Lewis & Clark National Interpretive Center celebrates National Bison Day

On National Bison Day, November 7, 2020, bison enthusiasts joined for a virtual cross-country learning expedition from the Prairie State to the Treasure State. The USDA Forest Service’s third annual “Bison Crawl” included live presentations from Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Illinois, the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center in Montana and from nearby First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park. Presentations were broadcast live.


photo of four staff virtually presenting for National Bison Day

The first stop on the virtual education tour was at the spotting scopes along old historic Route 66 at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Forest Preserve District of Will County Community Partnerships & Outreach Coordinator Ben Hecke and Midewin NTP Visitor Information Assistant Jasmine Lyons reported live from the Henslow Trail. They used mobile devices to show three bison grazing far off in the distance.

“It’s just a beautiful day out here and everyone is happy to see bison on National Bison Day,” Hecke said. “Jasmine tells me the entire herd might be headed this way.”

As more bison approached, the expedition went to First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park in Ulm, Montana. From the edge of the cliff that is known to be the largest buffalo jump in the world, Park Manager Clark Carlson-Thompson said the jump was critical to human survival for hundreds or years.

“A buffalo jump is a site that was used by native peoples to harvest large numbers of buffalo, usually entire herds,” Carlson-Thompson explained. “This spot has forever been known as a place of peace and gathering. Thousands of pounds of meat, hides; bones for tools and more were harvested. It looks just like a hill and as we get closer and closer to the cliff, it just appears out of nowhere.”

Carlson-Thompson said that the jump was used for at least 600 years, starting at the year 900. The jump was used by 13 tribes from all over. “From Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and even up into Canada.” Depending on the specific spot, the buffalo jump is 20 to 50 feet tall. In some spots, bison bones are up to 22 feet deep. He said that most recent carbon dating is from 1500.

AmeriCorps Team Member Sarah Norlin held the mobile device through which Carlson-Thompson talked live with bison enthusiasts who otherwise would not be able to visit.  

The next stop was the USDA Forest Service’s Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center in Great Falls, Montana. Supervisory Interpreter Jeff LaRock said bison were essential to the expedition of Captain Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.  

“They came here knowing that there was this creature called the bison, although many of them had never seen one before and had only heard about them,” LaRock said. “They found their first sign of bison less than two months after they set out in 1804, but it wasn’t until two months after that when Private Reuben Field bagged the first bison. It was a bull. They dragged it back from the river. The meat filled two barrels.”

LaRock said bison hide was used as waterproof material for packing gear; for sleeping and winter clothing. “Even bison dung was used for creating a hot flame with not a lot of smoke,” LaRock said. “Lewis thought it ‘imparted a spicy flavor to the meat.’” 

Interpreter Karlene Faulkner described bowls made of bison ribs, pudding made of bison blood enhanced with berries and bone marrow. Pemmican, dried meat, was popular. Hair and cattail fluff stuffed mattresses and more.

“This way of life lasted for hundreds of years,” Faulkner said. “Today, the bison are making a comeback thanks to partnerships with Tribal Nations and local, state, and federal partnerships.”

Back in the Prairie State, Midewin NTP Range Management Specialist Kelly Gutknecht told about the bison project there.

“Bison were introduced five years ago, and the point is to see if the bison can help improve diversity of native vegetation during restoration,” Gutknecht said. “Through natural seed dispersal and more, we hope to see increases in grasses like big bluestem, Indian grass and more.”

The virtual cross-country expedition was part of the third annual Bison Crawl. This is the first year the Helena-Lewis & Clark National Forest's Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center has joined the Bison Crawl.  

PHOTO CAPTION: Clockwise, from top left: Midewin NTP Public Affairs Officer and Public Services Team Leader Veronica Hinke explains that female bison horns are c-shaped; Clark Carlson-Thompson, park manager of First Peoples Buffalo Jump and Tower Rock state parks, looks out on one of the most historic buffalo jumps in the world; bison are visible through spotting scopes along old historic Route 66 at Midewin NTP; Supervisory Interpreter Jeff LaRock at The Lewis & Clark National Interpretive Center. Photo by Allison Cisneros / The Nature Conservancy in Illinois