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Unit 3


Buffalo in South Dakota

Lesson 1
Buffalo in South Dakota

Imagine that you went back in time. You are standing on a hill. The land will become South Dakota. The year is 1850. What do you see?


     Miles and miles of prairie are around you. Sounds in the distance become louder and louder. Soon thousands of big brown animals come into the draw below. Buffalo! The ground is shaking. There are many buffalo! Where have they all gone today?

Buffalo and Calf
Photo courtesy of South Dakota Department of Tourism


     Sixty million buffalo once lived in the Great Plains. Hunting killed millions of them. By 1889, when South Dakota became a state, the buffalo was nearly extinct. A few people acted to save them.

     Today, once again thousands of buffalo live in South Dakota. Many people come just to look at them. Ranchers raise them for sale. The buffalo is a symbol of pride. It means strength for South Dakota.  For American Indians, it is a sign of spiritual strength.


Natural History 

     The scientific name for the buffalo is Bison bison. Its true name is the American bison. It is an animal with hooves. It is a member of the bovine family. Beef cattle are also in the bovine family. 

     European explorers gave the American bison the name of buffalo. Spanish conquistadors thought they looked like cattle. French fur traders called them les boeufs (la buff). Les boeufs is French for "the beefs." English explorers had a hard time saying the French name. They said "la buff" or "buffle." Finally, everyone was saying "buffalo." It became the animal's common name.

     Zoologists believe that European bison came to North America long ago. The animals crossed a land bridge between Alaska and Russia. It was nearly 800,000 years ago. The buffalo can adapt to different climates and grasses. They learned to live anywhere in North America. They really liked the grasslands of South Dakota.

Photo courtesy of South Dakota Department of Tourism

      Buffalo and beef cattle are alike but not the same. Buffalo get bigger than cattle. But they eat less food than cattle. Buffalo also like dry areas like the Great Plains. They can eat plants that cattle will not eat. Buffalo dig through snow to reach the grass. They can get their water from eating snow. They have thick coats. They can live through blizzards. A buffalo points its body into the wind. It lets bad weather pass it by.

Photo courtesy of South Dakota Department of Tourism


      Buffalo have not been domesticated. They are still wild animals. They cannot be tamed like 4-H heifers or steers. Buffalo look lazy and slow. Not so. They can outrun and outmaneuver a horse. Remember this fact if you ever get close to a buffalo.

conquistadors (n.), Spanish explorers of North and South America in the 1500s

domesticated (v.t.), tamed

extinct (adj.), gone forever

outmaneuver (v.), to outdo by dodging and turning quickly

zoologists (n.), scientists who study animals