The Early Days: Ranchers’ Role in Bison Restoration

By Dave Carter

The bison ranchers and farmers who are reconnecting the public with the great taste and nutritional benefits of bison are heirs to a colorful legacy of bison restoration at the hands of private landowners.

Much has been written through the years about the role that conservationists played in pulling bison back from the brink of extinction. Less known is the role that a handful of individual ranchers played as the 1800’s came to a close. And, even lesser known is the interplay of private and public herds through the first half of the 20th century.

If you are looking for advice on building fence or improving the genetic selection of your herd, feel free to skip this chapter. This chapter is about roots; and perhaps learning a little about your herd’s family tree. It’s also the story about how some of the characters involved in pushing bison to the brink of extinction played a leading role in pulling them back, and how the noble actions of the men were prompted by the insistence of their wives.

In the East, conservationists like William Hornaday, George Bird Grinnell and Teddy Roosevelt grew alarmed at the impending demise of bison in the 1880s.

Hornaday was a taxidermist by trade and a naturalist by passion. A native of Indiana, he first plyed his trade in taxidermy in Rochester, New York.  In 1882, he was appointed the Chief Taxidermist for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Like many museums, a central part of the Smithsonian’s philosophy was to preserve endangered wildlife. At the time, the concept “preserve” often involved a trace of formaldehyde.

In the late 1800’s, bison were not alone in facing extinction. Species throughout the world were being hunted to extinction. The Smithsonian and other museums accepted extinction as a virtual inevitability, and dispatched hunters and taxidermists to kill, stuff and place these endangered animals into exhibitions so that future generations could enjoy a glimpse of history.

In September 1886, Hornaday travelled to Montana in an attempt to hunt enough bison to put into a collection at the Smithsonian. It took him more than two months to kill 22 bison. Three years later, he compiled the first census of bison, estimating that 830 were left in North America.

Hornaday later began to realize that perhaps animals headed toward extinction should be saved before it was too late. He was a leading voice in the creation of zoological societies in the United States. He led the effort to establish the Washington, D.C. Zoo, and, in 1896 became the first director of the Bronx Zoo. There, he created a bison exhibit with a breeding pair of bison and two calves shipped from the Black Hills of South Dakota.

In 1905, Ernest Harold Baynes, manager of a private bison herd in New Hampshire, convinced Hornaday that a more concerted effort was needed to protect bison. That led to the creation of the American Bison Society, with President Teddy Roosevelt agreeing to serve as honorary president.  The ABS sparked the establishment of some of the initial public herds in the West, including the Wichita Mountain Preserve in Oklahoma, the National Bison Range in Montana, Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota, and the Niobrara Wildlife Preserve in Nebraska. The first bison to stock those preserves came when 15 bison from the Bronx Zoo were loaded onto rail cars in 1907 and shipped to the Wichita Mountain Preserve.

In the West, meanwhile, bison restoration had already been underway for about 30 years, albeit in a dispersed, disorganized manner. Those efforts established the five foundation herds from which virtually all of today’s bison descended.

Like Hornaday, the founders of the five herds had helped hunt bison to near extinction. And like Hornaday as well, they turned into conservationists by default. Some had made that conversion before Hornaday‘s first hunting expedition to Montana for the Smithsonian.

One of the first was a Pend d’Oreille Indian from the Jocko Reservation in Montana.  In English, his name meant Walking Coyote, so he went by the name Samuel Walking Coyote.  Walking Coyote had gone hunting in 1877 with his wife, Mary Sabine, in the plains of northwest Montana. He met and fell in love with a young woman from the Blackfeet nation along the way, and made arrangements with the young woman’s family to be married. Polygamy was not uncommon in the Pend d’Oreille culture, but the arrangement didn’t set well with Mary. Walking Coyote knew the marriage would be even less welcome by the Jesuit priests who had established a Catholic mission on the Jocko Reservation.

A friend, Charles Aubrey, convinced Walking Coyote that the priests’ anger could be assuaged if he brought them a peace offering of bison calves. Walking Coyote managed to capture four calves, which he brought back to the reservation. The peace offering didn’t save Walking Coyote from a flogging, but he kept the calves and grazed them for years near his home south of the St. Ignatius Mission.

