The Bison of Yellowstone ~ Yellowstone Forever Field Seminar Series, Part 2

It is 7:00 AM and the “Bison of Yellowstone” course is due to begin in a couple of hours.  There are a few of us mingling around the bunkhouse, enjoying our morning cup of joe.  As I look down the pathway to the cabins, I cannot believe what I am seeing.

I call over the students as I open the bunkhouse door.  A gorgeous bull bison, sporting a full beard, pompadour, and swaying pantaloons, is meandering down the walkway, heading for the bunkhouse.  His timing couldn’t be better!  He walks across the front porch and down the side of the building to the foot of the stairs at the back porch.  His behavior electrifies us as he grunts and snorts, then proceeds to urinate.  We believe he is agitated with us, as he trots off to the corner of the ranger residence next door.  He exhibits the same behavior there, then drops down, rolling in his urine.  As we look across Rose Creek, which runs through the ranch, another magnificent bull and the cow he is tending are watching, and this show is all part of the bull dominance so often displayed this time of year.  Welcome to the rut!

Beginning mid-July and continuing into the early days of September, the bison rut is on in Yellowstone.  Bulls do most of their communicating during this time of year, their breeding season.  Often during the rut the bulls could be heard from our cabins, snorts and bellows sounding more like a pride of lions.  It was eerie and exhilarating.

I watched from the bunkhouse as this bull was trying to tend “his” cow.
Here was his response to me when I opened the door to snap this photo. His bellow was hysterical.

During the rut bull bison focus their attention on the cows, trying to determine when they enter estrus, the time when they are receptive to breeding and can be impregnated.  A cow’s urine is full of information on when she is nearing ovulation.  The bull has a vomeronasal organ in the roof of his mouth than can analyze female urine and determine if she is receptive.  Sticking his nose into the cow’s urine,  he raises his head with upper lip curled, tongue reacting as if he is tasting a fine wine.  This action, called the flehmen response, is common in most ungulates.  We observed this behavior during our time in the field, after which the bull chased the female, a sure sign he felt she was ready.

So what does all this bull posturing mean during the rut?  Here are some of the questions that I had answered:

Q:  What does that raised tail mean?

A:  It could mean one of two things – charge or discharge.  When a bull or even a cow is agitated, they lift their tail into what looks like a question mark.  A raised tail is often seen on the bulls during the rut, as their testosterone levels keep them agitated much of the time.  As for the discharge, do I really need to explain that?

Two bulls…hmmm, wonder what that raised tail means? And what about that curled lip?

Q:  What’s all that rolling around in the dusty wallows about?

A:  All bulls wallow several times per day during the summer, probably ridding themselves of insects and perhaps reducing their body temperature.  No one knows for certain why a bull urinates into a wallow before rolling in it during the rut.  Perhaps he is showing his male dominance to other bulls, or is he trying to impress the gals?

Q:  How does a bull choose a female?

A:  Sorry guys, but the girl has the final say on who sires her calf.  The bull expends a lot of energy trying to “tend” a cow when he knows she is nearing estrus, but the cow is looking for a high-ranking bull, one who has been tested through a few winters, battles, predators, etc.  If she doesn’t think the guy lavishing her with attention is going to be a fit partner, she will take to running, prompting other bulls to chase her.  Who she ends up with may not be who she came to the party with.

Q:  Are bulls monogamous?

A:  Seriously, not even close.  Bulls are quite the cad, trying to impregnate as many cows as they can during the rut, in order to extend their lineage.  And if that wasn’t bad enough, they can’t be said to be good fathers either. After the rut bulls can be found alone, enjoying the warm sun, eating and ruminating, resting and preparing for the winter.  But I still love you guys!

A good-looking couple enjoying the sunshine in Hayden Valley

Q:  Now to the touchy subject of bison sex.  I don’t want to sound like a voyeur, but how does all that work?

A:  Don’t blink or you might miss it!  Bison sex takes a whole 4-5 seconds, with the bull putting his front legs over the flank of the female.  At the time of ejaculation, the force of his abdominal contraction is so strong that the bull is literally lifted off the ground, placing all 2,000 pounds of him on the cow’s back.  It’s no wonder that a cow can be seen limping for days afterwards.  It begs the question, can you blame a girl for not being that interested in sex?

Our bison class came upon this scene as we were heading to Hayden Valley to observe bison behavior. Two bulls were fighting for dominance, fur flying, stopping traffic.

Q:  How often during the rut do bulls fight, as in head-to-head combat, like we so often hear about?

A:  Surprisingly, bulls try not to fight with other bulls if possible.  They lose, on average, 200 pounds during the rut as they turn their attention to tending cows and having sex instead of eating.  Winter rapidly approaches after the rut, and they need as much energy as possible, stored as body fat, to help get them through the cold, harsh days.  Time spent fighting means time taken away from breeding and valuable energy expended.  Bulls try to modify another bull’s behavior instead, getting them to submit.  This is where all the posturing; e.g. grunts, bellows, rolling in wallows, stamping of hooves and shaking of pantaloons comes in.  The winners of this posturing don’t spare their rivals, rather themselves.  Some ecologists believe that it is typically the older bulls who are more likely to engage in battle to win the girl, as they have less to lose.   “An old bull is a bold bull”.

