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A project dedicated to learning more about bison morphology, or shape, and ecology within the geographic Bighorn Basin. Join us in exploring the story of the bison.

Bison of the Bighorn Basin

Dr. Jeff Martin, Director of Research for the Center of Excellence for Bison Studies Michael Stites, Bighorn National Forest Kyle Wright, Shoshone National Forest Medicine Lodge State Park Houston Martin, Cannon Heritage Consultants, Inc.Dr. Todd Surovell, University of WyomingLevi Shinkle, Wyoming Dinosaur CenterHeather Bender, Buffalo Bill Center of the WestHunter Old Elk, Buffalo Bill Center of the WestKaren McWhorter, Buffalo Bill Center of the West

Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area Hot Springs State Park Old Trail Town Washakie Museum and Cultural Center Homesteader Museum Buffalo Bill Center of the WestBrian Beauvais, Park County ArchivesSam May, Antlers RanchDr. Kenneth Cannon, Cannon Heritage Consultants, Inc.Dr. Lawrence Todd, GRSLE ArcheaologyDr. Chris Widga, Head Curator of the Gray Fossil SiteJason Baldes, Executive Director, Wind River Native Advocacy Center

Thank you to our sponsors, advisors, funding sources, and the Bighorn Basin Community for their participation and support of this project.

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"American Bison" courtesy of USFWS Mountain Prairie.



Bison or Buffalo?

Story of the Bison

Bison have a long history in North America, learn more about their relationships to the environment, people, and more through time!

The Bison Project

What the measurements of 106 bison crania in the geographic Bighorn Basin tell us about bison.

Bison Today

As of 2016, the bison became the national mammal of the United States. At the same time, bison are being returned to the landscape.


North American conservation was just beginning as bison populations plumeted. Learn more about saving this icon of the Great Plains.

What do you want to learn about?









History of Bison in North America

Imagine being transported back through time. Civilizations rise and fall until there are no permanent settlements. You stand in a very different landscape from today but there is a familiar animal in front of you- the bison.









3,000 years ago

10,000 years ago

14,000 years ago

200,000 years ago

"American Bison" courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Midwest Region.

Gweechoon Deka

For over 14,000 years in North America, bison co-existed with humans. Today we know those people collectively as Native Americans. For many Native Americans dwelling on the Great Plains, known as the Plains Tribes, the bison were a main food source. But bison were more than just a meal — they were and are viewed as kin or family. This relationship was exploited by Euro-Americans in the mid-1800s through the deliberate slaughter of bison by the hundreds of thousands.

Bison as Kin

Material Relationship

Spiritual/ Celebratory

Photograph of Sioux people drying meat on racks, courtesy of the McCracken Research Library P.35.174.


Bison were important for their meat, but the relationship between bison and many Native American tribes goes much deeper.

This ceremonial mask was used in a Mandan Okipa ceremony which dramatizes the tribe's origins and creation of earth. The ceremony took place before the buffalo hunt, bringing the herds closer to the village. NA.203.359. Plains Indian Museum. Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

The bison gave Native American tribes food, shelter, and clothing and in return, the tribes honored the bison through ceremonies and spiritual practices. Today, though many Plains Tribes have not had access to the bison for many years, bison are being returned through reintroduction efforts. The physical return of bison brings with it healing for both the buffalo and the tribes. For some, the bison is a living symbol of tribal resilience and survival.

Spiritual/Celebratory Role of the Bison

Photograph of Sioux people drying meat on racks. Notice the internal organs at the far left of the photograph. PA.35.174 courtesy of the McCracken Research Library, Buffalo Bill Center of the West.


An understanding of animal behavior allowed North America’s first humans, commonly referred to as “Paleoindians,” to exploit the natural instincts of animals. This knowledge combined with an intimate, cultural knowledge of the landscape made Paleoindians effective hunters. For over 14,000 years, bison were hunted individually in encounter hunts, in large groups, driven over cliffs, run into arroyos, trapped in sand dunes, and killed in places with no natural containment.

Butchering with stone tools

Photograph of stone tool cut marks on a bison radius courtesy of Dr. Lawrence Todd, GRSLE Archaeology.

Paleoindians would sometimes move their people to the location of the kill. There, they would butcher the bison and camp at the site until they were forced to move on looking for more food.

Native American woman holding staff with dog pulling travois. P.35.191. MS 35 North American Indian Photograph Collection. Courtesy of the McCracken Research Library, Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

Domesticated dogs made it easier to transport meat. It was now possible to butcher multiple bison and then transport the meat to more desirable camps on a travois tethered to the dogs.

After 1519, the reintroduction of horses to North America by the Spanish made it possible to transport even larger quantities of meat. The Vore Buffalo Jump is an example of a site that illustrates how this transition from using dogs for transportation to horses was reflected in butchery practice.







