Bison: Remnants from Massive Herds of Yesteryear

The American Bison is not a buffalo. True buffalo are found in Africa and Asia. Bison, like cattle, are bovines. Incidentally cow (or bull) is not a species – they are genders. Bison can breed with our domestic cattle to produce a hybrid. Also, like cattle, they have four stomachs and chew their cud. Bison are the largest North American land animal and parallel our cattle in weight – bulls up to a ton and cows up to eleven hundred pounds.

Bison live on the prairie and on open, mountainous grasslands. They are most active in the early morning or evening (crepuscular), and even on moonlit nights. Mid-day usually finds them resting and cud chewing. This herd-type ungulate (hooves) has deceptive speed. A seemingly slow moving group always surprises me. They can be here and then gone in an amazing short period of time. Adults are a dark brown, but calves are a very attractive light, reddish-brown. At two to three months of age, the young switch to the darker adult color.

Depressions full of dust or mud are used as wallows. The wallowing helps shed hair and fight parasites. Bulls will do more wallowing at rutting time. Shaggy heads and shoulders are adapted to use as snow plows to reach winter feed or to face into blizzards. When faced with predators, calves and cows will move to the center of the herd – or when stampeding, in front with bulls at the rear for protection.

We have experienced Bison in Custer Park of South Dakota, Teddy Roosevelt Park of North Dakota, Canada’s Northwest Territories, and of course Yellowstone National Park. But, we find the National Bison Range, north of Missoula, Montana, to be the most interesting. The range borders the Flathead River. An Indian, by the name of Walking Coyote, hid four calves by the river during the age of the great Bison slaughter – thus the nucleus of this herd. The Bison in this park are managed to keep their range from being overgrazed. Each calf is branded a number according to its year of birth. In October, cowboys from surrounding communities drive the Bison into corrals where they are sorted, calves vaccinated, and an auction is held to dispose of the surplus.

American Bison

A massive front end – a formidable presentation to natural challenges

Caribou: The Northland’s Deer

I saw him coming a half mile away, and so I ran to where I thought our paths would converge. Sure enough, he came right up in front of me and posed for this picture.

A trip to Alaska or northern Canada is incomplete without a Caribou experience. This deer of the north grows a most impressive set of antlers. In fact, it’s the only deer species where both sexes grow them. Research seems to suggest that Caribou bulls that grow the biggest racks are more vigorous and sire daughters that have an increased milking ability. The rack also has a projection on the front that can be used as a snow shovel.

The word caribou sounds like the name Zaliboo. This is the name that the Inuits gave the beast. It means “one who paws the ground”. This they do through the snow in order to reach the moss and lichens upon which they feed. The hooves make a clicking sound as they travel due to a flexible ankle joint.

The massive herds of the far north are America’s version of the great herds of the Serengeti Plains of Africa. They are constantly in migration but may follow a different route year by year. Mosquitoes and other types of flies are extremely numerous in the watery expanses of the far north and plague the Caribou during the summer months. Caribou can be seen resting on patches of snow, which seems to give them some relief from this menace. I have seen animals that are very mangy and run down from mosquito bites. Animals can actually die from exsanguination (loss of blood from bites).

This species has a symbiotic relationship with the Gray Wolf. The wolf culls the herds and keeps the Caribou in a healthy condition. It seems odd that predation can actually keep prey populations at a maximum, but it does.

Both the Barren Ground Caribou and the Forest Caribou are vital elements of our northern wild lands.

This rack, in the velvet, will grow to a massive size

This rack, in the velvet, will grow to a massive size