Because we have so much more to learn about these majestic creatures, doesn’t it make sense to preserve some wild spaces for studying them and other wildlife?

~  The Ends ~

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.

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

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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.  

A Step Back into the Old West ~ Black Hills, SD

Blogging has taken a back seat to family matters recently but I felt I needed to write a belated post about some breathtaking country in South Dakota before our time there becomes a distant memory for me.

Cathedral Spires in the Black Hills
Cathedral Spires in the Black Hills

The Black Hills, spanning 1.2 million acres, are a geologically complex land, an island oasis floating above a sea of prairie. The roadways traversing these densely forested slopes are listed among National Geographic’s Drives of a Lifetime.  Her grassy plains, soaring granite cliffs, and plunging gorges draw you into an intricate mural.  Beneath these pine-covered hills lie an underground labyrinth of calcite crystals and hidden caverns, mostly “wild”, only explored by professional spelunkers and geologists.

The whispers of the Old West are carried on the wind here, where Lewis and Clark passed through; Crazy Horse fought for freedom; and the Gold Rush of 1876 created a miners’ camp known as Deadwood, luring the likes of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane.

We focused our time in the southern hills.  Here are a few stops that we found noteworthy:

1)  Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Towering granite splendor - Mt. Rushmore National Memorial
Towering granite splendor – Mt. Rushmore National Memorial

A hurried trip years ago brought us back here for further exploration.  On this visit we joined an interpretive ranger who took us through the  creative process for this massive memorial.

Gutzon Borglum, the same sculptor who designed the intricate Confederate carvings depicted on Stone Mountain in Georgia, was brought in to design Mt. Rushmore.  Borglum’s vision, a memorial to the history of America, brought four US Presidents to life on a granite cliff side – George Washington, our 1st President, whose image is as tall as a 6-story building, Thomas Jefferson (#3), Theodore Roosevelt (#26), and Abraham Lincoln (#16).

In 1927, with over 400 workers scaling this massive granite slab, dynamiting and chiseling gave way to Borglum’s vision, ending with his death 14 years later, his dream not quite fully realized, but his contribution immeasurably felt.

 2)  Jewel Cave National Monument
Bacon anyone?
Bacon anyone?

Named for its glittering calcite crystal walls and with 166 miles of mapped passages, Jewel Cave is the 3rd-longest cave system in the world, continuing to grow at a rate of 3 miles per year. Only 3-5% of this cave has been explored so no telling how vast it truly is.  We enjoyed our tour but felt this cave did not quite rival Carlsbad, Mammoth or Kartchner Caverns.

Anyone interesting in slithering through tight spaces on their belly should consider taking one of their Wild Cave Tours – not something this claustrophobic girl would contemplate.

3)  Wind Cave National Park
A stubborn beast takes the high road.
A stubborn beast takes the high road.

This is the first cave to be given National Park status anywhere in the world.  Its proximity to Jewel Cave has some believing that one day there will be a connecting passage discovered between the two.

Wind Cave is a land of contrasts, a mystical world of hidden caverns and hiking trails meandering through forests and plains.  We chose to play in the sun and hiked the Centennial/Lookout Point Trail Loop, 5 miles through wide-open plains and deeply shrouded, rocky canyons.

It is here where we learned to gently prod a one-ton bull bison up a steep, rocky trail ahead of us.  With nothing but an abrupt chasm on one side and heavily forested cliffs on the other, going around this beast wasn’t an option, nor were we keen to turn back.  Photography was set aside to keep nearby trees in view, lest this big fella grow tired of our nudging and show us his mettle.  At the top of the ridge we said our goodbyes as he chose to continue on the high road. 🙂

4)  Custer State Park

This was the crown jewel of our trip through the Black Hills, with its abundant hiking, wildlife, and diverse scenery.  We understand why it was ranked as one of the top 10 state parks this year by Fodor’s.

Custer State Park boasts several driving tours that display the uniqueness of this park and is the reason we feel it rivals many a national park.  For wildlife viewing, take the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road and meet the famous bison herd.  Nearly 1300 if these massive beasts roam the park and each September, when there’s a crispness in the air and the leaves turn garnet and gold, it’s Buffalo Roundup time.   Visitors come to watch this thundering herd of bison being driven out of the hills by cowboys and cowgirls on horseback.  They are corralled, branded, tested, and some auctioned off to keep the herd at a healthy, stable population.

You may need nerves of steel to tackle narrow 17-mile Iron Mountain Road, boasting 314 curves and 14 switchbacks.  What draws visitors here are the three tunnels that all frame Mt. Rushmore as you look in your rear-view mirror.

Dubbed Needles Highway for the slender granite spires that line this roadway, the hairpin turns and narrow granite tunnels will force you to slow down to soak in the magnificent surroundings.  Many rock climbers (aka adrenaline junkies) flock to this section of Custer State Park for endless opportunities to get high.

