Bison Blog Winter Edition
American Bison are fascinating, majestic creatures. They seem harmless enough from the car. They lumber slowly, passively from one clump of grass to another. They take frequent naps. It is possible to get close to them seemingly without worry. Bison seem unafraid of anything. Physically, a mature bull bison can weigh a ton. They can sprint short distances up to thirty-five miles an hour. Their sharp horns can ward off the largest of predators. Watch then spar with one another for verification of this fact. Anything but harmless, bison are dangerous wild animals. Treat them with respect and caution.
Bison are an important symbol of the American West. The history of the bison in North America is both tragic and inspiring. They were nearly hunted to extinction in the 1890s. There numbers fell to about one thousand. At one time, millions of bison roamed the Plains. Bison extermination was a deliberate policy of the United States government to remove a food source from nomadic Native Americans. Even the noted conservationist Theodore Roosevelt hunted them at his North Dakota ranch when they were nearly gone.
Today bison are thriving. They have healthy numbers on government lands and on ranches. They are an important tourist draw and a source of healthy red meat. We have honored the buffalo (I know) with a nickel, a chicken wing, and a rice cooker. The bison is the symbol of the Interior Department. Millions flock each year to see them at National Parks. We did last month when we visited the Badlands, Wind Cave, Theodore Roosevelt and Yellowstone National Parks.
Badlands National Park
We have been to Badlands National Park many times. Until this visit, we had never seen a bison at the park. We were looking in the wrong places. This time we got off the beaten path and found them on the Sage Creek Road.
Badlands bison were spread out choosing not to gather in large herds. Compared to other bison we had seen, these were a little more skittish preferring not to walk right up to the car. They were easily spooked, though we did enjoy watching them gallop on the prairie. This bull sat proudly in the snow as we took his portrait.
Wind Cave National Park
Most people take a cave tour and leave Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota. Too bad. The park has lot to offer above ground. There are sweeping prairie vistas, challenging hikes, and abundant wildlife. Most seemed deterred by the words “Limited Maintenance” on the park’s gravel roads. We found the roads in good shape. A car, when the roads are dry, could easily navigate the gravel.
Bison were abundant on the Wind Cave plains last January. We had a clear sixty degree day to explore the road and take in the scenery. Unlike the Badlands, Wind Cave bison were eager to entertain and curious about what we were up to. We were able to get close from the seats in our Ford pick-up.
Park bison made a beeline for our truck. We weren’t immediately sure why.
Bulls seemed drawn to the Ford. They stood in back and licked the bumpers presumably for the accumulated road salt.
If solitude is your thing, go to Wind Cave. We saw one other vehicle in the six hours we spent on the gravel roads. We are sure the bison will keep you company.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota is rarely busy. In January, we had the park virtually to ourselves. Only eleven of the thirty-five mile paved road was open. Wildlife was scarce and many of the best attractions were unavailable to all but the most dedicated backcountry hikers.
By the end of our day at TR, we had driven the open portion of the park road several times and taken a couple of short hikes in the North Dakota cold and snow. No bison. One more time, we decided.
We were rewarded with this large Maternity herd–a mixture of cows, young females and males. They grazed quietly along the Little Missouri River.
This cow seemed to be the matriarch of the herd. She grazed alone away from the herd.
We left the park with a smile. We found the herd and knew that Yellowstone was next.
Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park boasts a bison herd of around 4800 animals. They are easy to spot and accustomed to people along the road. They are not only easy to see, they are easy to observe–and important distinction. Some herds are massive like this one we saw on day one in the Madison Valley.
Yellowstone bison make frequent use of the Loop Road to more to “greener” pastures. Be safe when driving at Yellowstone. Remember, we almost hit one with our car last July. No chance of hitting one on this trip. We were in a snow coach.
We enjoyed watching the bison move the snow with their massive heads while searching for food. This one’s snowy mask betrays its objective. Check out the volume of snow that they are able to easily move with their massive neck muscles.
Visitors can expect to find bison anywhere that there is grass. This one took advantage of some rare winter green grass on a small island in the Firehole River. It took the bull about ten minutes to dispatch every last blade.
Near the end of our first day we ran into a traffic jam more typical of the Yellowstone summer. It was so fascinating to watch these bison lumber slowly by our snow coach.
Don’t worry. We didn’t forget the warning that bison are dangerous animals to take this shot. We took it from the safely of our snow coach sunroof.
Visiting a northern tier of National Parks in the winter was an incredible experience–one we have had on our list for a long time. The trip exceeded our high expectations. Park bison were a big part of the fun.