Somewhere around 1884, Walking Coyote sold his herd—which had grown to a dozen bison—to Michael Pablo and his partner, Charles Allard. Those bison spawned of one of the great original founding herds. 

Pablo, the son of a Mexican cattle rancher and Piegan Blackfeet woman, was born near Fort Benton, Montana around 1844, and in 1864 married Agate (Agathe) Finley, a Pend d’Oreille woman at St. Ignatius Mission. Pablo’s neighbor, Charles Allard, was born in Salem, Oregon in 1853, also of mixed blood. He had drifted to the Flathead Reservation and had married a member of the Jocko Reservation.

Because of their Indian blood, they had grazing rights on the Flathead Reservation. The Pablo Allard herd thrived and increased steadily through the years. Pablo and Allard also added some animals from the herd of Charles Buffalo Jones of Kansas.

As the 19th Century neared an end, the Pablo Allard herd exceeded 300 animals, and the challenge shifted from preservation to disposal. Allard died in 1896, at about the same time that the U.S. government decided to open up native reserve land in the area for white settlement.

In 1901, Allard’s family began to sell off their portion of the herd. Forty six of the animals went to Charles and Alicia Conrad of Kalispell, Montana. Eight years later, 34 bison from the Conrad herd would provide the beginning stock for the newly-formed National Bison Range in Montana.

Pablo decided that the time had come to dispose of his herd as well. In 1905, he sent a formal request to the U.S. government to purchase his remaining herd of 300 bison for $250 apiece. The government sent a representative to inspect the herd, and offered a ridiculous price of $25 apiece.  After serious negotiations, the agent only increased the offer to $75 apiece.

Insulted by the low offer, and pressured by the U.S. government’s move to open his grazing lands to homesteaders, Pablo began discussions with the Canadian government. A year later, the Canadian government agreed to purchase Pablo’s entire herd for $200 apiece, plus $45 per head for shipping. Pablo originally proposed herding the animals to Canada, but rail shipment was deemed a better alternative. The extensive preparations needed to gather, sort, load and ship the animals took years. In 1907 the first of several rail shipments left southwest Montana for the 1,200 mile journey to Wood Buffalo National Park and other preserves in Alberta. Eventually, 709 animals would be shipped north, comprising the seed stock for most of Canada’s buffalo herds throughout the 20th century.

Canada had home-grown saviors of the bison as well.

James McKay, a 340 lb. bear of a man, was fluent in French, English, Cree and several Indian languages. Like Pablo and Allard, he was of mixed blood, the son of a Scottish Highlands father and a Métis mother. McKay had connected with Charles and William Alloway in developing a successful freighting business before the railroads reached Winnipeg in the 1870’s. Charles Alloway often accompanied McKay on hunting expeditions, including the annual Red River Buffalo hunts involving thousands of Métis. Each year, though, the hunting parties had to venture further west to find the diminishing herds of bison.

By 1872, McKay became seriously concerned about the future of the bison. Charles Alloway later said, “We talked it over, and through that winter concluded that the buffalo could not last much longer.” The following spring, with the help of French Métis hunters, McKay captured two heifer calves and one bull calf from the Battleford area on the Bull River in Saskatchewan. The following year, while on another hunting expedition with the Métis, McKay captured two more heifer calves and a bull calf, but the bull calf died. McKay died five years later, his little herd having grown to include 13 pure-bred bison.

Samuel Bedson, the warden of the penitentiary at Stoney Mountain in Manitoba, had purchased four young bulls and a heifer from McKay in 1877. Upon McKay’s death, he purchased another eight bison. But Bedson left the bison business in 1888, selling 58 pure-bred bison and 28 cross-bred catalo to Charles “Buffalo” Jones in Kansas. A few of McKay’s animals stayed in Canada, ending up in Rocky Mountain Park at Banff.

Buffalo Jones was one of two ranchers playing a central role in preserving bison on the Southern Plains. Often described as “colorful” and sometimes even as “con artist,” he came to Kansas in 1866, first settling in the northeastern corner of the state, and marrying Martha Walton, a descendent of the naturalist Izaak Walton, in 1869. The couple soon moved to Osborn County in north Central Kansas, and Jones began to earn his living hunting bison and capturing wild horses.  In addition to hunting buffalo, he tamed buffalo calves and sold them at county fairs, thus earning him his nickname.

