The live bison herd that the North Dakota Buffalo Foundation maintains currently numbers around 30 animals. The herd has approximately 200 acres of pasture land on the north and south sides of interstate I-94 and is visible on one or both sides of the interstate most of the time. The live animals are a big draw for the museum and represent the beginning of the “wild west” to visitors traveling from the east.
Included in the live buffalo herd is White Cloud an extremely rare female albino bison born on July 10, 1996, at the Shirek Buffalo Farm near Michigan, North Dakota. Her first calf, named Princess Winona (“First-born daughter” in the Lakota language), was born in 2000. She calved again in 2003, the day after Mother’s Day. This time she had a male calf which was named Dakota Thunder. White Cloud is a big attraction for the museum not only because of the rarity of an albino buffalo but also because of the sacredness that some Native Americans place on a white buffalo.
What's New with White Cloud?
Last weekend White Cloud the albino buffalo made history for the National Buffalo Museum and Jamestown by giving birth to a white calf.
White Cloud gave birth late Friday to her fifth calf since she joined the herd 11 years ago. Bob Mountain, treasurer on the National Buffalo Museum Board, said the calf and her mother were spotted for the first time at about noon on Saturday. A closer look Sunday of the whiter-than-white calf confirmed for him that it’s likely to be another albino.
“It has a pink nose and ears, so I think it’s an albino,” he said. “But it will be awhile before we know for sure.”
White Cloud is a DNA-tested albino bison and it’s not known if there is another in the country. Many bison born white eventually turn brown. Whether white or albino, they are still very rare. The odds of one albino or white calf being born have been variously estimated at 16 in 1 million, one in 1 million and within a herd, one in 6 billion.
“The problem is there’s nothing to compare it to,” Mountain said of the birth of the white calf.
The odds of White Cloud giving birth to an albino bison are considerably better, however, Mountain said. White Cloud was bred back to her only bull calf, Dakota Thunder, so there was a 50-50 chance she would have a white calf, he said. It’s called line breeding.
“You line breed for certain traits,” he said.
Daniel and Jean Shirek, of Michigan, N.D., own White Cloud and lease her to the Buffalo Museum. The Shireks are also joint owners of the new calf with the museum.
“It took us by surprise and we think it’s wonderful,” Daniel Shirek said in a telephone interview.
Shirek said they’d be in Jamestown today to see the calf and discuss with museum board members DNA testing for the calf.
“We’ll do whatever they want to do,” he said.
The news of a white buffalo calf being born was still mostly local Sunday afternoon. However, Marilyn and Chris Lozano, of Denver Colo., and their daughters, Erin and Morgan, heard about the calf on TV Saturday night. Marilyn Lozano said they were visiting her family on a farm near Michigan, N.D.
“White Cloud was born just a few miles down the road from my folks,” she said.
So the Lozano family decided to stop at the museum Sunday as they began the trip back to their Denver home. With a little luck they figured they’d get a glimpse of the new calf and her mother in the museum pasture. They were finally rewarded for their patience with the sight of the two leaving a coulee.
“She’s really, really white,” said Erin as she bounced up and down in excitement.
The white buffalo is sacred to most Plains Indian tribes. White Buffalo Calf Woman is a religious figure to the Lakota Sioux and her expression in the world is the white buffalo. Considered a mystical creature, the white buffalo is often seen as a sign of great changes in the world. To some tribes it is a blessing and others believe it is a sign of peace, prosperity, unity and hope.
“I’m sure Native Americans will be very interested in this,” Mountain said. “It would be interesting to find out what their take on this would be.”
The birth of a white calf, its sex unknown at this time, is a boost for tourism in Jamestown, said Buffalo City Tourism Director Nina Sneider.
“White Cloud has been a tremendous draw for the last 11 years and I’d guess we’ll have even more visitors now,” Sneider said. “We get visitors even in the dead of winter who want to see her.”
It’s sometimes easier to see White Cloud in the winter pasture, which isn’t as large and spread out as the herd’s summer quarters. Too often when visitors have gone looking for them in summer, the herd has been down in the trees where it’s cooler.
“White Cloud has been very reclusive this summer,” Sneider said.
She said it doesn’t matter whether the calf is an albino or was just born with a white hide. It’s still a rarity. And part of the Lakota legend speaks of the white buffalo changing to a brown one as it walked.
“So it’s in keeping with the legend and spiritually makes the calf precious to them,” she said.
Regardless of white versus albino, Mountain said it’s been an exciting Labor Day weekend.
“The good Lord has been riding along with us here,” he said.