Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

For first time in a century, bison released in Perkins County

The penned bison moments before their release.
C.J. Keene
The penned bison moments before their release.

In a remote corner of South Dakota, something special happened this week. For the first time in over a century, bison are returning to Perkins County – near a community bearing their name.

It’s a beautiful day in Perkins County, far removed from the hustle and bustle of Rapid City or Sioux Falls. Surrounded by miles of rolling prairie in every direction makes you truly feel off the grid.

With no interstate service, Perkins County falls past the category of “rural” and is listed as one of America’s true “frontier” counties – places with less than six people per square mile.

But over 120 people from multiple states, reservations and countries came to this hard-to-reach corner of South Dakota for one reason – the return of bison to the area.

Visitors caravanned in trucks across the ranchland to find the pasture.

Carlyle Ellison was among those riding in the back of a pickup, a cattleman who ranches along the South Dakota – North Dakota border. After a wide-ranging conversation touching everything from cowboy philosophy, sobriety, and romance, he eventually returns to the business at hand – the reality of managing a bison herd.

“The cool part about buffalo is there’s not a lot of management in them," Ellison said. "Just leave them alone, try not to get run over, that kind of stuff. They’re not pets.”

Bison are not fully domesticated like standard cattle. That adds an element of danger and preparation to their new pasture, including installing miles of fencing.

“This grass is supposed to be eaten by bovines," Ellison said. "The buffalo were here before we ever came, and I think its cool that they’re here now. They’re just pretty intimidating, you get these tourists that come here and want to pet them – and hopefully they don’t get killed.”

Once the caravan reaches the pasture, everyone gathers to see the stars of the show – more than a dozen fully grown bison milling about a pen, waiting for their moment to break into gallop across open prairie.

Folk musician and SDPB contributor Eliza Blue organized the event. She says this is a reminder of what can happen with commitment.

“There’s so many levels on which this has been a dream realized," Blue said. "It’s great for the prairie to have bison back. It’s great for Bison to have bison – but it’s also just wonderful to see someone have a dream this big and to get to be part of making it happen just to remind all of us of what’s possible.”

Among the visitors are Andrea Kendall from Hettinger, North Dakota and Sean Morton from Qualicum Beach in British Columbia.

“I’m here to watch the buffalo release," Morton said. "It’s been a long time since there was buffalo in this area and we’re bringing mother nature back to where it belongs.”

“Absolutely, I agree,” Kendall says.

And of all places on earth, the young couple couldn’t help but take in this little slice of prairie.

“I love it," Morton said. "This is peaceful. This is God’s country out here.”

“It is," Kendall adds. "You look around and you see what you’re blessed with. I’m very grateful for Sion and everything he’s done to help me on my journey, and this is a new journey for him as well – and I get to be here to support him.”

Sion Hanson is the owner of the land and herd manager. Hanson and Kendall have a long relationship together as partners in sobriety. He said today is nothing short of a dream come true for him.

“Probably 10 years ago I thought it would be cool to have buffalo out there," Hanson said. "I finally got the land paid for and the fences needed replaced, so I fenced it for buffalo. I thought some of our local buffalo ranchers would be interested but nobody wanted just a few head away from home. I’d given up on it happening, but through a friend of a friend ‘oh, I know who you need to meet,’ and that’s how this all got started.”

He said it’s overwhelming to finally finish this project.

“I don’t know what to say," Hanson said. "It’s an emotional day. Some of the very last true, wild buffalo were killed about 40 miles north of here in 1881. It’s probably been at least 150 years since there’s been buffalo on this property.”

While ecologically important, the animal also serves as a cultural touchstone for many native communities on the plains. Prior to their release, prayers and tobacco were offered to the animals in a private ceremony.

But Hanson said this isn’t the end of this story.

“In my opinion, the worst black eye this country has is the way Native Americans were treated," Hanson said. "Native Americans who pursue their own spiritual practices have a much better chance of staying sober. My long-term goal – I would like to turn this place into a spiritual sanctuary for young Indian fathers who are trying to get sober to come up here.”

But today was about more than addiction. This event was about what happens when a person follows their dreams to create something much larger than himself. Today, Sion – who is 37 years sober himself -was the most popular man in the middle of nowhere.


Together, the group watched this small herd of bison run over the hill tops, past the tree stands, and vanish into the horizon. The group includes one pregnant cow, and that birth is the first step toward reclaiming the land that was once covered in herds just like this one - but thousands strong.

C.J. Keene is a Rapid City-based journalist covering the legal system, education, and culture