The reported birth of a rare white buffalo in Yellowstone National Park in the US fulfils a Lakota prophecy that predicts better times, according to members of the American Indian tribe.

The tribe cautioned that it is also a signal that more must be done to protect the earth and its animals.

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

The birth of the sacred calf comes as after a severe winter in 2023 drove thousands of Yellowstone buffalo, also known as bison, to lower elevations. More than 1,500 were killed, sent to slaughter or transferred to tribes seeking to reclaim stewardship over an animal their ancestors lived alongside for millennia.

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

A rare white buffalo calf, reportedly born in Yellowstone National Park’s Lamar Valley
A rare white buffalo calf, reportedly born in Yellowstone National Park’s Lamar Valley (Erin Braaten/Dancing Aspens Photography via AP)

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

Traffic ended up stopping while bison crossed the road, so Ms Braaten stuck her camera out the window to take a closer look with her telephoto lens.

“I look and it’s this white bison calf. And I was just totally, totally floored,” she said.

After the bison cleared the roadway, the Braatens turned their vehicle around and found a spot to park. They watched the calf and its mother for 30 to 45 minutes.

“And then she kind of led it through the willows there,” Ms Braaten said. Although Ms Braaten came back each of the next two days, she did not see the white calf again.

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

Bison crossing a road in Yellowstone National Park in the US
Bison cross a road in Yellowstone National Park (Matthew Brown/AP)

Lakota legend says about 2,000 years ago — when nothing was good, food was running out and bison were disappearing — White Buffalo Calf Woman appeared, presented a bowl pipe and a bundle to a tribal member, taught them how to pray and said that the pipe could be used to bring buffalo to the area for food. As she left, she turned into a white buffalo calf.

“And some day when the times are hard again,” Looking Horse said in relating the legend, “I shall return and stand upon the earth as a white buffalo calf, black nose, black eyes, black hooves.”

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

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

“From the pictures I’ve seen, that calf seems to have those traits,” said Heinert, who is Lakota. An albino buffalo would have pink eyes.

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

Other tribes also revere white buffalo.

“Many tribes have their own story of why the white buffalo is so important,” Mr Heinert said. “All stories go back to them being very sacred.”

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

Jim Matheson, executive director of the National Bison Association, could not quantify how rare the calf is.

“To my knowledge, no one’s ever tracked the occurrence of white buffalo being born throughout history. So I’m not sure how we can make a determination how often it occurs.”

Besides herds of the animals on public lands or overseen by conservation groups, about 80 tribes across the US have more than 20,000 bison, a figure that has been growing in recent years.

Heinert sees the calf’s birth as a reminder “that we need to live in a good way and treat others with respect”.

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