Yellowstone National Park: Part 3. Red dog at play!

When I visited Yellowstone in 2016, seeing the American baby bison at play was one of my favorite sightings; I was certainly looking forward to seeing them again in May 2022. They did not disappoint; the first group of bison (Bison bison) that stopped us on the road on Day 1 included a good number of babies.

During our week’s stay in Yellowstone, the weather was very changeable. On one and the same day, we would have snow flurries, cold winds and hours of bright sunshine and balmy warmth leading us to shed warm jackets. That didn’t stop us from seeing bison everywhere though.

As you drive through Yellowstone, your progress is often slowed down or stopped as herds of bison take over the roads. They have the right of way, so cars need to stop as the group walks around the parked vehicles. People are not allowed to get out as the protective parents could seriously harm anyone nearby.

Sitting in your stopped car does give you a good look at the molting adults and cute youngsters as they pass by your window, sometimes within a couple of feet.

Bison are the largest mammals in the USA. They were designated the country’s National Mammal on 9 May 2016 through the National Bison Legacy Act.

They literally go everywhere. When we walked through thermal areas, we often saw bison “patties” lying about.

When I asked a ranger how they could traverse the hot springs, she said that their hooves can withstand the heat; in some areas, their thick fur even shields them and they lie down to rest in the warmth for a while. However, rangers have seen some with burns on their legs.

Bison patties are also left in grasslands, hillsides and forests. I don’t recall seeing many on roads, however.

Most calves are born in late April and May. They can stand within an hour of birth and begin walking soon thereafter. It doesn’t take long at all for them to become rather independent even though their mothers care for them for about a year.

Apart from their obvious small size, the baby bison are notable for their reddish coloring; their fur will turn adult brown during their first mid-winter. When they are about 2 months of age, the characteristic shoulder humps begin to emerge.

The babies can be extremely playful; their relatively small size enables them to run and jump in seeming jubilance, leading to the nickname “red dogs”.

Perhaps it was the climatic circumstances, but we didn’t see as many playful red dogs as I’d seen in 2016. One youngster did give us a sample of youthful exuberance, however, running, jumping and generally exuding joy.

I did learn this year that Yellowstone’s bison are quite unique. The Park is the only place with bison that are direct descendants (without cattle genes) of the millions of early bison that roamed the area in prehistoric times.

By the late 1800s, only a few hundred bison remained, having been hunted to near-extinction and deprived of needed habitat. Then, by 1902, poachers had reduced Yellowstone’s herd to only about two dozen animals.

Today, their Yellowstone population varies from 2,300 to 5,500 animals and there are groups at other National Parks as well. The Native American Inter-Tribal Buffalo Council collaborates with the National Park Service to transfer bison from national parks to tribal lands.

It’s so fortunate that strides have been made in preserving these iconic animals for us to see in person. And dedicated people are providing resources for people who want to learn more about bison:

Youthful exuberance in Yellowstone

bison IMG_8457© Maria de Bruyn resOne 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.

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bison IMG_4583© Maria de BruynDuring 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.

bison IMG_4562© Maria de Bruyn resIn 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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bison I77A9171© Maria de Bruyn resAt 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.

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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!

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bison I77A1450© Maria de Bruyn resBefore 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. 🙂