In 1913, ten years after the park was established, American Bison were reintroduced to Wind Cave National Park. In establishing the park in 1903, the intent of Congress and President Theodore Roosevelt was to protect the marvelous boxwork formations of the cave, but as an ancillary benefit, the park protected thousands of acres of mixed grass prairie in the foothills of the Black Hills. This habitat would be ripe for an ambitious bison reintroduction program that would culminate at Wind Cave.
The truly vital importance of the Wind Cave herd was recognized and reinforced only in recent decades as increasingly sophisticated genetic tests have confirmed that the herd is one of the last remaining genetically pure herds on public lands in North America. Most other herds have a certain percentage of genetic material from interbreeding with cattle. Even the herd at Custer State Park, adjacent to Wind Cave along its northern border, is not free of genetic material from cattle. The other pure herds are found at Yellowstone National Park, the Henry Mountains in Utah (reintroduced from the Yellowstone herd), and Elk Island National Park in Alberta, Canada.
The saga of the Wind Cave herd began in 1894, as bison reached a point of near extinction in the American West.
In the autumn of 1894, Roosevelt began collaborating with Madison Grant, a lawyer and explorer, on the creation of the New York Zoological Society…In planning this zoo, Roosevelt and Grant included a singularly ambitious goal: they would breed buffalo in captivity there and eventually would turn them loose throughout the Great Plains and upper Rocky Mountain region. This so-called New York repopulation plan would reintroduce buffalo in their traditional grounds, such as the Black Hills, Pine Ridge Reservation, Flint Hills, Osage Hills, and Wichita Mountains; even the remaining herd in Yellowstone Park would be augmented with Bronx-bred buffalo. As Roosevelt saw it, buffalo would once again be trampling the luxuriant tall grasses into muddy thoroughfares, as in the days before Christopher Columbus. Unlike the 45 million cattle in the Great Plains, reintroduced buffalo wouldn’t overgraze the prairie into a dust bowl. He hoped to create a buffalo common. (Douglas Brinkley, The Wilderness Warrior, Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, 2009)
Ultimately, the bison breeding program at the Bronx Zoo would be successful, and in 1913, fourteen bison from the zoo were transferred to Wind Cave along with six from Yellowstone. Today the herd is managed to 250-400 animals.
In addition to a spectacularly successful reintroduction program, the Wind Cave herd, in no small part because of its genetic purity, is the bedrock for reintroduction programs on other public lands in the United States. In fact, the bison that will be reintroduced in 2015 to Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie southwest of Chicago will comprise a large percentage of Wind Cave or Wind Cave derived bison.
More information about management of Wind Cave’s bison herd is available here.