Today is part two of my “Yellowstone Valley Zoo” blog series. This one is going to discuss bison. I had decided to talk about antelope today (maybe I’ll get to them tomorrow), but when my wife read yesterday’s bighorn sheep blog, she said, “You have to do bison next. They’re my favorite.” So if you don’t like bison, or if you were really amped-up for antelope (humor me here), blame Mrs. Weamer.
Bison are one of the most beloved symbols of the west. Many people, when they imagine bison today, think of Kevin Kostner’s movie, Dances with Wolves, where epic cinematography captured bison herds roiling the prairie dust as they thundered into the horizon. It’s hard not to romanticize these magnificent beasts when theme music is playing in the back of your mind. And it’s true, their story of survival is miraculous.
Before Columbus first sailed to America, there were an estimated 30 to 60 million wild bison roaming North America. There were even bison living on the edges of the great eastern forests. But that all changed as newly immigrated Europeans began to slaughter the herds; first for food, then for skins, and ultimately as a way to destroy the Native American tribes’ capacity to survive outside reservations.
With new firearm technologies developed during the civil war, rifles became more lethal at greater distances, and this led to the wholesale slaughter of these animals. The bison’s destruction was so thorough that by the early 1900’s, fewer than 50 wild bison remained in Yellowstone National Park. This remnant herd became vital to the species’ survival. The National Park System’s web site states that Yellowstone National Park is, “The only place in the United States where bison have lived continuously since prehistoric times.” The current herd of well over 4,000 Yellowstone bison is also important because it remains purebred, without any hybridization with domestic cattle. So when you travel Montana’s Route 89 today, past Sweetwater Fly Shop to the Yankee Jim Canyon, and then into Gardiner and the Park, the bison you see are direct descendants of the 50 remnant bison. And that’s pretty cool.
This photo, taken on January 14 this year, shows a bison herd just outside Yellowstone National Park on the edges of Gardiner, Montana.
In the winter, heavy snows in the Park push the bison to search for greener pastures, which they find around the small town of Gardiner. The bison would likely travel farther from the Park, but cattle guards placed on Route 89 at the head of Yankee Jim Canyon, as well as a fence on the river’s west side, force the bison to remain outside of Paradise Valley. The primary reason for this is to protect cattle ranchers who are afraid their domestic cattle herds will contract brucellosis, a bacterial infection that can spread between elk, bison, and domestic cattle. Ironically, the bison and elk were first exposed to brucellosis by domestic cattle. Brucellosis causes failed pregnancies in some exposed animals, and it is passed to others when they come in contact with the aborted fetuses or birthing tissues.
To stop the Yellowstone Park herd from growing too large for its allotted ground, some animals are now being culled. And this is controversial. Some of these animals are reserved for Native American tribes to harvest. This too is debated, both by other Native Americans who want to see the herd grow and expand and some of the residents around Gardiner who watch this all take place int heir back yards.
You can read more about it here:
Bison are gigantic animals. Bulls can weigh over 2000 pounds and cows are over 1000. And it’s pretty cool (maybe a little intimidating) to have them right beside your car. I couldn’t imagine hitting one, though I came close enough a couple weeks ago when one rumbled in front of mine on Route 89, just outside Gardiner.
Where’s my State Farm representative now?
A couple weeks ago, my wife and I drove through the Park into the Lamar Valley on a sight seeing trip. There was a lot of snow in the Lamar’s beautiful valley. So much so, that bison were using the plowed roadway to travel through the Park. We were trapped in this bison convoy for probably 15 minutes before an opening large enough for my car appeared. As I slowly worked my way through the animals, one of the smaller ones jostled near a big bull. They bull obviously took exception as he pummeled the small bison into a snow drift. The little guy sat there, looking a little stunned, and a little embarrassed, as we drove past him. But he quickly got to his feet and followed the rest of his relatives down the road. All I could think was “I’m sorry about that, but better you than me.”
Late November 2014 bison in the snowy Lamar Valley. There’s much more snow there today!