Yellowstone’s bison babies mark spring’s arrival and something more. These beauties with their curly red-orange hair, their long legs, and their big black eyes that see the world anew are living proof that the park’s bison population will recover from another winter of the brutal capture and hunt.
When born, each calf weighs between thirty-three and sixty-six pounds. Once a calf slides out of mom and onto Yellowstone’s soil, things happen quickly. Within thirty minutes, the calf can stand and nurse. Within one week, it can eat grass, drink water, and start identifying other plants to eat by watching its mother. Within seven to twelve months, it will be weaned and have developed the large digestive tract with multiple stomachs that make bison superior to cattle, deer, or elk at wresting sustenance from winter’s dried grasses.
When a calf stands beside its mother, it’s easy to see how they differ. The calves don’t yet have the prominent shoulder hump. That crane of muscle and bone will come later, enabling them to swing their big adult heads and plow up to eighteen inches of snow from life-sustaining dried grasses. The calves don’t yet have the bouffant hairdo some adults sport. The calves are not the same color; they won’t begin turning brown until July.
It’s hard to imagine this tiny and helpless animal growing to 2,000 pounds if a male and 1,100 pounds if a female. It’s also hard to imagine that one day they will be able to sprint at thirty-five miles an hour, turn on a dime, and hurdle a five-foot-high fence.
As spring progresses, these calves will play, running and jumping and kicking up their small hooves. That play develops physical strength and teaches them the rules of the herd. One rule they should learn quickly is to not stray far from the group. Hungry grizzly bears and wolves may pick off stragglers. Though a mother will fight to defend her calf, she has limits. Under the commonsense rules of nature, it’s better for the herd if the mother withdraws, loses the calf, and saves her own life, so she can produce more offspring later.
As the calves mature, some will die from the trauma of a hard winter, from falling through thin ice of a lake, colliding with a vehicle, or giving birth. But adult bison, with their large size, sharp horns, incredible speed and agility, and willingness to defend one another, lose few members to predators. As their capture inside Yellowstone and slaughter just outside the park prove, man is the only predator these bison need to fear.
Rick Lamplugh writes to protect wildlife and preserve wildlands. He lives near Yellowstone’s north gate and is just finishing a new book about Yellowstone’s grandeur and controversy. He is the author of the Amazon bestseller In the Temple of Wolves. Available as eBook or paperback. Or as a signed copy from Rick.