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Inspired by ‘Dances with Wolves,’ the hunt is on for bison

  • Bison<br/><br/>(MIKE ALBERICI / For the Monitor)

    Bison

    (MIKE ALBERICI / For the Monitor)

  • Bison<br/><br/>(MIKE ALBERICI / For the Monitor)

    Bison

    (MIKE ALBERICI / For the Monitor)

  • Bison<br/><br/>(MIKE ALBERICI / For the Monitor)

    Bison

    (MIKE ALBERICI / For the Monitor)

  • Bison<br/><br/>(MIKE ALBERICI / For the Monitor)
  • Bison<br/><br/>(MIKE ALBERICI / For the Monitor)
  • Bison<br/><br/>(MIKE ALBERICI / For the Monitor)

I’ve never been a huge fan of Kevin Costner, but there’s one particular film of his that has always inspired me: Dances With Wolves.

When I saw it in the theater as a young man in 1990, I was awed by the sweeping landscapes of the western prairie and the mountains of the Teton Range. I vowed that someday I would visit them. However, it was a single scene that truly blew me away – when Costner’s character, John Dunbar, along with his newly adoptive friends, the Lakota Sioux, prepare for Dunbar’s first bison hunt.

They’d been tracking the elusive herd for several weeks without success. Finally, Dunbar and several Sioux warriors crawled up a hill where they spotted a massive herd, a hundred-thousand strong, as far as they could see. The hunt began.

That scene somehow touched me in a profound way. As a young kid from New England, it seemed foreign to see animals gathered in herds so large. And as a symbol of the western prairie, the iconic image of the American bison tugged at my patriotic heartstrings. As I left the theater that night, I remember thinking to myself, “Somehow I have to see a wild bison before I die – actually, not just a single bison, but an entire herd, ranging across the grasslands.”

I added this wish to my bucket list, even though I knew the chances of seeing a massive herd of bison sweeping across the prairie was incredibly slim. In the 1800s, there were more than 50 million free bison in North America. Overhunting and massive slaughter reduced their numbers to just more than 500. Today, there are about a half-million left, mostly held in captivity and raised for commercial purposes. Just 15,000 bison live in the wild, all residing in western national parks in the northern Rocky Mountains.

Last fall, inspired by many of our Concord friends who had driven across the country with their families, my wife and I began planning an epic summer road trip for our own family. We started mapping out a route, making reservations, saving money, buying necessary gear and clearing our summer calendars. Our friends had visited the big national parks – Yellowstone, Grant Teton and Badlands – and they gave us tons of advice as we narrowed down our endless options.

By spring, our route was decided. We would travel for four weeks through 20 states; we would visit six national parks, while driving 7,000 miles – right through the middle of buffalo country.

We headed west in mid-July, taking four days to get to bison territory.

After a long drive through Iowa and a short detour through a corner of Nebraska, we entered South Dakota and my bison radar went on full alert. Dances With Wolves was filmed on location in that state, and as we drove the flat roads through the grasslands, I scanned the hills for bison. The hunt was on, and it didn’t take long.

The first bison I ever saw was pretty pathetic. We had pulled off Route 90 at a gas station to fill up. It was a ramshackle old place with a sketchy western ghost town/tourist attraction that looked like it hadn’t had a visitor in decades. Behind the station was a fenced-in field with a poorly painted sign reading, “Live Bison Herd!” I could see a few large dark animals lying in the tall grass. They looked sad, skinny and weary. Not the majestic beasts from the movie at all.

When I got back to the car, I told my wife that there were bison right there behind the gas station. She gave them a quick look over her shoulder and said, “No, those don’t count.” We got back on the highway and headed west.

A few hours later, we reached Badlands National Park, and as we drove through the alien landscape of prairie and rock pinnacles, the temperature began to climb.

A friend had recommended that while in the Badlands we take a detour through Sage Creek Wilderness Area. She had seen tons of wildlife during her trip last summer: bison, bighorn sheep and pronghorn. I discovered online that Sage Creek was a filming location of Dances With Wolves, so it seemed like the perfect place to see bison.

As we drove through Sage Creek, the temperature spiked at 103 degrees. All animal movement had come to a halt. We did see a solitary male bison about 1,000 yards away, resting in the grass, enduring the brutal heat. Through binoculars, he looked more like a brown rock than a bison. “Doesn’t count,” I said to myself.

That evening, we set up to camp for a few nights in Custer State Park. Custer is famous for its monuments: Mount Rushmore, Devils Tower and Crazy Horse Memorial. It’s also home to 1,300 bison – one of nation’s largest free-ranging herds. Custer definitely felt like bison country. There were buffalo chips all around the campground where we set up our tent.

After dinner, we stopped at the ranger station to get information about where we could spot the herd. The ranger gave us a map and circled a vague spot along a huge section of grasslands. A network of remote dirt roads crisscrossed the area. “They were here yesterday along road No. 1,” he said.

Off we went to find road No. 1. It was a great drive. We saw bighorn sheep, lots of pronghorn and more white-tailed deer than I’ve ever seen in 20 years of living in New Hampshire. But not a single bison. We went back to the tent disappointed.

The next afternoon, we checked in with the ranger station again. “They were spotted this morning near road No. 3,” the ranger said, putting another circle on our map.

Off we went, and road No. 3 was a winner.

A short way down the road, we came upon a massive bull standing on the side of the road. When a minivan approached from the other direction, he turned and walked right at our car, passing by nearly 3 feet away.

“That definitely counts,” I said to myself.

A mile farther down road No. 3, we hit the jackpot.

As we rose over a hill into a small valley, we gasped together as a family. A huge herd of bison was grazing in the fields along both sides of the road. We stopped the car and sat quietly with the windows rolled up as the herd calmly swept down the hillside around us. There were hundreds of cows with young nursing calves in tow. Massive bulls, each bigger and more dominant than the next, rattled horns, establishing the herd’s pecking order. Eventually they began to move across the valley floor, moving as one large mass, slowly heading up a hill into the setting sun.

It was a beautiful, rare moment to witness – one I’m sure I will never see again in my lifetime. For just a moment I felt like John Dunbar.

My wife touched my arm and asked me whether I was going to be all right.

“Yeah,” I replied. I was just fine.

Hint to author- check your geography. Custer is a SD state park, alright, but Mount Rushmore is a National Memorial in a completely different location in the Black Hills. So is the Crazy Horse sculpture. As for Devil's Tower, that's in Wyoming, about 100 miles away.

Nice article. Good job, Mike.

Great column Mike! Dances with Wolves is also one of my favorite films of all time and watching it first brought me to tears and then inspired me to get in touch w/my Native American roots through reading "Black Elk Speaks" and other works of Native American history and fiction. The near-extinction of the great plains bison is one of the blackest marks on this country's history - along with what we did to the indigenous people who shared a symbiotic predator/prey relationship with them. The reintroduction of the bison to its former range is one of the brightest spots in the history of U.S. conservation. I'm glad you got to check this one off your bucket list and even more glad you decided to share that experience with the readers!

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