The American Alligator is synonymous with The Everglades. I can remember clearly the first time I saw one in the wild. At least six feet in length, the reptile’s presence commanded its watery environment. It appeared to not have any interest in me or anything for that matter- it was just there biding its time. I could not keep my eyes off it, it looked so primeval with its thick armor of dull gray skin. In terms of evolution, the American Alligator got it right the first time having not changed much over the millennium. Nearly extinct from hunters a hundred years or so ago, its comeback is the symbol of all that is right with the Everglades. The quintessential keeper of the swamp, the American Alligator IS the Everglades, always has been and respectfully, always will.
Like my first encounter with the alligator, my first siting of a bison in South Dakota felt as if the magnificence of everything I came to see and experience in the Great Plains was filtered down to that single moment when I saw a lone bison standing under a tree. Like the alligator, the bison appeared to not take any notice of my presence nor cared one way or the other. It was just there – keeper of the grasses. The American Bison IS the Great Plains, always has been and respectfully, always will.
On July 9, two days after arriving at the Black Hills in South Dakota, Vivian and I saw two American Bison, number 4 and 5 on our count. The two were hanging out behind a small herd of longhorn cattle at the foothills of Devils Tower, not far over the Wyoming border. The monolithic rock formation with its vertical columns stood out in severe contrast to the brilliant blue sky and green pasture foreground, a perfect backdrop for the bison on the plains. Despite it being in the same family of Bovidae, the bison appeared out of place next to its cousin. Or should I say, the longhorns looked out of place in the bison’s grassland.
The bison is synonymous with the Black Hills or really, the Great Plains. In fact, it became the national mammal of the United States in May of 2016. I am sure most Americans slept through that one, I know I did and only recently became aware of it as my interest piqued from our travels. The irony of bestowing an animal that was brought to near extinction with the honor of national mammal by the very same government that caused its near extinction is not lost on anyone with an ounce of cynicism. Long ago, the bison once roamed North America in numbers upwards of 30 million. By 1890, there were less than 1000 and ten years later, only 325. Our national mammal, indeed.
For centuries, Native Americans relied on bison for their survival. It provided them with practically everything they needed – food, clothing, tools, shelter. The bison was also an object of worship for many natives. Following Lewis and Clark’s Corp of Discovery in the early 1800’s, the American westward migration commenced at an obscene rate. By the 1860s, the elimination of the bison began. This was primarily by hunters who killed the animals for their hides, bones, and tongues, and consequently leaving the carcasses to rot on the plains. When the trains started running through the Great Plains, it was all too common for passengers to shoot the large beasts for target practice as the train thundered past the herds. While the killing of animals to extinction to fuel a fashion trend is difficult to wrap one’s head around (I am still struggling with the thought of plume hunters), this horror pales in comparison to the atrocious effect it had on native people, best summarized by General Phillip Sheridan, Commander of the US Army Cavalry who stated, “The buffalo hunters did more in five years to defeat the Indian nations than the army had done in fifty.”
Ranchers that moved into the northern Great Plains also contributed to the bison’s demise. But ironically, it would be a handful of ranchers that eventually initiated the slow return of the American Bison. Today, there are almost 400,000 bison throughout North America, most of which live on public and tribal lands, including Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The state park is home to 900-1600 bison, the second largest publicly held herd in the country.
Only three days into our 2-week stay in the Black Hills, I left Vivian and our RV behind to drive in the dark toward the main entrance of Custer State Park. Not far from there I turned onto Wildlife Loop. As sunrise approached, it became lighter as I made my way to a previously chosen location where I was eager to photograph the sweeping Black Hills landscape from atop a ridge. My truck, as far as I could see, was the only vehicle on the 18-mile loop.
As I slowly made my way on the 25-mph highway, I had a difficult time containing my eagerness to photograph the landscape before the dawn’s early light lost its sweetness. And then abruptly, my anticipation was interrupted. Stopped in my tracks on a highway where no other traffic was evident for miles, I sensed something special was about to happen. The sheer size of the bison is enough to stop anyone in their tracks, even if one is driving a full ton pickup. It was not one bison that caused me to stop, it was at least 50. That was my immediate impression as I put the truck in park. Within a second or two, I came to realize that was only the beginning as I watched a thick line of bison a quarter mile long wind its way toward me.
The sauntering procession began somewhere in a field on the other side of trees that blocked my view. All I could see were large animals appearing in the distance one by one. In total awe I watched several of them pass by within six feet of me. The adults’ wariness was evident with a steady eye contact. The calves were never far behind them. The only sounds were the gentle clopping noises of even-toed hooves on the pavement and occasional loud bison grunts and snorts. I opened the door and stood on the running board to get a better view of the animals as the long parade passed on both sides of the truck. Minutes passed. Alone with a few hundred bison and three pronghorn that leapt briskly through the scene at one point, I felt as I do when alone in the Everglades.
A moment like this takes on an entirely different meaning when experienced in the presence of others. And that happens a lot in Custer State Park. In fact, the park warns visitors of frequent traffic jams because of bison herds blocking the road. Similarly, visitors to Everglades National Park are warned to give alligators a wide berth as the reptiles lay out in the sun in the presence of hundreds of onlookers walking along a narrow boardwalk. It feels like Disney World when you see so many alligators lying motionless in the open as dozens of tourists accumulate to take pictures before walking on by. In Custer State Park, stopped vehicles accumulate on the road, and doors open as passengers try to get a clear view of the bison with a camera or phone.
But when given an audience of one, nature will put on an extraordinary show of epic magnificence, if only for a fleeting moment. With no others to distract or to serve as a buffer, the experience can be palpable. It is nothing short of a unique gift from nature, to be kept safe in a memory. The Black Hills gave me such a gift at the crack of dawn on Wildlife Loop. For about 10 minutes, I stood still from the safety of my truck and viewed a few hundred bison saunter on by. And in those moments, what I had anticipated in the Black Hills no longer mattered. Everything came down to this.
After that, Vivian and I saw many more bison, often in the presence of many other visitors to the park. The Black Hills gave us one gift after another; I got to photograph the enchanting hills on a few occasions and Vivian got to spend time fishing the many lakes in the area. And then there were those two grand rock sculptures we visited (those are for another blog). But it was the time I had alone with the bison herd that defines the Black Hills for me.