Modern buffalo hunting is a nostalgic pursuit. Hunters who get an opportunity to chase these giants find it impossible to do so without pondering the historical significance of this animal on the lives of the Plains Indians and the Euro American explorers who first traveled the American West.
Just as it’s difficult to comprehend the past abundance of these animals, hunters reported massive herds that took days to pass, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, it’s difficult to comprehend how quickly they vanished.
An estimated 15 million buffalo lived on the Great Plains at the end of the Civil War, thirty years later, there were fewer than a thousand left in all of the United States and Canada.
Today, we have a healthy and growing population of approximately 500,000 buffalo on the continent. The vast majority of these buffalo are semi-domesticated animals living on private property. On many large ranches, these animals can be purchased and then “hunted.” While such activities might certainly give a hunter an idea of what it was like when our ancestors tangled with these massive beasts, the lack of challenge is noteworthy. Most hunts for private herds offer guaranteed success.
Thankfully, there are fair-chase, public-land buffalo hunting opportunities in a handful of states, including Alaska, Arizona, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming, all of which award their tags through lottery drawings. By showing interest in these hunts, the hunter is actually helping buffalo conservation. The primary impediment to buffalo recovery is a lack of political will, and nothing shapes politics quite like an economic incentive.
Bison, American bison, buffs.
Bar Room Banter
Accidental deaths such as those caused by forest fires, falling, and drowning claim between 3% and 9% of North America’s buffalo population annually. Assuming that these rates were similar at the time of European contact, when there were 32 million buffalo in North America, somewhere between one-million and three-million of the animals were dying by accident every year. Judging from historical accounts, drowning was clearly the leading cause of accidental death.
In 1795, a fur trader along the Qu’Appelle River in Canada counted the carcasses of 7,360 drowned buffalo in a single day. Another traveler along Canada’s Saskatchewan River estimated a total of 10,000 drowned buffalo near a ford. A traveler along the Missouri River observed several massive groupings of drowned buffalo carcasses in sloughs, some numbering close to 2,000 animals.
Today, biologists believe that the near extinction of the buffalo in the late-1800s helped bring about a collapse in grizzly bear populations on the Great Plains. The bears relied on the spring “runs” of drowned buffalo just as Alaska’s bears rely on salmon today.
The largest land animal in North America. Chocolate brown body with a shaggy mane and head. Long tail. Both sexes have curved, sharp-pointed horns that appear glossy black. Heads are blocky and massive. Big bulls stand 6’ high at the shoulder and can weigh over of 2,000 pounds. Cows can weigh over 1,000 pounds.
Grasses, sedges, forbs.
Life and Death
Wolves are the only truly effective predator of adult buffalo, though buffalo calves are often killed by coyotes, black bears, and grizzly bears. Both sexes can live up to 25 years in the wild, though females tend to live longer. While many buffalo live in captivity, the primary long-term threat to wild, free-ranging buffalo is a lack of human tolerance for these great, powerful beasts.
Breeding and Reproduction
Buffalo typically breed during June and July and drop their calves in the early spring after a 9-month gestation period.
Primarily open grasslands, though historically there were buffalo ranging from the boreal forests of northern Canada south to the deserts of Mexico, and from the mountains peaks of Utah east to the coastal piedmont of North Carolina.
Look for well-used rubs, or scratching surfaces, including large trees on which the lower 3’-4’ of bark has been rubbed smooth. Large clumps of shed hair can be found hanging from brush along well-used trails and stuck to the bark of rubbing trees. Buffalo wallows can be over 10’ wide, and deep enough that they’ll fill with water in the spring and support amphibian life. Buffalo trails can be as wide as bike paths.
Superb, especially cows and young bulls. The flesh of older bulls is well flavored but sometimes exceptionally tough. The fat of buffalo is similar to beef fat, and can be eaten as such; it does not need to be trimmed away. Suitable for all red meat applications.
Some hunters spend a lifetime applying in multiple states for a tag to hunt a wild, free-ranging buffalo without ever hitting the jackpot. But many people do get lucky every year. Next year, it might be you.
