Patriarch of the Plains: Once Near Extinction, American Bison Herds Have Rebounded, Remain a Joy to Watch | Black Hills Travel Blog

Patriarch of the Plains: Once Near Extinction, American Bison Herds Have Rebounded, Remain a Joy to Watch

  • Patriarch of the Plains: Once Near Extinction, American Bison Herds Have Rebounded, Remain a Joy to Watch
    Patriarch of the Plains: Once Near Extinction, American Bison Herds Have Rebounded, Remain a Joy to Watch
By : 
Tom Griffith

There was a time when more than 60 million bison darkened the plains of the American West, providing a traveling commissary for numerous Native American tribes that followed the seasons and the herds of American bison on which they subsisted.

In journals recounting their 1804-1806 Corps of Discovery Expedition, Lewis and Clark wrote of taking two days to ride past one herd of buffalo which, at the time, roamed more than a million square miles from Canada to North Texas.

But over-hunting by hide-hunters, tongue-lovers, sport shooters and the U.S. Army, often intended to eliminate the meat on which those tribes survived, diminished the number of buffalo to just a few hundred in a matter of a couple of decades, leading many of the Plains Indians to opt for government-controlled reservations where they received meager rations and blankets.

By 1886, one scientific survey found less than 100 free-roaming buffalo remained in the U.S.

On the verge of extinction, South Dakotans, including rancher James “Scotty” Philip, are credited with saving the animal from annihilation. Born in Scotland, Philip came to the U.S. as a teenager and spent time in Kansas before the lure of gold brought him to the Black Hills in the late 1870s.

Like so many would-be miners who came West before and after him, Philip finally gave up on striking it rich in the Hills and a year after his arrival, he departed for Wyoming and first worked for the government before finding his true calling as a cowboy.

In his time on the range, Philip became friends with a number of Sioux and Cheyenne Indians, eventually taking Cheyenne tribal member Sarah Larribee as his bride. In 1881, the Scotsman moved to a ranch near what would become Philip, S.D., a small town that would be named in honor of him in 1907.

Philip worked hard and his ranch prospered. Over the years, it’s estimated that Philip and his ranch hands drove as many as 23,000 heads of cattle from Mexico to the Black Hills and, eventually, to his own pastures. In the late 1890s, as herds of bison vanished from the prairies, Philip bought a herd of about 50 bison.

Over the years, Philip’s buffalo herd grew and, by the time of his death in July 1911, he had amassed nearly 1,000 head on his expansive ranch in western South Dakota. Bison from Philip’s herd were widely distributed across the U.S. to stock many state and national parks, including Custer State Park.

Today, intrepid travelers can find an estimated 200,000 bison roaming the woodlands and grasslands of the West, including roughly 1,300 head in Custer State Park, nearly 5,000 in Yellowstone National Park, and smaller herds in Wind Cave National Park and North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Bison meat remains popular for consumers who savor its low-fat, no-cholesterol, protein-rich attributes. In fact, bison has a lower fat content than a skinless chicken breast. As a result, many private herds exist solely to supply that demand.

There may be no grander sight in spring than watching a newly born cinnamon-colored bison calf struggle to its feet and take its first wobbly steps. Or on a hot summer day, observing a 2,000-pound bison bull wallowing in a mud pit to keep cool and avoid biting insects, can be mesmerizing.

Once threatened with extinction, the resurgence of these “Patriarchs of the Plains” provides testament to what Americans can do when they think about more than themselves.

About the Author

Tom Griffith is a fourth-generation South Dakotan who studied literature and drama at the University of London before graduating from the University of Wisconsin—Eau Claire. An award-winning reporter, photographer and managing editor at newspapers in Arizona, Montana and South Dakota, Tom also has written or co-authored more than 70 books and his travel features have been published in more than 300 newspapers and magazines from New York to New Zealand.

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