In addition to playing a spiritual role for tribes, bison featured prominently in material possessions.

Saving Bison

Brink of Extinction

Bison and Conservation

When Europeans first came to North America, an estimated 30 to 60 million bison roamed the Great Plains.

When Euro-Americans reached the Great Plains, they began to trade with many Plains Tribes for valuable bison hides. The hide market was first dominated by Plains Tribes who would trade the hides for various goods.

On the Brink of Extinction

The lucrative market soon attracted European-descendant hunters who would kill as many bison as they could to strip them of their hides, leaving the bodies to rot.

The Army & Bison

Removal of bison impacted the ability of Native American groups to survive or defend their traditional lands against the United States. The slaughter reached its peak in the 1870s and 1880s, and bison numbers fell to their lowest point, roughly 1,000 in North America. Only approximately 300 of those were Bison bison bison while the other 700 were Bison bison athabascae, or wood bison.

The Buffalo-Hunt, Camp Seventh United States Cavalry, Near Fort Hays, May 28, 1867. Harpers Weekly, July 6, 1867, page 426. MS51.337-Pg426. McCracken Research Library, Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

Nick Eggenhofer (1897-1985). Col. Cody Hunting Buffalo, ca. 1952. Gouache on board, 15.5 x 13 inches. Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming. Gift of the artist. 39.73

Despite playing a hand in their extermination, the US Army would soon be tasked with protecting one of the remaining wild bison herds in Yellowstone National Park.

Bison hunting was hailed as an "American sport" that could be won by whoever killed the most bison. The Army relied on this sport to keep idle troops entertained on the frontier.

Over-exploitation due to commerce was not the sole reason for the removal of bison from the landscape. On 26 June 1869, the Army Navy Journal reported: “General Sherman remarked, in conversation the other day, that the quickest way to compel the Indians to settle down to civilized life was to send ten regiments of soldiers to the plains, with orders to shoot buffaloes until they became too scarce to support the redskins.”

The North American Model

Bison were saved from extinction in large part due to the North American Model. The model originated during the late 19th century in large part thanks to Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt. During Roosevelt’s presidency, the National Parks were designated as areas of preservation meaning their resources could not be used while the subsequently formed National Forests were conservation areas for wise-use.

Learn more about Buffalo Bill Cody

Buffalo Bill stands on the front porch of the lodge at Pahaska Tepee in 1903. Photo courtesy of Park County Archives.

Private Conservation

Private conservation of bison is the main reason we can view bison today in places like Yellowstone National Park. When the bison population numbered only 1,000 individuals, many of them were part of private herds and necessary for the revitalization of the species. The Bighorn Basin’s most famous resident and Cody, Wyoming’s namesake, Buffalo Bill, was the owner of one such herd.

In a direct reversal of his actions and ideas in 1883, Cody publicly wrote the New York Sun in support of U.S. Senator George Graham Vest’s bill to increase protections in Yellowstone National Park. Cody never joined any conservation organizations and was well known as a bison hunter. However, in 1902 Cody did lend twelve of the bison from his private herd (used to supply his famous Wild West show) to the Zoological Park in Washington, D.C. Those bison were part of a conservation effort to reintroduce bison across the country. From that herd, bison were sent to the Wichita National Forest and Game Preserve in Oklahoma.

After establishing a hunting lodge outside of Cody, Buffalo Bill began noticing a decline in large game species and soon became an advocate for conservation and limits on hunting.

William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody killed 4,282 bison in an eighteen-month period in 1868 for the Union Pacific Railroad.

When the Land Belonged to God Charles M. Russell Oil on canvas, 1914 Montana Historical Society Collection, X1977.01.01

Almost twenty years after Buffalo Bill renounced his actions, the Army was tasked with protecting the bison in Yellowstone National Park- one of the remaining wild herds. Within just a few years, the bison population increased, but bison would not freely roam the Great Plains again. Today there are an estimated 362,406 bison in North America. One hundred eighty-three thousand seven hundred and eighty of those bison are in private herds. Bison are the only mammal native to North America that can be farmed without a permit

Excavation courtesy of the Wyoming Dinosaur Center, Thermopolis, Wyoming

Photograph courtesy of Larry Todd depicts an archaeologist excavating site 48PA563 in August of 1984.

Learn More

Learn More

Paleontology is the study of fossils including dinosaurs, plants, and animals.

Archaeology is the study of human history through excavation of materials left behind.

In the United States, there are laws governing the collection of non-renewable resources. These resources cannot be replaced which means both archaeological and paleontological remains are subject to this legislation.

Archaeology vs. Paleontology

Wild bison have been absent from the Bighorn Basin since the late 1890s. This means, any bison remains found in the area are either archaeological or paleontological finds.

