Dec 31, 2021
Does anyone remember the late country star, Roger Miller? I often think of his song titled, “You Can’t Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd” while sitting in a bison roadblock along the roads in Yellowstone. The song is a silly, yet poignant, proclamation that happiness is a choice. A portion of the lyrics are:
“You can’t roller skate in a buffalo herd.
You can’t roller skate in a buffalo herd.
You can’t roller skate in a buffalo herd, but you can be happy if you’ve a mind to.”
Something that made me very happy this last week was seeing a gigantic bull Bison in the upper geyser basin on Christmas morning. So much snow had fallen the night before and some guests and I were wading (trudging) through the depths as we navigated the boardwalks. It was truly a white Christmas. The thermal features were extraordinary in those conditions. Seeing that big beast, buried in the snow, was a testimony to the fortitude of those that thrive in big snow.
Some bison stay in the Geyser Basins to navigate the winter snows. A winter visit to Yellowstone is a chance to see adaptation to this challenging climate at its best. This continues to impress me…In cold weather, I still struggle with that “one toe” I frostbit 30 or more years ago. Imagine the challenges these wild lives every day.
Bison (or Buffalo, they are the same critter) have the warmest winter coat. It grows an extra layer and shaggier as winter approaches. Along with that overcoat, wooly underfur thickens. They can survive 40 degrees below zero for long periods of time. This reminds us that the genus Bison has survived through past glacial periods and even the Pleistocene age!
Long hairs on their front legs (leggings) allow them to break through layers of ice in the snowpack without injuring themselves. The shaggy head seems to hang below a powerful hump that extends from their blocky neck. The hump is massive muscle tissue supported by a bony extension from thoracic vertebrae. Plowing through deep snow by swinging their head back and forth allows them to feed on the grasses (mostly dry) at the bottom of the snow. (Can you imagine having to put your face in the snow every time you want a meal or a snack?)
Winter, is indeed, a tough time of year for most wild animals. It is the time of year when the numbers of bison cows and calves in each grouping are the fewest in number and when we often see just a few and males hanging together. In a blizzard, they will huddle together and not move for hours or perhaps days.
Often on a winter visit, we will see these herds walking on the groomed road system and it may take a bit of patience to wait it out. They may not want to get off the road into the deepest snow and sometimes they seem to be blocked into a narrow canyon. This makes sense, and yep, they were here before we were. It’s a time to think about why they stay on this easy walking pathway just as we do, and enjoy watching for a while.
Not long after Yellowstone was established as the world’s first National Park in 1872, the population of Bison on this continent was almost gone. When the Cavalry marched into Yellowstone in 1886, it didn’t take long before they knew the herd could not be protected without enforcing laws against poaching and re-establishing a herd by drastic measures. In 1902, 18 Bison cows were purchased from Charles Allard in Montana and 3 bulls from the Goodnight herd in Texas. Under the army’s administering of Yellowstone, an active Buffalo ranching operation began a feeding and breeding program in an effort to reestablish this population of majestic bovines.
A few centuries ago when Bison bison were hunted for subsistence by early people, and ultimately by white hunters, their numbers were in the tens of millions. As more humans explored, settled and developed North America, the populations that roamed throughout this continent had declined so remarkably, many people were concerned about its survival.
We have seen other species at the brink of extinction, and some survive; some do not. Today, as a result of intentional efforts, especially by ranchers (more about this in next paragraph) and the American Buffalo Society in the 1860s -1880s, we have some national herds that still exist. The largest wild herd of Buffalo exists in Yellowstone Park. Bison are regal, powerful, spiritual symbols of history and our country. They are now our National Mammal.
Both the Goodnight and Allard ranches in Texas had captured wild Buffalo from wild herds to ensure they would have access to wild Bison for potential breeding stock in the future, but also to avoid extinction of these animals. Samuel Walking Coyote captured 8 wild calves in NW Montana and that was the beginning of the current day herd at the National Bison Range in NW Montana. Other ranchers did the same thing and those few remaining herds of wild calves were the beginnings of the Custer State Park (SD) population and the Wind Cave population.
All of the populations of wild Buffalo that exist today are a result of these efforts. Today in YNP we have the largest public wild herd of Bison.
Managing Bison has become one of the toughest management conundrums for park managers as the numbers become healthier and more and more follow traditional Buffalo trails migrating in and out of park boundaries. These are places Buffalo have wandered for hundreds if not thousands of years. They range throughout the ecosystem and are part of the constant circle of life that balances out plants and other species of wildlife along with the entire ecosystem. This is a huge challenge to establish relationships between YNP Buffalo and private land owners and ranchers around the boundaries of Yellowstone.
A very significant step that has become reality over the past few years is coordinating the transfer of some of the wandering wild Bison (after time in quarantine to be sure they are not carrying brucellosis) to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. Here they are in quarantine for another year or so to be sure they are indeed healthy. The goal is to transport family groups of Bison cows, calves and males that are part of the same matriarchal lineage to other reservations to re-establish herds that have been long gone from many reservations. “Millennia ago, when humans saw Buffalo as their brothers and sisters, since before and after the melting of the glacier that covered north America, people considered Buffalo as one of them, and they, part of the Buffalo nation”. This is cultural, and spiritual, but also on a practical level, Buffalo sustained many of these people and was the “essence of their eco-cultural life ways”. There are many other partners working for Bison conservation on both public and tribal lands, as well as nonprofit organizations that support Bison conservation programs. Please take a look at this link below for some more details about these conservation efforts.
I’ve tried to tell you a lot in this Nature News, and more will come next Nature News when I send part 2 about Buffalo.
All these reminders came flooding into my mind when I saw that snowy faced Bison in the geyser basin and realized how far back these connections went and continue to go forward.
All the best to you in 2022!