Jones claimed that he first conceived his idea to rescue buffalo in 1872, but he still continued to hunt the animals.  He wrote in later years, “Often while hunting these animals as a business, I fully realized the cruelty of slaying these poor creatures. Many times did I ‘swear off,’ and fully determined I should break my gun over a wagon-wheel when I arrived at camp; yet always hesitated to do so after several hours had elapsed. The next morning I would hear the guns of other hunters booming in all directions, and would make up my mind that even if I did not kill more, the buffalo would be slain just the same. Again, I would shoulder my rifle, to repeat the previous day’s experience.”

The $80/day to be earned hunting buffalo likely influenced his decision.

He later moved south, establishing the town of Garden City, KS, and convincing the railroad to build a station. There, he became a wealthy businessman.

His serious efforts at saving bison began after being trapped on the prairie during a severe blizzard in 1886, one of the worst winters ever recorded in the American Great Plains. According to Jones, that also spawned one of the most misguided experiments ever attempted in the history of bison.

“I commended to ponder upon the contrast between the quality of the white man’s domestic cattle. I thought to myself, why not domesticate this wonderful beast which can endure such a blizzard, defying a storm so destructive to our domesticate species. Why not infuse their hardy blood into our native cattle, and have a perfect animal.”

In 1886, Jones set off on his first mission to the Texas Panhandle, where he roped and hobbled 14 calves, but only 10 survived. By 1889, his three additional forays into the Texas Panhandle resulted in about 50 additional calves.  After purchasing Bedson’s animals, Buffalo Jones’ herd of 150 was the largest in the United States.

Jones’ tendency to engage in wild schemes and risky ventures caught up with him during the financial panic of the early 1890’s. In 1893, he sold 26 pure-bred buffalo and 18 hybrids to Michal Pablo and Charles Allard, who immediately moved the pure-bred bison into their herd, and sequestered the hybrids on Horse Island in Flathead Lake.   That sale wasn’t enough, and a year later, Buffalo Jones sold everything, including his herd of buffalo.

Using his political connections, Jones prevailed on President Roosevelt in 1902 to appoint him as the Game Warden at Yellowstone National Park. During Jones’ brief tenure, he brought in 18 bison cows from the Pablo Allard herd, and three bulls from the herd of Charles Goodnight in Texas.   In part because of his caustic personality, the position of Game Warden was eliminated in 1905, and Jones was out of a job.

His last fingerprints on the bison business came in 1906, when he began to actively crossbreed bison with Galloway cattle on a government ranch along the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

The other major savior of bison in the southern herd is a name well-known in western livestock history. Charles Goodnight was a pioneer in nearly every sense of the word. The Goodnights got caught up in the “Texas Fever” of the 1840’s, and Charles moved with his family from Illinois to Texas in 1845 at the age of 11. He became a highly successful cattle rancher, and, along with Oliver Loving, blazed the Goodnight Loving Trail over which hundreds of thousands of cattle were driven from the Southern Plains to the railroads in Cheyenne in the years following the Civil War.

Like nearly every other hero in bison restoration, Goodnight had hunted more than his share of bison in the area surrounding his ranch, and along the Goodnight Loving Trail. He once argued that the advance of civilization required buffalo to be slaughtered, and that buffalo hunters were “a fearless body of men…who by killing out the buffalo stopped forever the terror of the settlers, the depredatory tribes of the Plains Indians.”

In 1866, during the initial cattle drive to Cheyenne, Goodnight discovered that it was possible to separate a buffalo calf from its mother by chasing the herd at a steady clip until a calf fell behind, and then using his horse to keep the calf away from its mother until the calf followed the horse. One time, though, the mother cow charged Goodnight’s horse, “and attacked me so viciously that I had to kill her to save my horse.” Sixty two years later, he acknowledged, “I felt badly over it then and the older I get, the worse I feel about killing that cow.”

In 1876, Goodnight settled in the Palo Duro Canyon, where the water and grass could support thousands of cattle. It was there that Goodnight’s wife, Mary Ann, prodded him into changing his views on buffalo. He noted, “The herd was started at the suggestion of Mrs. Goodnight who noted the slaughter of the animals on the plains and desired to perpetuate the race. The slaughter had been so great in the preceding three years that he animal was already nearly extinct, being only a few scattering ones left.

