Sacred white bison calf from Yellowstone not seen since birth

A Montana photographer captured a rare white bison calf at Yellowstone National Park. (Credit: Erin Braaten: Dancing Aspens Photography)

The rare white bison born at Yellowstone National Park has not been seen since its birth on June 4, according to park rangers. 

The animal is sacred to Native Americans. 

Suspicion about the calf's fate has grown as weeks have passed without another sighting since its birth in the Lamar Valley, a prime spot for wildlife viewing in Yellowstone. Young buffalo can fall victim to predators, river currents, illness and other hazards.

The animal's birth fulfills a Lakota prophecy that portends better times, was the first recorded in Yellowstone history and is a landmark event for the recovery of buffalo, said park officials.

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It is an extraordinarily rare occurrence: A white buffalo, also known as bison, is born in the wild once in every 1 million births, or even less frequently, the park said.

Whether the calf — named Wakan Gli, which means "Return Sacred" in Lakota — is still alive is unknown.

The park's statement mentioned that each spring, about one in five calves die shortly after birth due to natural hazards but officials declined to directly respond to questions about whether they believed it has died.

A Montana photographer captured a rare white bison calf at Yellowstone National Park. (Credit: Erin Braaten: Dancing Aspens Photography)

They confirmed the birth of the white buffalo after receiving photos and reports from multiple park visitors, professional wildlife watchers, commercial guides and researchers. But since June 4, park staffers have not been able to find it and officials are not aware of any other confirmed sightings in the park, one of the last sanctuaries for free-roaming American bison.

Rangers that regularly work in the more accessible areas of the park, as well as its backcountry, have not seen the animal, park spokesperson Morgan Warthin said.

Native American leaders earlier this week held a ceremony to honor the sacred birth of the animal and give the name. Lakota members caution that the prophecy tied to the birth of the white buffalo is also a signal that more must be done to protect the earth and its animals.

Mike Mease, a co-founder of the Buffalo Field Campaign, a conservation group that works with tribes to protect and honor wild buffalo and hosted this week’s ceremony, said he thinks the calf is alive somewhere in the park, away from the roads and walkways most visitors stick to. He said a grizzly bear seen by Yellowstone visitors earlier this month with five cubs, an unusually large brood, has not been seen since either.

But the most important thing about the white buffalo is that a prophecy, which is both a warning and a blessing, has been fulfilled, Mease said.

"Whether it’s dead or alive, the message has been relayed from the heavens and times are different now. We have to make changes for the future," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. This story was reported from Los Angeles.