Tuesday, January 2, 2018

In Awe of Bison

This is the first in a six-part series on the history, importance, and treatment of Yellowstone's bison


photo by Rick Lamplugh
One day I went cross-country skiing with friends on a national forest road that climbs the slope of Sheep Mountain, just outside Yellowstone. As we rounded a bend into a spectacular view of Electric Peak, I spotted a group of bison. One in particular caught my attention. She stood apart from the group and looked toward Electric Peak, while the terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs steamed in the distance far behind her.

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To reach here, these bison likely migrated at least thirty-five miles from Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley, even farther if they came from Hayden Valley. They were led by a matriarch; she probably learned the migration route from matriarchs before her. Along the way, this group sometimes walked in the plowed park road, conserving energy and giving them a better chance to win this annual struggle between starvation and spring. If they have any thought of the danger from the National Park Service bison capture facility within the park or the firing squad just outside the park, their desire for less snow and more food overwhelms it. 

Migration Comes Naturally to Bison 

In fact, migration is how we came to have bison in Yellowstone at all. Two to three million years ago, a much smaller animal in southern Asia began moving north and evolving, according to the book Buffalo Natural History and Conservation. No one was around to record that long migration and slow evolution. But I can imagine capturing it with time lapse photography taken over, let's say, 500,000 years. Playing that film back, we would watch that small Asian animal evolve. See its head grow larger and more massive, better suited for pushing away snow to uncover life-sustaining grasses. As that head grew heavier, a shoulder hump would appear, evidence of the crane of muscle and bone required to maneuver that massive head. We would see the animal’s hair grow longer for better protection against ever colder temperatures.

photo by Rick Lamplugh
And there would be adaptations we couldn’t see. Beneath the lengthening hair, the hide would grow thicker, providing more insulation. The animal would become better at producing and storing fat, the secret ingredient for surviving long winters devoid of nutritious grasses. Those changes and more would be passed on through countless generations. 

At the end of that time lapse photography, if we positioned the original Asian animal next to the evolved one, we would see differences so great that we’d need a name for the “new” animal. We could call it the Asian bison.

The Asian bison continued moving, migrating so far north that they reached the area now called Siberia. They ran into the Bering Strait, a body of water too wet to graze and too wide to swim. Finally stopped in their tracks, they settled into northern living. 

The Touch of Ice

Then, around 200,000 years ago, the bison felt the icy touch of what would be the first of many climatic changes. Over tens of thousands of colder years, the ice in the Bering Strait no longer melted after winter ended. Year-round ice lowered the water level. As the water level fell, a bridge of solid land appeared, connecting Siberia with what we now call Alaska. On that land bridge, grass seed, freed from icy water and exposed to a warm sun, sprouted and grew, creating an inviting pasture for Asian bison. They followed their noses and grazed across the thousand-mile bridge to North America. 

They turned south and migrated through the Yukon to the Great Plains. There they grazed with mammoths, mastodons, and camels, according to The Last Stand, a book about the saving of bison. Big saber-toothed tigers and dire wolves hunted those grazers. And eventually so did our early ancestors. Many of those huge animals that shared the grasslands with bison went extinct, perhaps because of human hunting, perhaps because of climate change. But the ancestors of Yellowstone’s bison survived. 

photo by Rick Lamplugh
By the time European settlers arrived in the New World, 30-100 million bison roamed this continent. Early settlers were too busy conquering the wilderness to record a more accurate bison count for future historians. Whatever the starting number, in less than three hundred years almost all those bison were gone. Their demise was not due to freezing winters or scorching summers. It wasn’t due to disease or predators. No, by the 1840s—after millions of years of moving and adapting—the bison encountered something they couldn’t walk away from or adapt to: the great migration of humans rumbling westward across the Great Plains in wagon trains. 

Those emigrants did not have refrigeration, but they did have to eat. And there, grazing within rifle range of their covered wagons, was a bounty of fresh meat. The feeding frenzy began. One group of emigrants in Kansas in the 1850s, for example, killed over 300 bison. Multiply that by the thousands of wagon trains and oh, how the mighty bison fell.

The Straw that Broke the Bison's Back

But hungry emigrants were just part of the bison’s problem. Sports hunters with no intention of eating their prey killed thousands more. Fashion even hurt: the chilly Little Ice Age in the mid-1800s created a hot market for millions of warm buffalo hides. Then came the U.S. Calvary, slaughtering bison as a way of eliminating the Plains Indians, who depended on the animal for survival.

But the straw that broke the bison’s back was the transcontinental railroad and the need to feed the thousands of workers laying the tracks. For about twenty years, commercial hunters supplied bison meat to the railroads. A skilled hunter could kill a hundred bison in one day and not even stampede the herd. Buffalo Bill Cody earned his name by supplying the railroads with 4,280 bison in less than eighteen months. (That would be the equivalent of one man with a rifle slaughtering most of the bison that now roam Yellowstone.) 

photo by Rick Lamplugh
After fifty years of this killing for food, sport, ethnic cleansing, or profit, almost no bison remained. Yellowstone contained the only surviving wild herd, and protecting even those few bison was a challenge for the U.S. Army, then responsible for the park. Poaching in Yellowstone was rampant and profitable: A bison head could fetch $300, the equivalent of about $7,000 today. 

By 1900 only two dozen or so bison remained in Yellowstone. The government stepped in again; Congress appropriated money for rebuilding Yellowstone’s herd. The project began by importing to Mammoth (the north entrance to the park) eighteen cows from northwest Montana and three bulls from Texas.

Within a few years, this captive herd outgrew the Mammoth pens and was moved to the Lamar Valley. For about fifty years, bison were raised at the Lamar Buffalo Ranch in the same way cattle are raised. To contain the herd, fences were built. To feed the herd, the valley floor was tilled and timothy and other kinds of non-native grasses were planted; they weren’t called invasive species then.

Free at Last

In the 1930s the captive herd was set free and started breeding with Yellowstone’s few remaining wild bison. The now free-roaming herd began to grow. And grow. And grow. Within twenty years, park management feared that the large herd would overgraze the park. Bison were castrated, slaughtered, shipped to zoos, and—ironically enough—donated to Native Americans. Finally, in 1968 park officials stopped managing the herd and let nature take its course. 

photo by Mary Strickroth
Yellowstone turned out to be, as Robert Steelquist wrote in the Greater Yellowstone Coalition Bison Field Guide, a biological ark for bison. After one of the first and most successful reintroductions in the world, the park now has two herds totaling about 5,000 head. One roams the Lamar Valley. The other grazes in Hayden Valley or the Old Faithful area.

I’m simply in awe of this animal. Certainly, bison deserve the title of our national mammal. Even more, they deserve the right to roam free—not just in Yellowstone—but outside the park as well. They do not deserve to be captured and shipped to slaughter or killed by a firing squad. They deserve to be protected under the Endangered Species Act.

I’m glad to join with other bison advocates to fight for this animal’s freedom and future. I invite you to join with us, too. 


My best seller, In the Temple of Wolves, is available signed by me, or unsigned on Amazon. 

My new book, Deep into Yellowstone, is available signed by me, or unsigned on Amazon. 

You can order a signed set from me with free shipping. 

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