He began to capture buffalo calves while on cattle roundups in 1878, and secured two others from a neighboring rancher. His herd numbered 14 bison. The Goodnight herd grew to 250 bison by the time of Charles’ death in 1933, but he struggled to find any economic value in the animals.

In South Dakota, where the U.S. Army’s drive during the Indian Wars to starve out the Native Americas by eliminating their food supply was harshly carried out, Frederick Dupree watched the disappearance of the buffalo herds and decided that action was needed to prevent the species from disappearing entirely. The son of a distinguished French-Canadian family in Quebec, Dupree arrived in South Dakota in 1838 and prospered through a variety of ventures including fur trading and cattle ranching. He married a Minneconjou Sioux, Mary Good Elk Woman, and became one of the state’s leading pioneers.

Dupree and his sons had participated in buffalo hunts, killing as many as 2,000 in one outing. By 1882, he became alarmed by the disappearance of buffalo. There are two accounts of how Dupree began to rescue bison. In one version, Dupree set out with one of his sons and an experienced trapper to travel into the Yellowstone River region of Montana to capture buffalo calves. They came home with nine calves, although two or three may have died shortly after reaching the Dupree ranch. In another version, Dupree’s sons captured five calves while the family was participating in the last great winter buffalo hunt of the Dakotas in 1884.

Whichever version is true, the herd totaled five cows, four bulls and seven hybrids. The herd—both pure-bred and hybrid, continued to grow to 83 animals by the time of Dupree’s death in 1898.

Although Dupree pioneered the saving of buffalo in South Dakota, James “Scotty” Phillip earned the title of Buffalo King in the ensuing years. Phillip was born in Scotland in 1858 and traveled throughout the American West panning gold, working as a scout, and ranching in Wyoming, before marrying Sarah Larribee, a Lakota Sioux, in 1879. They settled down near Fort Pierre in South Dakota in 1882, prospering in the cattle business.

Many historians believe that—like Mary Ann Goodnight—Good Elk Woman and Sarah Laribee were instrumental in convincing their husbands to save the buffalo.

Scotty Philip had attempted to capture bison calves in the 1890’s, but had not succeeded. When Fred Dupree died in 1898, and his son, Pete, followed in death two years later, the Dupree herd became available. Phillip seized the opportunity. He fortified the fencing around 15,000 acres of his ranch north of Fort Pierre. His ranch hands, along with some of the wranglers from Dupree’s ranch, drove 57 buffalo 100 miles to their new home. The following summer, 29 stragglers were rounded up, making a herd of 85, including some hybrids, which Philip described as “not worth a damn.”

Unlike Goodnight and Jones, Phillip opposed breeding bison with cattle, and eliminated the hybrid animals from his herd. He believed that buffalo were unique, and deserved to be preserved in the natural form.

The ultimate irony set in for Goodnight, Phillip, Pablo and other stewards of the bison herds in the earliest years of the 20th century. The ranchers had saved bison from extinction. Now, they struggled to economically sustain their efforts. As the movie business began to capture America’s attention, Charles Goodnight spent $7,000 filming an elaborate Indian buffalo hunt, but couldn’t market the footage. Pablo had offered to sell his herd to the U.S. government for $250/head, and had been shunned. Phillip leased 3,500 acres of unclaimed government land along the banks of the Missouri for $50 annually to be used as a tourist attraction, but the herd outgrew the pasture. 

Goodnight and Jones, along with Bedson, actively experimented in crossing bison with cattle to create a hardy hybrid that they felt would have economic value. Those experiments failed because the crossbreds were less hardy and experienced significant sterility and calving problems. The practice soon diminished for everyone except Jones. 

Pablo and Allard, and Phillip, ended up acquiring some of the crossbred animals, which they kept segregated from their pure-bred bison. Phillip ultimately slaughtered the cross-bred animals on his ranch. These brief experiments form the basis for the controversy surrounding cattle genetic introgression in bison today. A study conducted for her Doctoral Dissertation by Lauren Dobson of Texas A&M University concluded that bison descended from those herds have the equivalent of 1 percent cattle genetic introgression within their genome.