The historical record is full of buffalo hunting accounts that demonstrate a wide variety of suitable tactics. Buffalo hunters on the Texas Panhandle ambushed buffalo along rivers and watering holes. Indian hunters on the northern Great Plains organized drives to push the animals over cliff edges. Kentucky hunters such as Daniel Boone still-hunted buffalo in cane brakes and there are accounts of Indian hunters draping themselves in the hides of buffalo calves in order to decoy cows. Today, however, buffalo hunting is mostly a spot-and-stalk endeavor.
With the exception of the winter migration hunts for the Yellowstone herd in southwest Montana, the handful of locations that offer truly free-ranging buffalo hunts share in common a lot of land and a small scattering of animals. Rather than being a slam-dunk, these hunts can be excruciatingly tough. Some of the most cherished buffalo tags in the country, the north rim of the Grand Canyon, Utah’s Henry Mountains, Alaska’s Copper River, have success rates that are often well below 50%. In these places, small buffalo herds might migrate as much as twenty miles or more in a matter of days, seemingly vanishing out from under hunters who are pursuing them. Some guys put in multiple days on these hunts, and sometimes multiple trips, without ever seeing an animal.
Hunters who’ve been successful on free-ranging buffalo hunts usually share in common an ability to cover a lot of ground. This requires both physical stamina and a solid plan for moving a load of meat and hide that could possibly total a thousand pounds, a subject that will be addressed in a short while. Thankfully, buffalo are a somewhat difficult thing for the landscape to hide. While the animals can certainly vanish into timber or brush, especially during hot weather, they habitually seek out open grazing grounds during the morning and evening hours.
Locating a Herd
When trying to locate a herd, it’s wise for a hunter to be vigilant about positioning himself in prime glassing areas during these times. The selection of such glassing areas is hardly a random process. Buffalo leave an immense amount of sign wherever they go, and this sign can be readily identifiable even when it’s a year or more old.
The trick is to make sure that you’re glassing areas with sign that demonstrates recent or current use by a herd. There are many indicators of fresh buffalo sign, including wet, sloppy droppings and also tracks that were laid down in the wake of a recent rainfall or snowfall. But one of the best ways to determine the presence of buffalo is to use your nose.
More than any other North American game animal, buffalo have a way of stinking a place up. Some of the odor, it’s reminiscent of a cattle/barnyard odor, though somehow cleaner smelling, has a residual quality and can linger for days or even weeks in the absence of rain. But the odor of a recently passed herd is really hard to mistake. It smells distinctly warm and full of life, like the scent you get from pressing your nose to the neck of a horse. When you smell this, trust that you’re in the vicinity of a herd. Get into a position where you can glass as much of the surrounding terrain as possible and watch for the movement of animals.
You often hear people say that buffalo are dumb, which is a dumb thing to say. Surely this sentiment comes from people whose exposure to the animals is limited to national parks and ranches, where they do not face hunting pressure. When the animals do face hunting pressure, they can become incredibly wary.
Their primary defense is the their sense of smell, a whiff of human odor will sometimes send them running, possibly for miles. For this reason, the spot and stalk hunter should plan his approach according to the wind. Sound isn’t nearly so important, as buffalo herds make a lot of noise and the animals aren’t really sensitive to it.
Bringing Buffalo Down
Buffalo are huge and therefore tough to bring down. Good shot placement is essential. For this reason, you want to avoid shots that are too close or too far away. Close shots are less than perfect because they can quickly turn into rushed shots if the animal detects your presence and starts to fidget or bolt. Long shots are less than ideal because of imprecise shot placement and also because of the buffalo’s tendency to herd up in tight balls. Not only do you need a clear view of the animal you’re aiming at, you need to see what might be standing behind it. Do not risk having a pass-through shot that will injure a second animal.
There are widely divergent views on the subjects of ballistics and shot placement regarding heavy animals like buffalo, but a safe bet is to use a hard-hitting caliber at least as powerful as a 300 Win Mag pushing 180-grain bullets. Shots to the upper portion of the shoulder might very well drop the animal in its tracks, but this point of aim is somewhat risky for novice shooters who have an imperfect understanding of anatomy.
