Monday, July 18, 2016

Bison Musings

 This spring the bison became the ‘national mammal’ of the United States.  I don’t think they could have made a better choice, and since I’ve just come back from watching many, many bison I thought I’d just let my thoughts about bison meander a little. 

Bison are such awesome creatures, well deserving of their new honor.  Sad to say I have to agree with Ben Franklin when he lamented the choice of a bald eagle as our national bird.  It’s a handsome creature, but well known for having a special fondness for carrion and fish.  Bison, on the other hand, are a big magnificent symbol of our American West and far more interesting than when seen at first glance. 

All too often ‘first glance of a bison’ in Yellowstone is a herd plodding down the road, blocking traffic.  When we are lucky, the delay in only a few minutes and gives everyone an up close peek at the huge beasties.  Dale and I have been delayed 45 minutes because the bison were crossing the long bridge just east of Mammoth.  The bison were heading west and we wanted to go east.  When we returned in the evening, bison were on the bridge again.  Another 45 minutes passed while they headed east and we wanted to go west. 

The worst bison jam I ever saw was just before Memorial Day a year ago.  A small herd had stopped traffic just when cars were pouring into the park for the weekend.  We were heading out of the park and got past the small herd without any difficulty, but cars coming in were literally bumper to bumper for miles – literally miles!  Traffic was moving so slowly that many people got out of their cars and walked ahead while one person stayed with their car to inch forward.
The lower part of the sketch is what it looks like when just a bison cow walks past inches from our car.

There is magic to a good bison jam if you are fortunate to be amongst the bison, and not way behind in the line of cars.  Their hooves make a soft plopping sound on the asphalt and they have a mellow grunt as they plod along.  From the safety of the car we get to look right into the bison’s eyes from just inches away. 

I never worry about bison when I’m in the car.  Occasionally a bison has taken offense to a vehicle and gored it, but I suspect the action was provoked.  When we’re on foot we treat bison, especially bulls, with a great deal more respect.  They have a reputation for being unpredictable.  Bison injure more people in Yellowstone than any other animal.  The problem has become especially serious in recent years because people take selfies with bison.!
This year we got out of the car near Tower Junction to looks for birds, flowers … whatever.  Three bulls were across the road, probably 200 yards away.  Dale and I wandered our separate ways for a bit and then, just as I joined Dale, we realized one of the bulls had crossed the road and appeared to be interested in us.  Curiosity probably.  The empty Roosevelt Lodge corrals where nearby and seemed a good place to duck into.  Gates are left open during the winter so animals wanting to get in can easily get back out and don’t just crash through the wooden fences. 

We entered one corral – the bull was still coming.  We went through the open gate and into another corral.  The bull was in the first corral by then.  We were in the third corral by the time he was in the second.  Fortunately his tail was still down (good sign) and he was just plodding along.  The third corral didn’t have an easy exit, so we ducked through the pole fence.  Fortunately the bull had satisfied his curiosity.  We headed for the car just a little rattled. 

When we first arrive in Yellowstone the bison seem to be constantly on the move.  Grass is short and it’s hard to get a belly full.  Bison are known for being ‘light grazers,’ i.e. they constantly shift to a new patch of grass and thus are easy on the land.  Once there is a decent amount of grass they can spend more of their day resting … and after calving the cows make a point of resting often, giving the little fellas a chance to recharge their batteries.  Once the calves wake up and nurse, the herd is on the move again. 

Bison calves are amazing balls of energy.  They are nursing within an hour after birth, and moving with the herd that same day.  Often the cow falls behind when she gives birth, but as soon as possible she rejoins her group.  I remember well watching a cow and little calf crossing the wide Lamar Valley and river.  The cow knew just where to enter the water.  Much of the river has too steep a cut-bank for a calf, but she crossed where the river would carry the calf downstream to a gentle slope.  Once across it was even more obvious she knew just where she wanted to go.  I hadn’t paid attention to a small herd on the far side of the Lamar River.  She went right to it.  Twenty minutes after crossing the river the other cows were gathered around and all seemed to be greeting the first calf of the season. 

Bison seem to have four speeds:  resting, grazing, traveling and finally flat out running.  This herd came pouring over a rise, just far enough away for us to be safe.  The sun was low and shadows getting long.  The herd headed down a slope toward us, and then into the shallows of the Lamar River.  It was a good place to cross.  The river had threaded out with a cobblestone island in the middle.  Water splashed and sparkled in the late sun.  The cows didn’t need to actually swim, but for a short distance the calves were treading water.  When in really deep water cows keep their calves alongside, on the upstream side, thus helping to control how far downstream the calves are swept.  But this was an easy crossing. 

Once safely across, the herd kept traveling.  Within just a few minutes they were half a mile away and still going. 

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The bison is an ancient beast.   They flow with the wind when running wild and free --  hooves pound; tails are high; dust flies.  Whether they are close by or far off, my heart runs with them.  Bison are truly a symbol of what is best in our magnificent land.