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TRAVEL: Follow the buffalo herds

It was sunrise on a bitterly cold September morning, but gray clouds obscured the sun. Snow blanketed the ground and the road was a sheet of ice. I struggled to keep the rental car on the park road. Suddenly, the road was blocked. I was surrounde...

Buffalo can be found in many areas of Yellowstone National Park and there are an estimated 500,000 in North America. South Dakota and the parks near Rapid City are where visitors can find lots of wild buffalo. (McClatchy Tribune)

It was sunrise on a bitterly cold September morning, but gray clouds obscured the sun.

Snow blanketed the ground and the road was a sheet of ice. I struggled to keep the rental car on the park road.

Suddenly, the road was blocked. I was surrounded by buffaloes. They were huge -- brown, shaggy, lumpy masses. Their backs were covered with snow and whitish vapors hung in the air as the animals exhaled.

I stopped the car and waited, as 80 to 100 of the impressive beasts lumbered past, moving down the icy road. They were in front of me. They were behind me. They were on the left and the right. Some passed within 12 inches of the car. They were everywhere.

I kept praying that none would slip-slid-skate and fall atop the rental car. It might be difficult to convince the rental company that its car had been totaled by an out-of-control 2,000-pound beast.


But they were nimble, quick and surprisingly sure-footed on the icy road. Then they were gone.

The buffalo has made a marvelous comeback. In 1900, the buffalo that once numbered up to 70 million in North America had been reduced to fewer than 600 animals.

Buffaloes were shot and killed for their meat, hide and tongue. The buffalo hide market peaked in 1882.

Most of the surviving buffaloes were owned by private ranchers, although 50 were guarded by the U.S. Cavalry at Yellowstone. The number of buffaloes in Yellowstone had dwindled to 25 by 1897, the last wild bison in the United States.

In 1902, Congress allocated $15,000 to ship 21 captive buffaloes from Texas and Montana to the park.

The now-closed Buffalo Ranch was started in Lamar Valley in the park's northeast corner to boost buffalo numbers. Hay was doled out, corrals were built, roundups and cullings took place.

Today there are an estimated 500,000 bison in North America and that includes more than 2,200 wild bison in Yellowstone, the federal park that sprawls across 2.2 million acres in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.

For information, contact Yellowstone National Park at P.O. Box 168, Yellowstone, WY 82190, 307-344-7381, or check out http://www.nps.gov/yell .


The Yellowstone buffaloes have also been in the headlines. That's because Montana has shot and killed nearly 2,500 bison in the last 10 years. The state will shoot the bison that leave the national park because of the contention that bison threaten cattle with the disease brucellosis.

The continued shooting is opposed by the Buffalo Field Campaign, (406) 646-0070, http://www.buffalofieldcampaign.org .

But the real center of the animal's recovery is Rapid City in southwest South Dakota. There are buffalo herds at Badlands and Wind Cave national parks, Custer State Park and several nearby reservations and ranches.

Badlands, east of Rapid City, maintains a herd of about 600 bison on its 244,000 acres. To the southeast, 73,000-acre Custer State Park has 1,500 buffaloes that are the park's big attraction.

Wind Cave has about 400. You can often see bison there from the Boland Ridge Trail that overlooks the Red Valley.

You can get information about Badlands at (605) 433-5361, http://www.nps.gov/badl; Custer State Park at (605) 255-4515, http://www.sdgfp.info/parks/regions/custer; and Wind Cave at (605) 745-4600, http://www.nps.gov/wica .

Other buffalo herds you can visit include the National Bison Range in northwest Montana. The 18,500-acre range about 60 miles north of Missoula is home to about 400 bison. There is a 19-mile auto tour plus hiking trails. It was established in 1908.

It is open year-round. Hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekends and holidays and 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays. For information, call (406) 644-2211 or see http://www.fws.gov/bisonrange/nbr .


Other options include the Konza Prairie Research Natural Area in Kansas and the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma.

The Konza Prairie is an 8,600-acre tract in the Flint Hills in eastern Kansas. It is maintained by the Nature Conservancy and Kansas State University and is an outstanding example of a tall-grass prairie.

The preserve, easily accessible off Interstate 70, has about 200 buffaloes. It is open year-round. For information, call (785) 233-4400 or check out http://www.nature.org and search for Konza Prairie.

The Oklahoma preserve has 60,000 acres of mixed-grass prairie and 500 bison. It is 90 minutes from Oklahoma City and is open year-round. For information, call (580) 429-3222 or check out http://www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges/Oklahoma/Wichitamountains/index.html .

Other sites include Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Oklahoma, the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge in Wyoming, Elk Island National Park in Alberta and Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary in the Northwest Territories.

The best buffalo watching times are late April and May after the calves are born, and early fall, when the buffaloes are in rut and you will hear them roar.

Buffalo watchers need to be careful around the animals at all times. They might appear docile but they are large, fast, aggressive and unpredictable. They can run 30 miles an hour and might charge tourists who stick video cameras in their faces.

In general, you should try to remain 100 yards away from a buffalo. If on foot, try to stay downwind. Always have an escape route planned, if the buffalo should move your way. Be sure to leave an escape route for the buffalo, too.

Bring binoculars or spotting scopes for up-close viewing. Look around on occasion to check on animals that might be moving toward you. Never try to feed them or touch them.

Bull-cow pairs and cow-calf pairs are very territorial. Never approach a solitary calf.

Watch a buffalo's tail for clues. It raises its tail before it charges. (It also raises its tail to defecate.)

Remain in your car if you encounter a buffalo near the road. Cars make good viewing blinds and buffaloes are not threatened by vehicles

Related Topics: BUFFALO
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