WATFORD CITY – Teddy Roosevelt left the comfort of his New York home in 1883 for a hunting trip to present-day North Dakota. His goal was to shoot a bison, before they were all gone. He was successful.
“We don’t know how many bison were in this immediate area but we know they were native here,” said Eileen Andes, Medora, chief of interpretation for Theodore Roosevelt National Park. “The bison population pretty much had dropped by the time T.R. came out here.”
Sturdy, burly and perfectly adopted for life on the plains, the American bison remains a hearty reminder of the time when up to 20 million of the monstrous animals roamed throughout the United States. About 500,000 bison are believed to live a scattered existence today, including herds in both the North and South units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
While frequent visitors to either park may occasionally take the bison for granted, those who have not previously had the opportunity to encounter the dusky animals are generally stunned to find themselves immersed in their presence.
“One of the thing visitors ask right away is, where can I see a bison?” said Andes. “Later they’ll say how wonderful it is to see them. People are amazed at how big they are.”
The size of bison is very apparent during a close encounter, but so too is something else – their sheer strength and resiliency. Bison are as powerful as they are huge. They are as at ease on a sunny summer day as they are in a harsh day in January, tough as the Old West history they carry with them.
“They have historically dealt with very, very tough weather on the plains. They are very well suited for life on the plains and can tolerate extremes of weather,” said Andes.
Calves arrive anytime from late April to mid-June, making this time of year an excellent time to view young bison. The North Unit herd is currently estimated at 200 to 250 animals. The South Unit between 500 and 600. The number was higher but about 200 were rounded up and removed from the park last fall.
“There’s been some reproduction since then,” remarked Andes. “Our bison are healthy and they reproduce quite well. Some die of injury or old age. We have some mountain lions in the area but they are not big bison predators.”
Some people refer to the big animals as bison, others say buffalo. According to Andes, the two names are interchangeable with no preference shown for one or the other. If one wishes to be entirely proper however, bison would be the correct terminology. True buffalo are species such as the African cape buffalo and Asian water buffalo.
Regardless of what they are called, bison remain remarkable inhabitants of T.R. National Park. One thing that makes them visitor favorites is that they are almost always visible and that they exhibit none of the man-fearing characteristics of other park wildlife.
“The bison are used to having people drive by in cars and are not generally aggressive unless approached too close,” said Andes. “People are excited about seeing them. One of the things our park is known for is that you can see wildlife such as bison really easily and not have to deal with the crowds in larger national parks.”
Both units of T.R. National Park have scenic drives that often take visitors within a few feet of bison.