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13 May 2019 The Prehistoric Bison of Yellowstone National Park
Richard B. Keigley
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  • When Yellowstone National Park (YNP) was established in 1872, American bison (Bison bison) were living in the park's forests and mountains.

  • A study conducted in the 1960s concluded that those were Mountain bison (Bison bison athabascae), a subspecies adapted to mountain habitat. It was assumed that those historical bison occupied their native habitat and had done so in prehistoric times.

  • When archaeological evidence of YNP bison was discovered in the mid-1990s it seemed reasonable to assume that those bones were derived from a herd of native prehistoric bison.

  • However, a review of archaeological, historical, genetic, and ecological evidence suggests a different history. Namely, herds of bison were absent before 1840. Sometime between 1840 and the mid-1850s, plains bison were driven into the mountain forest in and near YNP. In those forests, bison were relatively safe from horse-mounted, bow-and-arrow-armed Native American hunters.

  • Archaeological evidence suggests that YNPs prehistoric bison were bulls that left herds on the low-elevation plains that surround the park; the bulls would have traveled up mountain drainages to the Yellowstone volcanic plateau.

  • Bison played no significant role in the ecological processes that shaped YNPs prehistoric landscape. YNPs modern bison herd is causing significant changes in range condition.

© 2019 The Society for Range Management.
Richard B. Keigley "The Prehistoric Bison of Yellowstone National Park," Rangelands 41(2), 107-120, (13 May 2019).
Published: 13 May 2019
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