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American Bison ~ the Buffalo of Yellowstone

Bison Grand Tetons, Grand Teton National Park

Bison Grand Tetons, Grand Teton National Park

Yellowstone’s ubiquitous Bison or as most people know them, Buffalo, have been delighting Yellowstone and Grand Teton Park visitors for many decades, I surely was surprised on my first visit to Yellowstone to see the vast herds of bison that harkened back to the days of the western migration across the great plains and the days of Buffalo Bill. In many ways, bison are the essence of the American west as much as the Texas Longhorn and the cowboy. The prehistoric look of this creature surely is a sight to remember, ugly in many ways but fascinating nonetheless. What bison lack in majesty like elk or the cuteness of deer they make up for in their mighty presence of raw power and their evocative conveyance to a nostalgic time long past.

Bison, Old Faithful Geyser, eruption, thunderstorm, cloudy, Yellowstone National Park
Bison, Old Faithful Geyser, eruption, thunderstorm, cloudy, Yellowstone National Park

When photographing bison I find bison portraits fall shot of the mark. Environmental portraits of landscape with bison in them are much better than photos of them alone. The exception being when you can find them encrusted with ice in winter because it conveys such a feeling of misery and desolation.

The Greater Yellowstone ecosystem is the only place in the lower 48 states where an endemic population of wild bison has survived since prehistoric times. Perhaps no other animal symbolizes the American West like the American bison. In prehistoric times millions of these quintessential creatures of the plains roamed the North America from northern Canada, south into Mexico and from Atlantic to the Pacific. No one knows how many bison were in America before Columbus arrived, but the guesstimate is about sixty million. They were the largest community of wild animals that the world has ever known. For a good part of the 1800s bison were considered to be in limitless supply.

Bison, dandylions, blooming, Grand Teton National Park, Jackson, Hole, Wyoming
Bison, dandylions, blooming, Grand Teton National Park, Jackson, Hole, Wyoming

Bison are the largest mammals in Yellowstone National Park. They are grazers of grasslands, meadows, foothills, and even the high-elevation, forested plateaus of Yellowstone. They are uniquely suited for survival in the deep snows of Yellowstone’s winter, their giant head works as a snow plow as they move it back and fourth to clear a place to browse.

Bison males, called bulls, can weigh up to a ton. Females (cows) average about 1,000 to 1,200 pounds. Both stand approximately six feet tall at the shoulder, and can move with surprising speed to defend their young or when approached too closely by people. Bison breed from mid-July to mid-August, and bear one calf in April and May.

Bison are nomadic grazers; wandering throughout Yellowstone’s grassy plateaus and in Jackson Hole’s Grand Teton Park. In winter, they use their large heads like a plow to push aside snow and find winter food. In the park interior where snows are deep, they winter in thermally influenced areas and around the geyser basins. Bison also move to winter range in the northern part of Yellowstone.

Snowy Bison, Yellowstone National Park
Snowy Bison, Yellowstone National Park

After the Civil War the push to settle the west was on, new army posts were established, coinciding with the westward push of the railroads. The army and railroads contracted with local men to supply buffalo meat to feed the troops and construction laborers.

The American government actively supported buffalo hunting because as long as the bison were allowed to freely roam across the prairie, settlers could not use the rich prairie soil for farms and ranches. The annihilation of the bison would enable ranchers to range their cattle without competition from other bovines.

Bison hunting also proved an effective political tool as well. Another impediment to settling the prairies was the Native Americans themselves. Bison formed the basis of the economies of local Plains tribes of Native Americans for whom the bison were a primary food source. The famous Indian fighter, General Philip Sheridan, once said: “Let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffalo is exterminated, as it is the only way to bring lasting peace and allow civilization to advance.”  Such a policy would weaken the Indian population and pressure them to remain on reservations; Many tribes, understandably, fiercely resisted relocation to reservations. It has been asserted that there was a government initiative to starve the population of the  Indian by killing off their primary food source. General Sheridan’s quote lends credence to this argument. Without the bison, the Native Americans were starved onto the reservation. Extermination of the bison spelled the doom of American Indian’s nomadic independence.

The government also promoted bison hunting for other reasons as well; they were a nuisance to the railroads. Train operators would slow their locomotives so passengers could sport shoot the bison from the train windows. The infamous Buffalo Bill once bragged that he killed 4,200 buffalo in seventeen months to feed rail laborers.

Bison Calf, wildflowers, Grand Teton National Park
Bison Calf, wildflowers, Grand Teton National Park

The bison’s real nemesis were the hunters that hunted them only for their skins, the meat except for the tongue was left to rot, the buffalo hunters would later return for the bones that were gathered then shipped east for industrial carbon and fertilizer. Bison hides were used for industrial machine belts, clothing such as robes, and rugs. Tanneries paid as much as $3.00 per hide and 25¢ for each tongue. For frontier buffalo, hunters bison were a gold mine on four legs.

