The Bison of Yellowstone ~ Yellowstone Forever Field Seminar Series, Part 1

“Advice from a bison:  Stand your ground; have a tough hide; keep moving on; cherish wide open spaces; have a strong spirit; roam wild and free; let the chips fall where they may!”  ~  Ilan Shamir

Our summer volunteering gig in Yellowstone National Park has drawn to a close, a bittersweet moment for us as we hung up bus keys for the last time and helped pack up the ranch.  Our final days slowed to a leisurely pace as the crisp morning air announced the onset of fall.  As we drove away from the Lamar Buffalo Ranch we agreed that this magical place had seeped into our souls.  Without a doubt this summer, this park, has changed me.

One of many wonderful sunsets viewed from the ranch.

We are comfortably snuggled into a condo in the mountains of Colorado until we move to the big city of  Denver later this month for a family gathering, so it seems the best time to reflect upon a summer of learning and meeting some of the most interesting people who have ever crossed our paths.  We are always grateful to reconnect with old friends and meet other like-minded folks, and we did much of both these past several months.  What a soul-enriching summer it has been!

We each supported a dozen field seminars this summer and, if asked, I could not choose my favorite, although the ‘Bison of Yellowstone‘ has always stayed near the top of my list.  With two iconic instructors leading the course – Jim Garry, the consummate storyteller and expert of all things Yellowstone, and Harold Picton, one of the most seasoned Yellowstone Forever instructors and PhD bison extraordinaire, it made for a fascinating three days.  I have been so captivated by these big, beautiful beasts that I couldn’t stop reading about them, consuming four books this summer, my favorite being “The American Bison”, by Dale Lott.

A bison strolling through the ranch early in the summer, prior to losing his winter coat.
Yearling bison with a cowbird hitchhiker, who eats insects off the ground around the bison’s head.

Although so many who come to this first ever national park are in search of grizzly and wolf, and I too loved watching them through our spotting scopes at the ranch, I have always loved the bison, proud symbol of our American West.  After supporting this class, which took place during the bison rut, the love affair has only grown.

Who wouldn’t love this prehistoric-looking creature, whose history dates back over two million years to Eurasia? They have a long, beleaguered history and, with all they have endured through the centuries, they have still cleverly learned to adapt to their current environment.  Their complex anatomy allows them to thrive where other species would falter.  They have a blood supply that acts as a great temperature regulating system, cooling their brain as they expel water through their nose.  Their digestive system is a regular ecosystem, allowing them to eat various types of plants and grasses easily.  And due to the heavy insulation on their front-end, they fare far better in winter than other wildlife, with little change to their metabolism until temperatures dip to -40ºF.

A little red dog with mom, just a few weeks after birth.
Red dog with little horn buds.
No longer red but still being nursed by mom.

Each season provides an interesting study into the life of a bison – spring, when the calving occurs and the “red dogs” can be seen frolicking in the lush green grasses; summer, when the bulls become more agitated as they march towards the “rut”, the breeding season when testosterone-laden bulls strut their stuff and display their male dominance; fall, when the cows and calves band together and bulls begin their solitary foraging months, preparing for the desolate cold to come; and winter, when the bitter cold winds and the predatory wolf determine who will survive.

A small part of a larger herd seen in the Lamar Valley.

When I look upon the vast Lamar Valley dotted with bison, it is difficult to believe that in the early 19th century this herd had dwindled to no more than two dozen head, due to unconstrained poaching in the park. Today the herd has grown to ~ 4,000 in the northern range and roughly 5,200 throughout the park, thanks to the creation of the Lamar Buffalo Ranch around 1907.  There are no cattle genes in this herd, unlike all others, making it possibly the only true wild herd remaining and the herd with the greatest chance of survival.  Disease and sterility are the greatest threats to herds not truly ‘wild’.

A beautiful bull and his affectionate cow seen on the ranch during the rut.

Living at the Buffalo Ranch these past four months provided us with the rare opportunity to witness bison behavior up-close, from the safety of our cabin or the bunkhouse.  On many occasions large numbers of these beautiful animals, bulls, cows, and calves alike, graced us as they wandered across the campus.   Their presence reminded us that this is their home and we are just mere visitors.

If you are interested in learning more about the educational programs offered by Yellowstone Forever, go to www.yellowstone.org and check them out.  You won’t be disappointed.

Next Up:  The rut, filled with bison love and aggression.

Disclaimer:  The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of Yellowstone Forever.  

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40 thoughts on “The Bison of Yellowstone ~ Yellowstone Forever Field Seminar Series, Part 1

    • I learned a lot about the cow bird when I read about the bison. They are a parasitic brooder who lay their eggs in another bird’s nest, never raising their own chicks. That bothered me until I learned that the cow birds travel with the bison and there is no way they could have a stationary nest given their lifestyle.

      • Thinking of cowbirds… they should be called buffalo birds, don’t you think? 🙂 and I felt the same, I did not like them until I realized that they, essentially, have given up ‘normal family life’ in order to survive. Now that I understand that, I feel very differently toward them. I wonder, though, how those little ones learn that they are not the same as the parents that raised them and how they figure out to go off and follow the bison!? AIn’t nature grand?

      • I was fascinated reading their story. I read that when the male cowbird is trying to attract a female, he knows to sing a cowbird song instead of the song from the bird species who raised him. If he doesn’t do it well enough, but the female cowbird is attracted to him, she will sing it back to him and have him repeat it back to her until it is perfect. How cool is that?

