Bison have been roaming the plains of South Dakota for thousands of years. However, they nearly became extinct in the 19th century because of hunting pressure and poachers. Efforts to protect the animal in the 20th century have proved effective, and now generations to come can enjoy the sight of the prairie’s mighty beast, the North American bison.
Also known as buffalo, these herbivores stand up to 6 feet tall at the shoulder and can weigh up to 2,000 pounds. Bison mainly feed on native grasses and usually live from 15 to 20 years in the wild. Both male and female bison have horns that they use for fighting and defending themselves against predators.
South Dakota is home to both public and private buffalo herds. Custer State Park in South Dakota harbors 1,300 bison, one of the largest publicly held herds in the world. It is also home of the annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup, in which riders on horses round up the herd and drive the animals across the prairie to holding corrals for sorting and tending.
Bison once provided Native Americans with many necessities of prairie life. Bison were the No. 1 food source and also provided skins for clothing, shelter and blankets; bones for tools and weapons; and sinew for twine and sewing. Today, bison are raised not only for those same uses but also to sustain herds of a once nearly extinct animal.
Bison in South Dakota can be found in local zoos, private buffalo ranches, and some state parks. Thanks to a few special South Dakota residents, North American bison still roam the prairies – inspiring the spirit of the West in all of those lucky enough to view the majestic master of the Great Plains.