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

Black Bears and Individual Distance

INDIVIDUAL DISTANCE is a moving space around an individual’s body that others are not allowed to enter unless either mating or fighting. Different species have specific requirements, as well as, individuals within each species. Bears are no different. They are real attractions but are dangerous to approach, and it’s best not to approach them. However, their ears give off visual signals. Erect ears usually go with an alert look which indicates the bear is curious and checking you out. It’s when they lay their ears back that they are indicating that their space is being violated.

Black Bears are solitary beasts and so they naturally have great space requirements. They work to maintain a distance from other bears and perceived enemies. A male bear uses up to a 200 square mile area, while a female requires 35. They use the same trails year after year and have convenient escape routes to maintain their space. Trees are also very critical as a means to escape confrontations.

Black Bears are crepuscular (morning and twilight active), which results in fewer confrontations with Grizzlies. They usually spend most of the daytime and nighttime in burrows. Much of their behavior, although not totally understood by man, is directed to maintaining a distance from other bears. When standing on their hind legs, they are gaining information through better vision and smell. Smell is their best sense. It is said: “That if all smells were as strong to humans as skunk smell, you’d know how great a bear’s olfactory ability is.”

A “woof” is a sign that they have been startled. I experienced that “woof” when hiking up to an Osprey nest in British Columbia. I noticed a blackness in the vegetation by the trail ahead. That was stimulus enough for me to back up slowly the way I had come. If a bear does charge or run, they are extremely fast. They can cover 50 yards in 3 seconds.

Black Bear

A Black Bear, with her ears back, warns me not to come any closer