. “And that five individuals, kind of, they traded, they sold…”
And they muddied the waters that would determine which bison came from where, says Aune, since there was no oversight on keeping records. What is clear, however, is that the Bronx Zoo could only hold so many bison. So as their numbers grew, the zoo donated small herds to locations around the country where bison had once been and where the American Bison Society hoped they could live again.
Wind Cave National Park was the third location to receive bison from New York City, making it the second location in the National Park system to support a herd.
The animals arrived in Hot Springs by train on November 28, 1913. They were in excellent condition despite a 63-hour trip covering two thousand miles.
Tom Farrell wouldn’t commit to an answer, but he didn’t dispel the possibility that part of the herd’s success at Wind Cave might be due to their New York attitude.
Wind Cave National Park is hosting a variety of events today and tomorrow to celebrate the return of the bison. For more information go to “Friends of Wind Cave National Park” on Facebook.