Rare White Bison Calf Born at Yellowstone National Park

A photographer spotted the calf on June 4. White buffalo are sacred to some Native American tribes, and the birth has been called a “blessing and a warning”

a white bison calf stands to the right of its mother, which appears much larger and brown, in the grass. the baby is barely as tall as the mother's leg
The white bison calf and its mother were spotted in Yellowstone National Park. Erin Braaten, Dancing Aspens Photography

A rare white bison calf was spotted in Yellowstone National Park this month, and since then, wildlife watchers have been trying to catch another glimpse of it.

Photographer Erin Braaten photographed the young calf on June 4, as a group of bison crossed a road with traffic stopped, according to Amy Beth Hanson of the Associated Press (AP). “I was just totally, totally floored,” she tells the publication.

“It was so amazing. I thought I’d have a better chance of capturing Bigfoot than a white bison calf,” Braaten tells BBC News’ Max Matza and Madeline Halpert.

White buffalo calves are sacred to a number of Native American tribes, including the Sioux, Cherokee, Navajo, Lakota and Dakota.

“There are prophecies about white buffalo calves being born at a time of great change,” Jason Baldes, a member of the Eastern Shoshone tribe and executive director of the Wind River Tribal Buffalo Initiative, says to National Geographic’s Jason Bittel. “We have stories of the Eastern Shoshone people hunting and pursuing white bison or white buffalo from well over a century ago.”

Chief Arvol Looking Horse, the spiritual leader of the Lakota, Dakota and the Nakota Oyate in South Dakota, tells BBC News that the calf’s birth is “a blessing and a warning.”

“I’m so overwhelmed. It’s a miracle,” he adds.

the white bison calf walks with its mother close behind
White bison hold a spiritual significance to people of several Native American tribes, including the Sioux, Cherokee, Navajo, Lakota and Dakota. Erin Braaten, Dancing Aspens Photography

White animals can be leucistic, appearing mostly or partially white and having normal or dark-colored eyes, or albino, appearing almost entirely white and having light-colored eyes, according to Christina Larson of the AP. Albino animals don’t produce any melanin, a pigment responsible for color, while leucistic animals produce only some pigmentation.

The newborn calf has a black nose and eyes, so it’s not albino, Jim Matheson, executive director of the National Bison Association, tells the AP.

A white buffalo calf named Miracle was born on a farm in Janesville, Wisconsin, in 1994, according to the National Park Service (NPS). Previously, there hadn’t been a known white calf birth since 1933. Another white calf was born in 2012 in Avon, Minnesota, but survived only a few weeks. Last year, Wyoming’s Bear River State Park saw the birth of another white bison—this animal’s coloration likely comes from cattle genes mixed into its lineage rather than albinism or leucism, and its mother is also a pale white hue.

Before 1800, between 30 million and 100 million bison lived in the Great Plains, and they were the basis of the economy for some Native American tribes. As more European settlers moved to the West, hunting the animals and taking over their habitats, their population fell to only a couple hundred, per the U.S. Department of the Interior. The federal government also killed many bison in an organized effort to hurt the economy and food supply of the Plains Indians.

Bison have since made a comeback—around 50,000 are now managed as livestock and 30,000 live in conservation herds. These conservation herds roam on only about 1 percent of the land bison originally occupied. The InterTribal Buffalo Council has acquired 25,000 wild bison across 65 herds on tribal land, according to National Geographic.

“Most buffalo exist today in private herds and ranches,” Baldes says to the publication. “They are essentially ecologically extinct.”

The story of the white buffalo calf in Lakota culture is that a holy woman appeared to them during a time of famine, per the NPS. She brought a sacred pipe, taught ways to pray and told the people that she would one day return to restore harmony and spirituality. She turned into a white buffalo calf before disappearing.

“Many tribes have their own story of why the white buffalo is so important,” Troy Heinert, the executive director of the InterTribal Buffalo Council, tells the AP. “All stories go back to them being very sacred.”

“With the momentum that we see with bison restoration and conservation, I think this will help to bring awareness about the importance of, not only the sacredness of that white buffalo calf, but also the issue of [buffalo] existing as wildlife,” Baldes tells National Geographic.

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