By 1884 the great era of the buffalo, hunt had ended and all that remained of the massive Bison herds were and estimated 1,200-2,000 surviving buffalo left in the United States. Many western legends took part in the big buffalo hunt including Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Pat Garrett, Wild Bill Hickok, and William F. Cody, just to name a few.

The establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 inferred a protection of bison but was ignored by poachers so in 1894, the Lacey Act was signed into law, prohibiting the killing of any wildlife in federal preserves.

Bison, Grand Teton Natiional Park
Bison, Grand Teton Natiional Park

By the end of the 19th century, the bison population in America had further dwindled to only 800 animals. 1905 William Hornaday founded a conservation movement, the American Bison Society, to protect the remaining herds of bison. The efforts of  William Hornaday and his successors have rescued the American bison from near extinction.

A cluster of log buildings in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley marks the spot where from 1907 to 1952, the park ranched buffalo to save this awesome animal from extinction. The historic Lamar Buffalo Ranch overlooks the sweeping expanse of beautiful Lamar Valley.

The population of wild bison in the U.S. dropped to fewer than 24 animals by 1903 and those few remaining bison lived in Yellowstone National Park. The park brought in 21 captive bison from ranches to supplement the native herd. They grazed freely in the summer but were rounded up during bad weather, were fed hay that was farmed in the bottom lands of the Lamar River across from the ranch.  The ranch operation ceased in 1952 when there were around 1000 bison, and the park’s wildlife management philosophies had changed to allow more natural regulation.

Bison, dandylions, blooming, Grand Teton National Park, Jackson, Hole, Wyoming
Bison, dandylions, blooming, Grand Teton National Park, Jackson, Hole, Wyoming

The ranch is in the heart of peaceful Lamar Valley where wildlife watching is extraordinary. The bison grazing in the valley year-round are a testament to what people can do. Almost eradicating the animal and then bringing it back from the brink of extinction is truly a conservation success story.

Although visitors enjoy Bison, celebrated by conservationists and revered by Native Americans they have become management challenge? One reason is that about half of Yellowstone’s bison are carriers of a bacterial disease called brucellosis; brucellosis may cause cattle to abort their first pregnancy after exposure to Brucella bacteria.

When brucellosis is found in cattle as has happened recently in Idaho and Wyoming the state loses their “brucellosis-free” status costing the state and their cattle producers millions of dollars annually. The State of Montana has a responsibility to its citizens and ranchers to do what it can maintain its “brucellosis-free” status. If livestock are infected their herd is destroyed, and the rest of the ranchers of the state can be prevented from shipping livestock out of state until stringent and expensive, testing and quarantine requirements are met.

Most of Yellowstone’s wildlife moves freely across BLM, National Forest, National Park, and private property, boundaries that often times were set up a century ago. Bison; however, because of the brucellosis are not welcome outside the park. Bison managers try to limit bison use of lands outside the park, and their efforts include hunting, hazing bison back inside park boundaries, capture and harvest for food.

Hunting of wild bison is legal in Montana and Wyoming. In Montana a public hunt was reestablished in 2005, and Wyoming reinstated a hunt in 2007. Bison Advocacy groups claim that it is premature to reestablish the hunt, given the bison’s lack of habitat and wildlife status in Montana. But, the health of the range must be considered also and there is considerable damage to it.

Bull bison, full moon, Grand Teton National Park, Jackson Hole,
Bull bison, full moon, Grand Teton National Park, Jackson Hole

Yellowstone and Grand Teton bison herds are prolific and multiply rapidly, range biologists say that Yellowstone can handle about 3,000 bison and Grand Teton Park can handle 600. One of the bison’s few natural predators is the wolf. Wolves will usually prey on the females and calves and will rarely attack healthy bulls. It is doubtful that wolves could ever control growth of the bison herd to a level that would keep the ecosystem in balance.

Considering this, wouldn’t it be a great opportunity and learning experience for all to institute an anthropologically correct bison hunt in Yellowstone for the Aboriginal people of the Yellowstone region to be conducted as they were in the 1700’s. Imagine, the Griswold’s family vacation to Yellowstone while watching for moose, elk, and grizzly bear they happen upon a real live Native American bison hunt, what an anthropology lessen and photo opportunity that would be.

You will see bison all over Yellowstone, it is a treat to have this frontier Icon so handy for visitors to photograph, but just remember, bison are dangerous and will kill you if you approach them too closely. That look they give you isn’t one of apathy, it is a contemplative look that they wear when they are trying to decide if they want to kill you or not.

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