      • And yes Julianne, I do think they should be called buffalo birds, especially since the Yellowstone bison have no cattle genes in them…truly wild, just like we like them. 🙂

  • Glad to hear you had an enriching summer. Surrounded by the beauty of Yellowstone and the fabulous wildlife, I can see why it would be difficult to say farewell. Can’t wait to hear what adventure you’ll embark on next summer.

  • I,too, liked the Dale Lott book. A six foot high jump? Yikes! I envy you the opportunity to support so many courses… I wish I could download all the Yellowstone info you learned this summer!

  • I can only imagine how difficult it was to leave this wonderful park. Yellowstone is definitely a one in a million place. And I never tire of looking at the bison. They are kind of like saguaro…each one is different. I am so captivated with watching them up close. What a terrific summer building lasting memories:) Enjoy your condo in another amazing state. Have fun at the family gathering. Good to have you connected again:)

    • It was really bittersweet to pull away from the Lamar Buffalo Ranch. It was a soul-enriching summer, more so than I expected. It is good to reconnect with you.

  • Oh good, now that you’re reconnected we get to hear your tales of your summer in Yellowstone! I didn’t know that the only remaining wild bison are in the park. Good thing they’re protected. They look so majestic — and I also remember how hilarious they looked snorting and rolling around in the mud when we saw them in Yellowstone several years ago. Your photos capture some wonderful bison family moments. Have fun in Colorado!

    • Thanks Laurel. I didn’t know how enamored I was with bison until I saw them so many times wandering through the ranch and got to observe them up-close. I am looking forward to hearing all about Vancouver Island.

  • Thanks, Lu for the wonderful pictures and the great story. amazing to see pictures of the creatures in the 1800’s when the prairie was almost black with them. glad they’re coming back
    have a good fall and winter
    -david

  • You are doing a fantastic job with the new camera! Sad that poaching almost caused an end to the herd, but it looks like they have definitely made a comeback.
    I love the red dogs. At what age do their coats change color?

    • Thanks Gayle. I still have so much to learn about the camera. How are you enjoying the Canon? As to the red dogs (and oh how cute they are), their coat begins to darken after a few months, usually beginning at the crown of their head and down their spine. Looking forward to catching up with you two next month.

  • LuAnn & Terry, It is so great to see your postings again. First of all, I want to tell you that your four month sojourn from the everyday world will serve you well. Now hopefully, you will only listen to the news or check out Facebook in a very casual or perfunctory manner. I don’t mean to disappoint you, but the real world hasn’t changed much. It appears from this posting LuLu that your gift for writing a wonderful and interesting story is still intact. Thanks so much for your bison experiences this summer past. It is new for me to hear that their young are called red dogs. What beautiful and exotic creatures they are and their population increase is so encouraging in this fast changing world that we live in. Thanks again and welcome back to our everyday world……R & G

    • Although I am happy to be back in touch with the likes of you and Gayl, I have not missed all the talking heads and discovering how messed up our country continues to be. I am quite disappointed in both parties and plan to spend much more time doing charitable works when we return to So. Cal. Looking forward to seeing you both again.

  • I have good wi-fi, this evening, so I am glad I finally got to visit your blog. I’m so glad you had such a good time. You are still a truly wonderful story teller and photographer. I am looking forward to your many reports to come. Hope you are getting lots of rest and can enjoy the family reunion. By the way, it is snowing, here in Yellowstone, right now.

  • Thank you for taking the time to share with us a bit of what you experienced and learned. I envy you taking the class with Jim Gary. I REALLY enjoyed meeting and working with him during one of the Heritage Days Events.

    • My pleasure Ardythe. I had requested supporting Jim’s class as I had always admired him. Terry supported a class earlier in the summer with him and Him Halfpenny and really enjoyed it. Given my love of the bison, it seemed a perfect fit, and it was!

  • We stopped by Buffalo Ranch to see you a few days ago, must have just missed you. We worked at Rocky Mt all summer. When we finally get to Orlando we’ll have two weeks to get ready to go to Iceland. Glad you enjoyed your summer.

    Get Outlook for iOS ________________________________

    • Wish our paths would have crossed. I have a friend who is going to Iceland yet this year. I look forward to hearing all about it as it is on our radar as well.

  • Such a magical and soul-enriching summer, LuAnn and I imagine that it will take a place in your memory as one of your best summer’s ever. Your photos are truly lovely and remind me of the several trips we took to the park in the ’80’s and ’90’s when we lived in Montana. I especially loved the photo of the bison shedding his winter coat with the cowbird hitchiker perched upon his shoulders. Hopefully, your stay in the Colorado mountains will give you a chance to re-enter the 21st century gently. Enjoy your family time! Anita

    • Thanks Anita. Being immersed in classes and having students around all summer made us realize that we needed some downtime before heading back to So. Cal. and reintroducing ourselves to the craziness which seems to be country right now. Long walks, hiking, and watching the fall colors pop will be good medicine for us.

  • I just about felt like I was there. I certainly wished I was. I would so love to spend the summer as you have. Your photos are wonderful, and have captured the essence of bison life in Yellowstone.
    Alison

  • Beautiful thoughts and pictures, as always, Luanne. Really made me feel nostalgic. Yellowstone is otherworldly, in its own way. And I completely understand seeking an Other World right now. Thanks for sharing.❤️

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