Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park

Follow the herds :Travelers can watch beasts roam in Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, Kansas

November 30, 2009, 7:55 am
 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.

Today 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.