Put your shot tucked as tightly as possible behind the shoulder and you’re virtually guaranteed to have a dead buffalo on the ground in a matter of minutes even if you fudge the shot by a few inches in either direction. And no matter what you hear from so-called experts, never attempt a head shot on a wild buffalo. It’s a recipe for disaster.
Packing Out a Buffalo
There’s a cliché about buffalo hunting that’s often applied to elk and moose as well, the real work begins after the animal is down. This is absolutely true. Someone who’s never dealt with a thousand-plus pound carcass is going to be in for a shock when they approach a buffalo. Unless the animal has fallen on smooth, level ground, a single person is not going to budge it. You might have to begin skinning whatever part of the carcass is facing the sky, and then remove whatever meat you can expose in order to lighten the animal up.
Once you skin and quarter the upward facing half, you can remove the entrails by cutting away the animal’s paunch and slipping them through the opening. Then you can maybe roll the animal and work on the downward-facing half. Put simply, it’s advisable to let the animal’s position dictate your skinning and butchering process rather than trying to follow through with preconceived ideas of how you’ll get the job done.
With buffalo, there is little that you’ll want to leave in the field. The hides make great rugs and blankets when tanned, the skulls are beautiful wall ornaments. The femurs and portions of the forearms can be processed into marrow bones. The fat can be rendered for pemmican. The edible organs make superb eating and the meat, of course, is fantastic. Getting this all out can be a grueling task if the animal is in a place that’s inaccessible to vehicles and you don’t have friends with horses.
A cow buffalo might require 8 trips carrying a hundred pounds, a bull might require a dozen or more. It can take an experienced and physically fit hunter a total of three days to move a cow buffalo a distance of three miles across rough terrain. So keep this reality in mind at all times when hunting buffalo or any other large-bodied game. Much of our history with this iconic mammal involves catastrophic waste and mismanagement. We owe it to the animal, and ourselves, to use it thoroughly and with utmost respect.
Traditional Uses for Buffalo
- Tongue: boiled and eaten.
- Hooves: rattles, spoons
- Horns: charcoal carriers, ladles, head ornaments, bow laminates, powder horns, arrowheads, and decorative flourishes on headwear.
- Un-tanned skins: buckets, mortars, war shields, drums, splints, cinches, lariats, packing straps, knife sheaves, saddles, blankets, stirrups, masks, ornaments, quirts, snowshoes, boats, and moccasin soles.
- Tanned hides: moccasin uppers, blankets, beds, winter coats, shirts, leggings, dresses, belts, bridles, quivers, backrests, bags, tapestries, sweat lodge covers, tipi covers, and tipi liners.
- Skin from the hind leg could be taken directly off of a freshly killed buffalo and used as emergency footwear.
- Buffalo hair, particularly from the forehead: stuffing pillows, dolls, sleeping pads, and medicine balls; insulating moccasins.
- Buffalo hair: ropes, which turned into headdresses, bracelets, hairpieces, bridles, and halters.
- Tailbone and its covering: fly swatters, whips, decorations, and children’s toys.
- Beard: decoration.
- Shoulder blades: boat paddles and gardening implements, such as shovels and hoes.
- Other bones: fleshing tools, smoking pipes, arrowheads, sled runners, saddle frames, war clubs, scrapers, awls, paintbrushes, sewing needles, gaming dice, knives and knife handles, forks and spoons.
- Teeth: ornaments for clothing.
- Brains and livers: to treat leather.
- Stomach: kettle, a washing basin, a water bucket, or as packaging material for meat.
- Scrotum: rattles.
- Bladders: balloons, flotation devices, waterproof pouches and storage for marrow or fat.
- Fat:hair treatment, base for medicine or cosmetics, cooking oil, food item, and waterproofing agent.
- Hooves and Noses: cooked down into glue.
- Tendons and sinews: bowstring and cords. The best sinews came from alongside the spine. These could be split into fine, strong threads for sewing clothes.
- Buffalo heads: many uses, but mostly of a spiritual or metaphysical nature. A skull represented a form of rebirth to many tribes.