By the time Phillip died in 1911, his herd approximated 285 animals and was growing rapidly. By 1920, the Phillip herd numbered 825. They were exceeding the carrying capacity of the land.

The state of South Dakota and the U.S. federal government got involved in 1913, and created Custer State Game Preserve and—at the urging of the American Bison Society—Wind  Cave Game Preserve.

As described by historian David Neisheim of the University of Nebraska, the story of buffalo in the early 1900’s illustrates the tension between conservationists and preservationists. That tension was illustrated in the personalities of Gifford Pinchot and John Muir. Pinchot was the first chief of the U.S. National Forest Service under President Teddy Roosevelt, and was the founder of the wise use philosophy of public resources. Muir, founder of the Sierra Club and also a close confidant of Roosevelt’s, was an ardent advocate of preserving America’s wilderness from economic encroachment.

Nesheim wrote, “Both valued ‘wilderness in and for itself,’ but feuded over how best to preserve it for future generations. Muir and his followers argued that public lands should be preserved without economic development for the edification of humans and the continued existence of wildlife.

“Gifford Pinchot stressed professional management with extensive economic development, and employed the concept of ‘wise-use’ to generate the greatest good for the most people. James Philip and Custer State Park envisioned a time when buffalo would be profitable and advocated for their economic development, similar to the beliefs of Pinchot.”

In the first half of the 20th Century, though, there was little perceived economic value in bison The new preserves fostered by the American Bison society, the State of South Dakota and the federal government, provided the only significant outlet for the excess animals in the private herds. Animals from the herds of Pablo Allard, Goodnight and Jones were acquired by Yellowstone National Park in 1902 to restock the herd that had nearly been decimated by poaching that had continued until the mid-1890s. Thirty four bison in the herd that Conrad had acquired from Pablo Allard were purchased by the American Bison Society in 1909 to serve as the nucleus of the National Bison Range in Montana. Phillip’s heirs sold 36 bison to the state of South Dakota in 1914 to serve as seed stock for the Custer State Game Preserve herd. Phillip’s heirs struggled unsuccessfully to find private buyers for the remainder of the Buffalo King’s herd. With options exhausted, the family began to liquidate the approximately 700 bison in 1924. A hunt that winter included a pow-wow attended by members of the Lower Brule and Cheyenne River Reservations. The Lakota participated in the hunt, using their traditional weapons of bows and arrows.

The events were recorded on motion picture cameras, although no known footage is in existence. There was even a rodeo, with bronc riding, roping, and bulldogging. The number of animals killed totaled 200, with another 100 shipped live to parks in eastern cities. Another hunt the following year killed 250 animals, and meat was shipped to 21 states.

Within a few years, though, managers of the public parks and preserves were wrestling with the similar problem of managing herds that had multiplied beyond the carrying capacity of their land. For decades, bison in Yellowstone National Park were intensively managed due to belief that they, along with elk and pronghorn, were over-grazing the park. In 1925, the U.S. Department of Interior began offering heads and robes for sale. Heads varied from $35 to $60, and a robe could be had for $40 to $80. Live creatures were available for the bargain rate of $115. By 1968, intensive manipulative management (including herd reductions) of bison ceased and natural ecological processes began. Today, Yellowstone’s efforts to manage their bison herd through ecological processes has formed the basis for intense conflict with surrounding landowners.

In 1928, the Alaska Game Commission obtained 23 buffalo from the Montana National Bison Range and shipped them to Central Alaska, although this was not their native habitat. Nineteen were turned loose, and, by 1963, had multiplied to more than 500 animals.

The efforts to balance preservation with conservation was perhaps best demonstrated at Custer State Park. The South Dakota Legislature first established Custer as a State Game Reserve in 1914, stocked with 36 bison purchased from the Phillip herd. The legislature intended Custer to be a self-supporting enterprise.

Custer was renamed a state park in 1919, and soon began to attempt to manage its growing bison population by conducting annual field harvests in the park’s buffalo pasture. The meat was likely distributed in the community for the Christmas season. In 1922, 125 bulls were hunted in the park. Other animals were shipped from Custer to other parks in the East and the West. In the 1930’s, a slaughterhouse was constructed for bison to help dispose of surplus animals.

