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Lamar Buffalo Ranch: A story of conservation

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By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor

BIG SKY – Reverse the clocks several revolutions past 100 years ago. The year is 1901 and there are an estimated 25 bison roaming in Yellowstone National Park. Teddy Roosevelt has just become president of the United States and market hunting, poaching and U.S. policy have decimated the bison herd, which was once estimated to number in the millions.

More than 100 years later, on Oct. 3, 2017, senior bison biologist Rick Wallen of Yellowstone National Park reported there are nearly 5,000 bison in the park. The reestablishment of Yellowstone’s bison is a conservation story that can hardly be separated from the story of the Lamar Buffalo Ranch.

“By the late 19th century, bison herds that once ranged across the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains had been decimated by the U.S. Army and Euro-American settlers,” said Jonathan Shafer, a spokesman for the park. “By the turn of the 20th century, the only place bison are known to have roamed free was in Yellowstone National Park.”

During Yellowstone’s early years, poachers and meat hunters continued to seek bison and other animals within the park boundary. Fearing mass extinctions, Congress enacted a series of hunting regulations on a land that had never been regulated before.

As recorded in historian Aubrey Haines’ “The Yellowstone Story: A History of Our First National Park, Volume Two,” after failed attempts to corral the park’s wild buffalo in an effort to preserve the dwindling herd, Congress appropriated $15,000 in 1902 to purchase domestic bison from a location outside of the park. These captive bison would be used to augment the wild Yellowstone herd.

About one dozen cows and three bulls were initially kept at an enclosure at Mammoth Hot Springs, and offspring captured from Yellowstone’s wild herd were introduced into the captive herd to help maintain the Yellowstone genetics. By 1907 the captive bison had outgrown the enclosure and were moved to a corral at Rose Creek in Lamar Valley, on the site of a former homestead that would come to be called the Lamar Buffalo Ranch.

“Work at the buffalo ranch was hard and dangerous,” Shafer said, referencing Haines’ book and his description of the work done by the buffalo keeper and herders.

“Beginning early in January, ranch hands scoured the slopes adjacent to the Lamar Valley as far as Miller Creek, driving in the bison through snow that was sometimes 2 or 3 feet deep,” Shafer said. “The buffalo were herded into a large corral and were moved from there to smaller corrals where they were examined by ranch hands and fed.”

During Yellowstone’s long, harsh winters, the captive herd was fed hay grown near present-day Tower Junction, and rangers would cut and stack 500 to 800 tons of hay to feed park horses, elk and buffalo during the worst part of the winter.

The Lamar Buffalo Ranch was in operation from 1907 to 1952 as a facility to breed and feed bison in the park. NPS PHOTO

As the Lamar Buffalo Ranch herd grew, bison were released into the free-roaming herds in order to supplement their numbers. Shafer says that by 1952, the captive herd had grown to nearly 1,000 animals, and ranch operations were suspended.

“The Lamar Buffalo Ranch is a symbol of a real conservation success story, and the story is really about bringing the American bison back from extinction,” said Robert Petty, director of education for Yellowstone Forever, the park’s educational nonprofit partner.

Today, the Lamar Buffalo Ranch is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and includes five buildings: a ranger station constructed in 1915 as the buffalo keeper’s residence, a pole fence corral maintained from 1915 into the 1930s, a 1927 log barn for hay and horses, a 1929 bunkhouse, and a residence used for the assistant buffalo keeper that was moved from Soda Butte in 1938.

Remnants of irrigation ditches, fencing and water troughs, as well as some nonnative grasses planted for hay, still characterize the landscape.

About 30 years ago, Yellowstone Association—which has since merged with Yellowstone Park Foundation to become Yellowstone Forever—began offering educational programs based at the Lamar Buffalo Ranch, including Expedition Yellowstone for school groups and Yellowstone Field Seminars offered to the public. In the 1980s, Yellowstone Association moved 16 old tourist cabins from Fishing Bridge to be used for participant housing and in 1993 they were replaced with heated, insulated cabins.

“[The buffalo ranch] is tucked away in Lamar Valley,” Petty said. “It gives people an opportunity to be in a historic place in a much more intimate experience. It is in a unique location and it provides a really unique experience to be living and learning in a simultaneously historic context.”

In a new chapter in the history of the park, the Lamar Buffalo Ranch “is a model of off-the-grid-technology,” Petty said. The facility is powered by a 7-kilowatt photovoltaic array installed in 2000, and is complete with low-flow water fixtures, a small hydropower system, on-demand hot water and zero-waste and recycling programs.

“In its present capacity, the ranch continues to serve an important role in the conservation of Yellowstone by educating visitors about things all of us can do to steward our shared, natural heritage,” Shafer said.

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