Get involved

When you find something

Archaeology vs. paleontology

Finding Bison

During a survey, archaeologists take inventory of the archaeological resources in a specific area. Each flag marks an archaeological resource. Photograph courtesy of Dr. Lawrence Todd.

Humans have made their home in Wyoming for more than 13,000 years. Reminders of this long history are scattered across the landscape in the form of the archaeological record.

Learn More

The disturbance or removal of archaeological resources on Federal lands (for example, Forest Service, BLM, National Parks) is illegal under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) of 1979.

When does ARPA APPLY?


Why does it matter?

Photo courtesy of the Wyoming Dinosaur Center, Thermopolis, Wyoming.

Excavation at the Bugas-Holding Site in 1984 of the occupation surface, photograph courtesy of Dr. Lawrence Todd.

Learn about Paleontology

Explore a Site

There's more than meets the eye when it comes to archaeological resources. Archaeologists use a variety of different approaches to make inferences about the past. Explore a site to learn more!

Photograph of 48PA563 during excavation courtesy of Dr. Lawrence Todd.


48PA563 is a Shoshonean winter camp located in Sunlight Basin occupied during the Late Prehistoric Period (after 1300 A.D.).

Photograph of the Mummy Cave, courtesy of McCracken Research Library

48PA201 is a rockshelter on the banks of the North Fork of the Shoshone River that was occupied from approximately 7280 B.C. to 1580 A.D.


Photograph of the Horner Site excavations by University of Wyoming courtesy of Dr. Lawrence Todd.

The Horner Site consists of Horner I and Horner II and is located outside of Cody, Wyoming. The site dates between about 10,500 and 11,500 years old (calibrated Frison dates Table 4.1).


What can we learn from an archaeological site? Pick one to find out!

Explore a Site

In Situ

Map of the Princeton-Smithsonian excavations of 1949-1952 from "The Horner Site: The Type Site of the Cody Cultural Complex" edited by George C. Frison and Lawrence C. Todd.

Horner I, shown here, represents a wide range of activities including hide processing. This could mean it was a short-term occupation site, likely used during the late fall or early winter. The area contains well over 100 bison.


The Horner Site


Radiocarbon Dating


Site 48PA201

Sometimes referred to as "Mummy Cave" because of the ancestor's remains found in the cave, site 48PA201 represents almost 9,000 years of continuous occupation. The rockshelter's dry conditions resulted in the preservation of perishable objects such as baskets, wood, hide, and feathers alongside the more frequently seen projectile points, chipped stone knives and scrapers, faunal remains and tubular bone pipes. As each layer was radiocarbon dated, archaeologists were able to establish a timeline for changes in the shape of projectile points. This timeline can be used to estimate the age of an undated site.


Animal Behavior



48PA563 was discovered during a gas line trench excavation. The site was first tested in August 1983. The site was occupied from November until early spring (March/April) about 1300 A.D. After the site was abandoned, it was quickly covered with sediment from alluvial flows.

48PA563: Bugas-Holding Site

Read the act

Learn More

Paleontological Resources Preservation Act

Passed in 2009, the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act is similar to the Archaeological Resources Preservation Act, but it protects paleontological resources, like fossils. Fossils are the remains of plants and animals that once lived in the area and are preserved in sedimentary rock.

Collecting the remains of organisms like vertebrates, which include mammals (like bison) and reptiles, requires a permit from the Federal Government. Studying vertebrate fossils is important because it gives us and understanding of what past ecosystems may have looked like before human involvement.

Many bison bones occur in archaeological and/or cave contexts, are protected under ARPA and Federal Cave Resources Protection Act (FCRPA), and can only be collected by qualified researchers with an authorizing permit. Bison bones occurring in sediments or ice (outside of caves or archaeological context) often qualify as vertebrate paleontological resources under PRPA, and can only be collected with research and collection permit of the requisite federal land management authority.Best Practice – treat bison bones as natural/cultural resources protected by ARPA/FCRPA/PRPA.

Vertebrate Fossils


Not covered by PRPA, you can collect common invertebrate or plant fossils on public lands but the amount cannot exceed 100 lbs a year and must be gathered by hand (without the use of tools). Additionally, you cannot sell the fossils collected.

Collecting without a permit

Removing one piece of a site is like taking a piece from a puzzle. Over time it gets harder and harder to see the big picture.

Contact List

When You Find Something

Report anything you find to the proper authorities.

Report Finds

Leave it in place! The original context of archaeological and paleontological resources can yield valuable information, not all of which is apparent to the naked eye. Record where you found it—use GPS, take a photo of setting, make notes.

Leave it in place

What is a cultural resource?