And if your feet are begging to get back on solid ground, there are any number of exciting hiking trails to tax legs and lungs.  We chose to hike up to the summit of Harney Peak, highest peak in South Dakota, rising 7,242 feet above the surrounding terrain.  A stately old fire tower graces the summit and the views are breathtaking, weather permitting.

Tucked behind sparkling Sylvan Lake is a fascinating little hike that found us boulder hopping down into a plunging gorge and crossing a flowing creek so many times I lost count.  The Sunday Gulch Trail, only 3 miles in length, offers up some of the most unique landscape within Custer State Park.

Of course, after feeding the spirit the body begs for nourishment so a stop in the little town of Custer is highly recommended, where some of the best bison burgers can be found at Black Hills Burger and Buns Co., and a palette-pleasing flight of microbrews will call your name at Bitter Ester’s Brewhouse.

The Black Hills of South Dakota, sprawling land of intense diversity, begs to be savored, not rushed. We have left her northern hills of Spearfish Canyon, Deadwood, and Sturgis for another visit.

Rugged, Desolate Beauty ~ Theodore Roosevelt National Park (Part 1)

“There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy and its charm.”  ~  Theodore Roosevelt

Clouds dance across the Painted Canyon, first stop in the park off Hwy. 94
Clouds dance across the Painted Canyon, first stop in the park off Hwy. 94

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, named after our 26th President of the same name, lies in western North Dakota.  Part of Teddy’s spirit may still roam here, given his love for this land, for it was his time spent here that played an instrumental role in his development of conservation policies that remain in place today.

The Lakota people were the first to call this territory the “badlands” due to lack of water, extreme temperatures, and the rugged terrain.  Teddy Roosevelt first came to the North Dakota Badlands in September 1883 to hunt bison and was enchanted by its desolate, melancholy beauty.  It was the death of his beloved wife Alice Lee, due to complications from childbirth, and mother Mittie, who succumbed to typhoid fever, both in the same house, on the same day, February 14, 1884, hours apart, that brought Roosevelt back to these lands, heartbroken and seeking nature’s healing powers.

Bison freely roam these plains.
Bison freely roam these plains.

We entered the gateway town of Medora on a hot, muggy day so we chose the 36-mile scenic drive of the South Unit over hiking that first afternoon.  After spending much time in similar parks, such as Yellowstone and Yosemite, this park (imho) paled in comparison.  But the expression “don’t judge a book by its cover” applies here, as in digging a little deeper I have found some hidden gems.  But before I get to the good stuff, I’ll share a bit of a saga that’s been going on behind the scenes here.

Terry taking in the views.
Terry taking in the views.

Unfortunately the day of our arrival we learned just how much Terry’s father’s health had deteriorated over the past few days.  We both felt it imperative that Terry head to Ohio now instead of wait until the 25th of this month as he had planned.  What to do about an airport and flight was the next question, as we are in the middle of nowhere. The closest “big” town to us is Dickinson, 40 miles away, but surprisingly learned they have an airport another 7 miles outside of town.  So with flight booked and bags packed, we headed for the airport the next day, a very rainy day at that.

With Terry safely at the airport, I headed back to the park.  As I approached Dickinson a message scrolled across my dashboard stating STOP SAFELY NOW, and within seconds the truck decided to stop me.  There I sat in the driving rain blocking traffic, which never makes for happy drivers. With Terry at the airport contacting Ford and a tow service, I directed traffic while drivers scowled at me through rain-streaked windows.

Fast forward and an easy fix soon became anything but as the sensor broke while being removed so now we are awaiting parts and dealing with a warranty company that has been less than cooperative.

Many hours later, in a rental car headed back to the park, the skies opened and I found myself wishing for an ark.  Suffice to say the drive back at 40 mph was the longest 1.5 hours I have spent in some time.  I later learned that we had received 6-8″ of rain in a matter of two hours, which is probably why I felt I floated home most of the way.  But Terry is where he needs to be and I arrived safely.

The silver lining in this ongoing saga was a visit from dear Colorado friends Stan and Marilyn.  For two days we enjoyed great conversation, lots of laughs, and a lovely hike. They agreed to a hike I really wanted to do in the remote northwest corner of the south unit, the Petrified Forest Loop Trail. I was determined to hike it solo or with friends but agreed that it is probably best done with others, especially if the solo woman is somewhat directionally challenged. 😉  The petrified forest, hard sandstone spires topped with caprocks, and dodging bison during their rut made for an interesting hike.

We rounded out our time together with a stroll through Medora and a lovely dinner at Theodore’s, which we all highly recommend.   The food was excellent and the company, of course, priceless.  I can’t thank them enough for brightening up my week.  We look forward to seeing them again soon in Colorado.

Next up:  More hiking, prairie dog towns and concretions, my favorite!

A Few Yellowstone Pictures

Since I was not able to download some pictures of Yellowstone in my last posting, here are just a few to whet your appetite.  Enjoy!

Roosevelt Arch
Morning Glory Thermal Feature
Grand Canyon of Yellowstone - Lower Falls
White Wolf
Beginnings of a Bison Jam
Magpie at Mammoth
Indian Paintbrush
Big Horn Sheep ~ The End