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Saving the bison may have saved Wind Cave Park

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100th anniversary presentation Friday evening

HOT SPRINGS – In many ways it is fitting that Tom Farrell is the Chief of Interpretation for Wind Cave National Park. He’s a hometown boy, born and raised in Hot Springs and has always had an affinity for the park and its wildlife.

“I remember going for family drives on Sunday afternoons,” Farrell said, “and marveling at the wildlife.”

This weekend, Aug. 16 and 17, there will be a celebration at Wind Cave National Park and in Hot Springs, marking the 100th anniversary of the return of the American Bison to the park and Farrell will make a presentation highlighting the process.

It was an act done to save and replenish the animal known to indigenous tribes as the Monarch of the Prairie, but the argument can be made that it was the saving grace for Wind Cave National Park in the process.

Farrell’s extensively researched history of the relationship of the bison and Wind Cave National Park will be presented at the park’s visitor center on Aug. 16, beginning at 7 p.m. Farrel has combed through a significant amount of documentation to determine how and why the bison were re-introduced and uses period photos and letters in the presentation.

Farrell’s presentation will be followed by the 1955 Oscar-winning documentary “The Vanishing Prairie.”

The next morning Farrell will lead a 9 a.m. hike to the area that was established as the original Wind Cave National Game Preserve, the home to the first bison. Those participating in the hike should meet at the visitor center to carpool to the hike area. You should dress for the weather, with good hiking shoes and remember to bring water.

More events, including an arts and crafts fair and concert are planned for Saturday in Hot Springs.

The last of the bison native to the area was shot in 1881, more than 20 years before Wind Cave was declared a national park in 1903. That final bison was a microcosm of the larger picture, which had seen America’s bison herd drop from more than 3 million head at the end of the Civil War to fewer than 24 free-range bison shortly after the turn of the century.

By 1910 the idea of reducing Wind Cave to a state or even local park was being circulated. According to Richard Ballinger, Secretary of the Interior at that time, “It (Wind Cave) is not in the same league as Yellowstone.”

At the same time a group called the American Bison Society was seeking to start a herd in South Dakota. They dispatched J. Alden Loring to the state, to survey three areas – The Rosebud Indian Reservation; an area south of Pactola in the central Black Hills and Wind Cave National Park – for suitability for the herd.

Due to several factors that Farrell’s presentation will detail, Wind Cave was the choice and the Wind Cave Game Preserve was born. In November of 1913 the 14 bison that would form the backbone of the current herd were shipped by rail from the Bronx Zoo to Hot Springs and by truck and wagon to a 55-acre temporary range on the north side of the park.

Over the 12 months, 21 elk and 13 pronghorn were also imported to the growing park. In 1916 six more bison, two dozen elk and nine more pronghorn were added and five years after the first arrival there were 42 bison in the park.

Today the park staff manages to maintain a herd of approximately 450 bison. On a regular basis, bison are supplied as stock for other parks or tribal areas wishing to begin or maintain a herd, although no such roundup has taken place since 2009. Wind Cave bison, as direct descendants from original stock at the turn of the century, have no cattle genes. They are as near to pure-blood bison as there are in the United States, a trait they share with their relatives at Yellowstone National Park.

And while Wind Cave National Park is at its heart a park with an extensive cave system, it is very much identified by its diverse wildlife collection, of which the bison is the undisputed king.

“I think it’s interesting that the American Bison Society basically went about saving the bison and on the sheer strength of the report from Mr. Loring for the Society, it was decided to place those animals here,” Farrell said. “It was a decision that certainly set the course for Wind Cave National Park to become what it is today.”

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