Get Involved

Channel your passion for the past by volunteering! Here are just a few programs that always welcome volunteers. Keep in mind, you are the eyes and ears of your communities!

The Wyoming Site Stewardship Program is run through the Historic Preservation Office. Trained volunteers work with professionals to monitor cultural resources throughout the state.

Site Stewardship Program

Passport in Time is a project started through the Forest Service that now includes the BLM and HistoriCorps. Through Passport in Time volunteers work with professionals to help with things like archaeological survey, restoration, research, and more!

Passport in Time

What we Learned

Finding Bison




The Bison Project

side by side comparison

"Morphology" is the study of shape. The shape of bison changes through time. Bison latifrons, for example, was much larger than modern bison despite belonging to the same genus.


3D modern bison cranium

The bison measured during this project were compared with metrics (measurements) from a national dataset gathered by Dr. Chris Widga, head curator at the Gray Fossil Site in Eastern Tennessee. The comparison revealed that the Bighorn Basin bison are morphologically modern. This means the bison lived within the last 3,000 years, before the population-bottlenecking event of the late 19th century. To learn more, the Project radiocarbon dated 23 of the 106 crania measured during the project.


Stable Nitrogen Isotope Analysis

Radiocarbon Dates


Stable Carbon Isotope Analysis


What We Learned

Bison are sexually dimorphic which means male bison are larger than female bison in a measurable way. Five measurements were used to determine the likely sex of each bison.

Determining Sex

"Legal Writing" by Dave Wilson Cumbria is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Eastern Shoshone bison herd on the Wind River Reservation courtesy of the Casper Star Tribune.

Bison Today

Bison in Lamar Valley, NPS.

Despite being endangered in the early 20th century, today bison are thriving. As of 2016, the bison became the United States’ national mammal. It’s a tribute to the uniqueness of the species. Bison are the only large-game animal native to North America which can be raised on ranches without a permit. They also live in conservation herds like those at Yellowstone National Park and the Wind River Reservation.

Yellowstone National Park

Legislation & Agreements


Tribal Sovereignty

Ecological IMpact


Today bison are returning to their former ranges through the efforts of people like Jason Baldes, Eastern Shoshone. On the nearby Wind River Reservation, the Eastern Shoshone Tribe has 66 buffalo, and the Northern Arapaho Tribe has 32, as of October 2021. For Baldes and the Eastern Shoshone, the goal is to eventually allow the tribes to return to traditional subsistence ways after an absence of upwards of 100 years. The return is important for tribal sovereignty and tradition but also the land.

"Legal Writing" by Dave Wilson Cumbria is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.


The Buffalo Treaty

H. R. 5153

Legislation and Agreements

The Buffalo Treaty

On September 24, 2014 the following nations signed a document pledging their commitment to returning the buffalo back to its former ranges. Those nations were: Blackfeet Nation, Kainai/Blood Tribe, Siksika Nation, Piikani Nation, the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre Tribes of Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of Fort Peck Indian Reservation, the Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Indian Reservation, and Tsuut’ina Nation. In 2019, the Eastern Shoshone joined the treaty and today a total of 31 signatories have signed the document known as “The Buffalo: A Treaty of Cooperation, Renewal and Restoration.” The signatories meet annually to discuss the progress that has been made and determine next steps of action.

Read the treaty

The Bison Treaty

“Existence is a 'spider web' network of relationships in the Indian mind world. That mind world forever is in search of regular patterns that give existence to our people through our cultural life ways. The Buffalo is keystone to the maintenance of life ways of cooperation, kindness, renewal, and sharing amongst and between peoples.”


read the act

Indian Buffalo Management Act

In December 2020, the Indian Buffalo Management Act was passed by the House of Representatives. The Act acknowledges the importance of the buffalo to many Native American tribes and works to assist the management of buffalo and buffalo habitat on Indian lands.

H. R. 5153

read the act

National Bison Legacy Act

In 2016, the bison became the United States of America's national mammal. The Act acknowledges the relationship between Indian tribes and the bison, their continuing efforts in restoring bison to the landscape, and the complex history of bison in North America.

H. R. 2098

"Conserving the North American bison" courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey.

Bison may be icons of the United States’ first national park, but the Park herd is important for more than just their good looks. Since the bison in Yellowstone are genetically-pure, they are important for starting additional conservation herds and reintroducing bison to the landscape. They are also living in a very large, unfenced area which means studying them can give us clues about how bison of the past may have behaved.

Bison in Yellowstone National Park

New research has been conducted by the Park along with other partners to learn about the migration of their bison. Learn more!


What is brucellosis and why does it relate to the Yellowstone National Park herds?


Bison are a native species in the Park and the surrounding ecosystem, known as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Learn more about their long history in the area here.