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Reported Birth of Rare White Buffalo Cub in Yellowstone Park Fulfills Lakota Prophecy

The reported birth of a rare white buffalo in Yellowstone National Park fulfills a Lakota prophecy that portends better times, according to Native American tribe members who warned it is also a signal that more needs to be done to protect the earth and its animals.

“The birth of this calf is both a blessing and a warning. We must do more,” said Chief Arvol Looking Horse, spiritual leader of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota Oyate in South Dakota, and 19th Keeper of the White Buffalo Calf Wife’s Sacred Pipe and Bundle.

The birth of the sacred calf comes after a harsh winter in 2023 pushed thousands of Yellowstone buffalo, also known as bison, to lower elevations. More than 1,500 people have been killed, sent to slaughter or transferred to tribes seeking to reclaim management of an animal their ancestors lived with for millennia.

Erin Braaten of Kalispell took several photos of the calf shortly after it was born June 4 in Lamar Valley in the northeast corner of the park.

Her family was visiting the park when they spotted “something really white” among a herd of bison across the Lamar River.

Traffic eventually stopped as the bison crossed the road, so Braaten took his camera out the window to take a closer look with his telephoto lens.

“I look and it’s this white buffalo calf. And I was totally, totally stunned,” she said.

Once the bison cleared the roadway, the Braatens turned around and found a place to park. They observed the calf and its mother for 30 to 45 minutes.

“And then she kind of led him through the willows,” Braaten said. Although Braaten returned each of the next two days, she did not see the white calf again.

For the Lakota, the birth of a white buffalo with black nose, eyes and hooves is akin to the second coming of Jesus Christ, Looking Horse said.

Lakota legend has it that about 2,000 years ago – when nothing was going well, food was running out and the bison were disappearing – a female white buffalo calf appeared, presented a furnace pipe and a bundle to a tribesman, taught them to pray and said the pipe could be used to bring buffalo to the area for food. As she left, she transformed into a little white buffalo.

“And one day, when times are hard again,” said Looking Horse in recounting the legend, “I will return and stand on the earth like a white buffalo calf, black-nosed, black-eyed, black-hoofed .”

A similar baby white buffalo was born in Wisconsin in 1994 and was named Miracle, he said.

Troy Heinert, executive director of the South Dakota-based InterTribal Buffalo Council, said the calf in Braaten’s photos looks like a real white buffalo because it has a black nose, black hooves and dark eyes.

“From the photos I’ve seen, this calf appears to have these characteristics,” said Heinert, who is Lakota. An albino buffalo would have pink eyes.

A naming ceremony was held for the Yellowstone calf, Looking Horse said, although he declined to reveal the name. A ceremony celebrating the calf’s birth is planned for June 26 at the Buffalo Field Campaign headquarters in West Yellowstone.

Other tribes also revere the white buffalo.

“Many tribes have their own stories of why the white buffalo is so important,” Heinert said. “All the stories come back to them and are very sacred.”

Heinert and several members of the Buffalo Field Campaign say they have never heard of a white buffalo born in Yellowstone, which is home to wild herds. Park officials had not yet seen the buffalo and could not confirm its birth in the park, and they have no record of a white buffalo being born in the park before.

Jim Matheson, executive director of the National Bison Association, couldn’t quantify how rare this calf is.

“To my knowledge, no one has ever traced the birth of white buffalo throughout history. So I’m not sure how we can determine how often this happens.

In addition to herds of animals living on public lands or overseen by conservation groups, about 80 tribes across the United States own more than 20,000 bison, a number that has been increasing in recent years.

In and around Yellowstone, the killing or removal of large numbers of bison occurs almost every winter, as part of an agreement between federal and Montana agencies that has limited the size of the park’s herds approximately 5,000 animals. Yellowstone officials last week proposed a slightly larger population of up to 6,000 bison, with a final decision expected next month.

But Montana ranchers have long opposed expanding Yellowstone’s herds or transferring the animals to tribes. Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte said he would not support any management plan with a population goal greater than 3,000 Yellowstone bison.

Heinert views the birth of the calf as a reminder “that we must live rightly and treat others with respect.”

“I hope this calf is safe and lives its best life in Yellowstone National Park, exactly where it was designed to be,” Heinert said.

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Associated Press reporter Matthew Brown contributed to this story from Billings, Montana.