Bison Bison

I am Bison Bison; no I am not a buffalo!

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Bison Bison

Bison under tree

A bison feeding under a tree near Yellowstone Lake with the Absaroka Mountain Range in the background.

There are no native buffaloes in America. The animal that once roamed the plains of America is actually bison bison. Bison bison is the animal's scientific name. Our forefathers misidentified the bison as buffalo, and the name has stuck. One place to see bison roam wild as they did in the 1800s is in Yellowstone National Park. People do call the bison the American Buffalo. Those into accuracy call the animal displayed in these pictures bison. To read more about the differences between Bison Bison and true buffalo, check out this page.

The wild Bison Bison is a story of near extinction to recovery. The icon of the American West story is considered the worst animal genocide story in history. This animal went from an estimated 60 million in 1700 to around 300 by 1900 in all of America. Yellowstone got down to 23 animals. In 1870 alone, 5.5 million animals were killed as the American Government attempted to defeat the Native Americans, whom they considered the enemy.

Fortunately, this story has a happier ending. In 1905, the American Bison Society started a breeding program. As of 2016, there are 400,000 animals in America, but most are in private herds. Yellowstone's August 2022 count showed 5,900 animals in the park divided into two herds. The northern herd in the Lamar Valley and surrounding area had around 4,460 bison, and the central had about 1,360 bison.

There are two subspecies of bison bison in North America. The Plains Bison is in America, and the Woods Bison is in Canada.

Bison cow going over the boardwalk at Biscuit Basin

Many people have asked me how bison get around the various boardwalks. The answer: very easy. Boardwalks are not a problem for the bison to navigate over. They step up and walk across them as they walk down the road.

Bison baby or red dog

Bison calves are called Red Dogs due to their orangish-red fur in the first 8 - 10 weeks of life. They then start turning brown like their parents, blending in with the rest of the herd for safety.

Yellowstone National Park is the only place in America where bison have continuously lived since prehistoric times.

The bison are the largest land mammal in America. The Plains Bison males can weigh 2,000 pounds, while females topped at 1,000 pounds. Wood Bison can be 15% heavier.

The largest land mammal in the world is the African bush elephant, which weighs 11,500-22,000 pounds. Another way to compare them is that a full-grown male bison weighs 9% of the elephant's weight.

Males can stand 6 feet 5 inches or taller than my minivan; females can be 4-5 feet tall. The male bison is much taller than a Corvette, which is only 4.5 feet tall.

Bison may look slow, dumb, and lazy. Let me assure you they aren't. They can run 30-35 miles per hour. Can you? They are agile and able to make quick turns. In the blink of an eye, they can go from chomping grass to sending a 250-pound person 10 or more feet in the air. They plod along, but if scared, they can stampede in a heartbeat.

Test time. How high can you jump from a standstill, and how far horizontally can you jump? The Guinness World record for vertical jump is 5 feet 7 inches, set in 2021 by Christopher Spell. In 2015, Byron Jones set the record for the broad jump at 12 feet 3 inches. Bison comes in with a 6-foot vertical and a 7-foot broad jump.

I have often watched them go over the 2.5-foot fence surrounding the buildings in the Upper Geyser Basin with a hop and kick. In other words, it is as easy for them as stepping up the front steps of your home for you.

The average life span of a bison is 10-20 years.

Bison is an ungulate, meaning hoofed animal.

Bison have adapted to the snowy conditions in Yellowstone. Their fur coats are so efficient that the snow melts off them due to the sun, not their body heat. No hands, no problem moving snow. That is where that big head comes in useful. They use that huge head sweeping back and forth to move the snow out of their way to get to the grass.

As you visit parks around the country with bison, be aware that they are dangerous. There is not one domestic gene in their bodies. Keep your distance. The prescribed distance in Yellowstone is 25 yards or 75 feet. Remember that is only the starting point. If they are acting agitated, give them more room.

How do you know if they are agitated? Watch their tail. If it goes straight up in the air, one of two things will happen. Personally, I don't want to be there for either. The upright tail means charge or discharge. Remember, you have already agreed that you can't run 30-35 miles per hour. Give the bison some room. One other important detail. Bison have been known to charge without the tail warning.

Male Bison with dirt on face and dirty clods flying in the air

Came upon this male bison at a wallow. The bison repeatedly hit its head against the side of the wallow. He apparently was taking out some aggression, elevated testosterone, or had a bad case of insect biting. Bison will take dirt baths or wallow to coat themselves in the dirt to shield themselves against insects. Wallowing can also be done for play, group cohesion, and male-male conflicts. So this bison was either taking out some aggression, or the bugs were nasty. Because he was hitting his head hard against the dirt by rearing up and pounding the dirt.

Bison cows and calves causing bison jam in Yellowstone National Park

Bison calves are called Red Dogs due to their orangish-red fur in the first 8 - 10 weeks of life. They then start turning brown like their parents, blending in with the rest of the herd for safety. Horn buds are present at birth. They will be initially hard to see, but within a couple of weeks, you can see them easily.

Many people ask why they see a lot of single bison off by themselves and wonder if they are hurt or sick. No is the short answer. During the mating season, mid-July to mid-September, in Yellowstone, males and females with calves will join one of two large herds. One herd is in Lamar Valley, and the other is in Hayden Valley. Otherwise, females and this year and yearlings calves are in small herds of about 20 or so animals. Males will usually be alone or in small, loose groups of other males. There has been a group of four loosely associated males in the Upper Geyser Basin and one other loner in the last several years.

Above is a picture of a cow and calf bison herd causing a bison jam in Yellowstone. Bison jams are frequent in Yellowstone as the herds move to different parts of the park or move back and forth to water. Bison are also smart. Why walk on uneven ground when there is an easier path? Sometimes, the roadway is the only way to get through narrow passageways. Those jams can back up in both directions for miles and hours. Advice? Be patient and enjoy the scenery. Jams have often been created when babies stop to feed in the roadway or even take a nap. Remember that the park is their home, no matter which park you see them in. You are the invader.

To learn the difference between bison and buffalo check out this page.

To learn the difference between a horns and antlers check out this page.

Bison mama with newborn.

Bison mama with newborn cord still hanging out of mama waiting for the placenta to be expelled.

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