“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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.