Skip to main content
Long-awaited bison release in Badlands National Park good for the senses, landscape
Email share

Ever heard it said that environmental extremes can heighten the senses? That they can make things sharper, more intense, and add a measure of clarity?

Yeah, I’ve heard that, too. I might even have said or written it. But my senses were about as far from heightened as they could get, short of freezing up entirely, over in Badlands National Park as a sub-Arctic gale pushed me around the icy parking lot of the Pinnacles Overlook and I waited for the bison to be released.

I stood amidst a collection of hooded, hump-shouldered foot-stompers (No not the bison, the news crews and other spectators waiting for the bison) and watched the tailgate of a large, white livestock trailer for signs that the four shaggy beasts banging around inside would soon make their clattering exit.

And when they finally did, my dulled senses sharpened up quickly. One after the other the animals charged out of the trailer and into a portion of the national park that hasn’t known the gnawing and pawing of bison since the latter part of the 1800s.

Each hoof hitting the prairie sent up a plume of snow that drifted on the wind toward our little group of spectators like the ghost of something grand.

Later, Corissa Busse, western South Dakota conservation manager for The Nature Conservancy, would describe it more eloquently, saying it looked as if the beasts were “stomping up the spirits of ancestors coming back to the land for the first time since 1877.”

Oh, I liked that. I liked it a lot.

And indeed, there seemed to be a spirit present at the bison release, made all the more real by the high-pitched honoring trill of Native American women nearby. They had good reason to celebrate. We all did, whether or not we did it in traditional ways.

It was, after all, an important “homecoming” for the bison, which only “knew” their new home by what we might call genetic recollections. Their familial predecessors were last residents of the northern portions of the Badlands National Park more than a century ago. Closer, in fact, to a century and half.

In-between, bison as a species were practically removed from the sprawling Great Plains grasslands system they once populated by the millions. And while they were saved and returned to their original landscape, animal by animal and herd by herd, they were never, before the dramatic release, returned to the far-northern reaches of Badlands National Park.

They were in other, especially rugged southwest portions of the park. But not in the more accessible, more commonly viewed and known central and northern portions of the North Unit.

Getting them back there took some time and some trouble and some money to accomplish. It also took some cooperation. Ever heard it said that working on a land deal between a private owner and a federal agency can heighten the senses? Or deaden them?

Either is probably true, at one point of the other. But persistence paid off here, by all involved.

The four bison bulls released in the Pinnacles area on Oct. 11 were hauled from the badlands herd farther south and west for a release that was celebratory and historic, and also symbolic of what will now come.

Those four impressive bulls will lead the way for others. They already are. But the greatest movement will likely occur when cows — the real travel managers for bison herds — now in other parts of the park begin to work their way with family groups up and across the once-privately held grassy passage now owned by the public.

There about 1,200 bison in the park, mostly scattered around the Sage Creek Wilderness and adjoining ground. But they haven’t been able to reach the north sections of the park because the aforementioned grassy passage up from the badlands was fenced and privately owned.

That changed through a land deal finally brokered with involvement from The Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund and the Northern Prairie Land Trust. They worked with the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service and 81-year-old private owner Don Kelly — who died, ironically enough, on the same day the four bison were release at the Pinnacles — and his family.

The arrangement was decades in the dream stage and years in negotiating. It finally involved a land swap of 666.89 acres of Kelly property for 633.1 acres of Forest Service grasslands that Kelly already grazed under a lease arrangement. That and a cash settlement to Kelly made the deal work.

When the land part was settled, old fences were removed and new fences defining the public-land boundaries were constructed, with $1.2 million raised through public-private partnerships.

It ended up paying for 43 miles of new fence to add 22,000 acres new bison turf, for a total of 80,000 acres in the park.

Previously, bison could be seen by visitors to the Sage Creek Wilderness or by those driving the Sage Creek rim road and often by stopping at Hay Butte Overlook. But most visitors never get to that area, so most don’t see bison, which has been a commonly lamented disappointment.

Soon, however, bison sightings will be a regular part of cruising the main scenic route in the park, Highway 240, which leaves Interstate 90 at Cactus Flats, winds through the park and past the visitors' center and ends up back at I-90 at Wall.

The bison movement has already begun. And didn’t take long after the first four bison were released.

“Within a couple of minutes, three of the bulls crossed 240 heading east,” says Blaine Kortemeyer, acting chief of interpretation and education at Badlands National Park. “Where they are now is up to them. We aren’t keeping track of them, to my knowledge. We don’t plan to move any others to the new range. We are going to allow the bison to find it.”

It won’t take them long, says Bob Paulson, Corrisa Busse’s predecessor with The Nature Conservancy for 22 years. Paulson dreamed of and worked on the bison project for much of that time, along with many other West River land initiatives.

He said the big bison movement into the north part of the park will come when the other bison are motivated.

“They’re eventually going to find it,” he said. “They’re coming right up to the pavement at Pinnacles now. They’ve got hooves on asphalt by the entry station (on Highway 240 south of Wall). Some small band will find it this winter. They have no memory of grazing that at a certain time of the year. But they’re going to find all that sweet stuff that hasn’t been chewed on for 100 and some years.”

Paulson said maternal bands of bison, primarily lead cows with her offspring, will be the most consequential explorers. And it’s important to let them make their own migration into new ground, he said.

Which was why trailering and releasing the bulls instead of cows was a smart move as well as an impressive one.

“The thing about capturing and moving maternal bands is that it can compromise the social structure,” Paulson said. “This way, they make that movement on their own.”

With that movement already underway, the bison will likely be very noticeable to park visitors on the scenic route by next spring. The release of the four bulls at Pinnacles was just the start, one that Martha Kauffman of the World Wildlife Fund was thrilled to witness.

“The snow and the wind just made the release all that more dramatic and powerful,” she said.

OK, OK, so my senses were probably heightened, once they got warmed up by the sight of something that hadn’t happened in 142 years.