Still, the herd had grown to 2,500 animals by the early 1940’s.

World War II provided a market boost for bison meat from Custer State Park and the adjoining Wind Cave National Park. Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt had established the Office of Price Administration, which began to impose severe rationing of several types of food-stocks, including beef. Meat packers in 1942 were restricted to 70 percent of their previous year’s sales.

“Wild Game,” including bison meat, was exempt from the rationing. Demand surged. In the winter of 1942, Custer State Park’s slaughter plant failed to meet its orders, and work began on a new processing plant in the park. Meat from Custer State Park was marketed across the country, including in some of New York City’s finer restaurants. Sales of buffalo meat from the park continued to increase after the war. By 1953, meat sales generated nearly seventy-five thousand dollars for the Park. For a decade, beginning in 1952, many of the bison slaughtered at the Custer State Park processing plant were brought into the park from neighboring Wind Cave National Park.

However, small sales of live bison from Custer State Park, Yellowstone National Park, and elsewhere in the 20th century provided the foundation for many of today’s commercial bison herds. Ted Marquiss, a Wyoming rancher, purchased two cows and a bull from Custer State Park in 1922 “just for fun,” and proceeded to build a herd of nearly 500 animals by the 1950’s. Roy Houk, founder of the original National Buffalo Association, purchased his first bison from Custer State Park in 1959, and had develop the largest herd in the United States by the late 1960’s. The Flocchini family of California expanded from meat marketing into buffalo production in early 1965, when they acquired a Northern Wyoming ranch populated with surplus bison from the Yellowstone herd.

Today, the slaughterhouse at Custer State Park is long gone. But the annual auction held at there, along with other auctions at Antelope Island State Park, Fort Niobrara Wildlife Refuge, and elsewhere provide a balance of preservation and conservation.

No doubt, wanton slaughter of bison—along with diseases introduced by European livestock—nearly decimated bison 125 years ago. At the turn of the last century, efforts by public herd managers and private ranchers focused on preserving bison as a link to our American heritage. Through the years, however, conservation—and restoration—of the species has involved an interwoven relationship among public, private—and now tribal—herds across North America.

Sidebar Story

Sadly, few of the bison restored on public lands in the first half of the 20th century were on tribal lands. After the active military campaigns to eliminate the Native Americans’ access to bison during the Indian Wars, little effort was made to bring them back to the reservations.

John Collier, President Franklin Roosevelt’s Commissioner of Indian Affairs, worked to successfully transfer 44 bulls and 32 cows from Wind Cave National Park to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Because of the severe restrictions that the Bureau of Indian Affairs placed on the tribe’s access to the animals, frustration among tribal leaders quickly grew. Even the spiritual ceremonies linking bison to the native peoples were forbidden.

By the 1940’s Tribal leaders were working to dispose of their herds. A resolution adopted by the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council in 1944 read, in part, “Whereas it is believed that the operations of the buffalo herd does not contribute materially to the best economic development of the tribe, …the tribal council hereby authorizes and instructs the Superintendent of the Pine Ridge Indian Agency to take such steps as necessary to terminate the activities of the buffalo herd”.  Without the freedom to interact naturally with their bison, Indian tribes gravitated into cattle production.

Through the years, buffalo began to trickle back to tribal lands.

The Standing Rock Reservation received one bull and four cows from Theodore Roosevelt National Park in 1968 to begin restoring its herd. Other tribes began to acquire similar, small herds.

The Inter Tribal Buffalo Cooperative (later renamed the Inter Tribal Buffalo Council) was organized in February 1990 in South Dakota. According to the ITBC website, “Although some tribes and tribal members have been engaged in the production of buffalo for sale and/or for subsistence and cultural use, these activities have been conducted by each individual tribe, with little or no collaboration between tribes.

“To reestablish healthy buffalo populations on tribal lands is to reestablish hope for Indian people. Members of Inter Tribal Bison Cooperative (ITBC) understood that reintroduction of the buffalo to tribal lands will help heal the spirit of both the Indian people and the buffalo.” Today, the ITBC and the National Bison Association have established a Memorandum of Agreement specifying a commitment to work together to restore herds and tribal and private lands.