The American buffalo is a sight to see – one that keeps people flocking to Yellowstone National Park by the millions. In this article, we’ll take a look at buffalo populations in Yellowstone, covering:
- How many buffalo currently live in the park,
- How that number has changed over time,
- And where you have the best chance of seeing a herd for yourself.
How many buffalo live in Yellowstone National Park?
In the summer of 2022, the National Parks Service counted roughly 5,900 buffalo in the park. While this number can fluctuate depending on the time of year due to migration, that number is the most accurate available.
The Yellowstone buffalo population is separated into two main herds. The Northern herd is the largest, numbering around 4,460, and the Central numbers around 1,360.
On a recent trip to Yellowstone, I drove past a group of about 50 buffalo as they crossed the highway. Buffalo move about in groups like this, smaller pieces of the larger herd. It’s not uncommon to see a large group like this, but boy is it a treat!
Yellowstone Buffalo Population over Time
The plight of the American bison (A.K.A. buffalo) has been well-documented. While they originally numbered in the millions, hunting reduced the population in the entire lower 48 to fewer than 300 in the late 1800s. Conservation efforts over the years have helped populations recover, and there are now about 500,000 in North America, including about 31,000 wild buffalo. That said, Yellowstone is the only place in the lower 48 that has had a continuous wild herd of buffalo since the prehistoric age.
In the park itself, the herd started out with just 23 animals in 1902 but has grown to more than 4,500 since. The herd reached 500 animals in the 1970s, a significant achievement in bringing a species back from the brink of extinction. In recent years, the herd has gotten large enough that problems such as brucellosis, a disease that impacts buffalo and can spread to cows, have led to the need for culls or hunts.
Culling the herd through hunts or other methods is a bit controversial, but necessary for the health of the herd. Since 2018, the Bison Conservation Transfer program has facilitated the re-homing of buffalo that do not have brucellosis. To date, 294 bison have been relocated, with many of them finding new homes in lands owned by Native American tribes.
The National Parks Service, alongside other organizations such as the US Forest Service, USDA-Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service, Montana Department of Livestock and Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks, help manage the herd and protect it.
Where to see Yellowstone’s Buffalo Herd
The good news is that buffalo are really, really easy to find – I was in Yellowstone for just over 24 hours and saw them 5 separate times, including on the roadside near Old Faithful.
The best places to see buffalo are in the Hayden and Lamar valleys. These valleys are perfect grazing areas for the buffalo, and it’s the place where you’re most likely to see them. The Hayden Valley is a little bit easier to access; it’s closer to Canyon Village and Yellowstone Lake. The Lamar Valley is just a bit further east, and is a great place to hit up for sunrise/sunset viewing of buffalo.
That said, you really don’t have to over-strategize to see buffalo. A lot of people will run into them simply by driving around the park. For example, I saw a large group of buffalo, mostly cows and calves, just a couple of miles from Grand Prismatic Spring, which is nearly 50 miles from the Hayden Valley. Suffice it to say, there are a healthy number of buffalo in the park, especially during the summer, so you really shouldn’t have any trouble seeing some in the wild!
Article Sources: Information for this article came from the National Parks Service, as well as Buffalo in Yellowstone, a book from P.J. White, Rick L. Wallen, and David E. Hallac.