Bison Bit the Bullet

Today’s Blog post comes from Kit Fischer of the National Wildlife Federation via Ryan Callaghan of First Lite, makers of Merino Wool hunting clothes.

Everybody knows hunters nearly drove the American bison to extinction more than a century ago. Now conservationists are working to restore wild, wide-ranging bison to a vast expanse of public land in the Northern Plains. And get this: It will be up to hunters to give bison restoration its best shot at success.

That’s right. You may be needing a buffalo gun.

Opportunities to hunt wild bison are pretty limited at the moment. The Henry Mountains and Book Cliffs in southern Utah have huntable herds, as do several areas in Alaska, most notably Delta Junction. The proposal to restore a sizeable wild bison herd to Montana’s Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge – the CMR – could give the average hunter much greater need for that buffalo gun.

Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge

Bison restoration enjoys strong public support. Montana wildlife managers are working on an environmental impact statement, a first step toward restoring and managing bison much as they do elk, deer and other big-game animals. Congress is even talking about declaring bison the national mammal. But bringing ‘em back as wildlife is controversial among ranchers, who regard bison as competition for and a threat to cattle. So a big part of putting truly wild bison back on their native prairie landscape is assuring everyone that a significant population of bison can be managed well.

Managing wildlife means controlling regulating their numbers in balance with available habitat and controlling their distribution to prevent or reduce conflicts. We’ve been wildly successful restoring and managing big game in America, and hunters have played a crucial role in that success.  The same will be true for bison.

Let’s be clear about one thing—hunting wild bison is no walk in the park. Since most bison hunting occurs in the winter months, don’t skimp on cold weather gear.  While there are plenty of options out there, First Lite seems to make the best stuff out there in high quality merino wool products that breathe and don’t collect odor.  Also, you won’t be dragging these beasts out whole. Even after you and your partners have packed the meat out, you’re going to need to hunt up a substantial freezer. We’re talking good, lean, environmentally friendly meat – and a lot of it.

But long before you fire up the grill, you’ll need to take your best shot.

What type of firepower would you choose to bag North America’s largest land mammal? Any number of elk/moose-worthy calibers likely could get the job done, but a once-in-a-lifetime bison hunt leaves no room for error.  As writer Robert Ruark once wrote, “Never send a boy to do a man’s job.”

Although the historical and traditional appeal of bison hunting may strike a primal nerve to dig out your old buckskins and musket, you may want to think again.  Trying to drop a 2,000 pound bison requires significant firepower and a sizeable hunk of lead (Alaska requires hunters to use a minimum 200-grain bullet).

In the mid-19th century, when our ancestors were wiping out the plains bison by the millions, the most popular rifle was the venerable .45-70 Government, manufactured by Sharps. The rifle was widely renowned as the go-to gun of bison hunters because of its accuracy and long distance firepower. Theodore Roosevelt offered high praise to the Sharps while on his bison hunt in Dakota Territory in 1883:

“My men, in hunting buffalo, which was with them an
occasional occupation and not a regular pursuit, used
light Winchesters; but the professional buffalo
hunters carried either 40-90 or 45-120 Sharps, than
which there are in the world no rifles more accurate
or powerful; with the larger-calibred ones (45 or 50)
a man could easily kill an elephant.”

The .45-70 has seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years and several manufacturers are producing this caliber with several important improvements.  Newer .45-70s are built to withstand far greater pressures than the old guns, so they can be loaded for much-improved performance. You can get these in bolt and lever actions – for example, Henry Arms provides some options:  But if you’re worried a bolt action won’t match your buckskins, several gunmakers produce them in traditional falling–block actions including Shiloh Rifle Co.

Another popular model you may want to consider is the Springfield .50-70, a rifle that gained immense popularity through the most notable bison hunter of all, William “Buffalo Bill” Cody.  His rifle, nicknamed the “Lucrezia Borgia” (a femme fatale who epitomized ruthless Machiavellian politics and corruption in the 15th century) was responsible for putting to rest over 4,000 bison in 17 months.

The truth is, however, there are plenty of worthy models and calibers that can get the job done – including the .338 Win, most of the .35-calibers and the .375 H&H. You could even press the venerable .30-06 into service with a 200-grain premium bullet. Bison are bigger than other game, and they’ve got thick hides and heavy bones. Bullet size and performance and energy downrange are what matter most.

The rugged breaks, coulees and open prairies of the CMR are simply waiting for the bison to return.  And when they do, you’re going to want the right caliber and gear in your arsenal—and at the rate things are moving, you may need them sooner than you think.