One of the frequent wildlife sightings during a visit to Yellowstone National Park are the bison, also known as American buffalo (Bison bison). Sometimes you see a single individual, sometimes a group of 3-5 animals and often larger groups or even huge herds. Females and their calves and males usually hang out in separate groups except when it is breeding season. The males can be distinguished by their somewhat longer horns, larger size (up to 2000 lbs) and heavier beards. The babies are reddish-brown for their first 2.5 months of life, whereafter they begin to develop the dark brown coloring of their species.
During my recent visit, I learned that you should not get out of your car near a buffalo – they may look placid but they will attack if they feel provoked and can run over 30 mph. From 1980-1999, triple the number of people were injured by bison as by bears in Yellowstone! In 2015, five people were gored by buffalo.Unfortunately, some people still will approach, as shown in this 1992 video showing some frightening consequences. You may then have to photograph them through (dirty) unopened car windows, which doesn’t make for excellent photos, but you can record what you see as memory reminders.
In the wintertime, the bison have thick shaggy coats and these are shed in the spring, so that you see individuals with bare patches of skin alternating with woolly areas.
A park ranger told me that they rub on trees to help remove their winter coats; there are whole areas of forest where many trees have bare spots devoid of bark as a result. The bison also “horn” trees, mostly in the autumn, rubbing their horns on cedars and pines by preference; the trees then emit a fragrance which is thought to be an insect deterrent.
Another sign that buffalo are nearby are the bison wallows – these shallow depressions in the ground are used year after year, both during dry and rainy weather. The wallows have multiple functions, including offering dust and mud covering to protect against insects, a place for resting, grooming and play.
When walking in meadows, along roads and on hillsides, you can often come across bison dung, popularly known as meadow muffins and buffalo chips. These large deposits used to be used as a fire source as they burn well and could be easily gathered.
Given the bison’s size and their habituation to people in the Park, human beings will find that they not infrequently have to share the road with these mammals. They will cross the road from one side to another and sometimes spend some time ambling down the road, so that you can have one pass within about a foot of your car window.
During these “bison jams”, cars are supposed to stop and give them right of way – we are the intruders in their home after all. You then may see an individual through the car window who has been collared or tagged, presumably for research.
The bison can have very expressive faces, even if at first sight it seems they always have the same expression. This mother demonstrated when she was nursing her calf.
If you had asked me a month ago which adjectives I might associate with bison, my answer likely would have been something like: massive, placid when undisturbed, woolly, furry, huge, plodding. Playful would not have been on the list, but I discovered that American buffalo babies can be very exuberant and know how to have a good time!
A group of three spent quite some time chasing one another, jumping and leaping – one in particular seemed to be the instigator of the play session.
At one point, I was in a car where I could observe a group of bison fording a river very near to the road. It was shallow where they entered but grew deeper toward the middle and other side and it turned out there was a strong current. It posed a challenge to the pregnant bison and the babies were really having a tough go. We watched them struggle across, keeping their chins above water as they slowly progressed while being swept downstream from the adults.
Luckily, all of the babies made it to the other side, including one who thought s/he was going after her/his mother when s/he got to the top of the riverbank. s/he trotted after a smaller bison, then was followed by a much larger female who began butting her/him – turned out the baby may have been confused after the strenuous river crossing because the smaller bison was not going to nurse. The mother kept after the baby until finally the young one turned and realized who mom really was!
Before Europeans came to the United States, these magnificent mammals ranged as far as the Atlantic seaboard, meaning they could have been in my neighborhood at one time! Now the wild bison are largely confined to some national parks after almost going extinct in the 19th century and the most genetically pure ones are in Yellowstone. So I’m lucky that I had the chance to observe them several times during my recent trip out West and I’d love to see them there again. 🙂