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.  

One of the Top Drives in the World ~ Icefields Parkway

There is a dramatic stretch of highway that parallels the Continental Divide, melding together two stunning Canadian parks.  This two-lane highway, stretching from the picturesque little village of Lake Louise in Banff National Park to the vibrant little town of Jasper in Jasper National Park, has been rated as one of the top drives in the world by Condé Nast Traveler, 144 miles of soaring rocky mountain peaks, ancient glacier ice fields, and immense sweeping valleys.  I would not be classified a worldly traveler (more a wannabe) but I must agree that it is tops on my list.

This is more than a drive.  It’s a journey through natural history, jaw-dropping landscapes, and more than 100 ancient glaciers.  It is so much larger than my meager brain can wrap itself around.  The best way to describe the beauty of the Icefields Parkway is through photos.  Here are just a few of the dramatic sights seen along this winding stretch of road:

Herbert Lake reflection

Herbert Lake, sitting under the peak of Mt. Tempe, was our first stop of the day after leaving Lake Louise.  Its morning reflection was a great start to our day.

Bow Glacier and Bow Falls

Bow Glacier and Bow Falls , one of the many striking glaciers along this beautiful stretch of highway.

Peyto Lake

Peyto Lake, named for “Wild Bill” Peyto, one of the first game wardens in the park.  The unusually bright blue water of the lake, created by glacial “rock flour”, which scatters the blue-green rays of light, coupled with the wide view of the Mistaya Valley, make this one of the most scenic sights along the parkway.

Hilda Pass

Another glacier seen from Hilda Pass.

Sunwapta Pass view

And another from the Sunwapta Pass.

The Columbia Icefield, composed of eight glaciers and encompassing an area of about 200 miles, sits near the halfway mark on the Icefields Parkway.  This ice mass is one of the largest south of the Arctic Circle and is one of the most reachable in North America.  The Athabasca, Snowdome, and Stutfield Glaciers can be seen from the parkway.

The Columbia Icefield Centre, much like a large National Park Visitor Center, is where you can book the Columbia Icefield Glacier Adventure, a 90-minute excursion onto the Athabasca Glacier aboard a massive Ice Explorer.  Tours on the Glacier Skywalk, a glass-floored observation walkway 918 feet above the spectacular Sunwapta Valley, can also be booked at the center.

Not unlike most other visitor centers, there is a 20-minute film that can be watched here.  We experienced “Through Ice and Time”, the best film I have ever seen in a National Park visitor center.

Snowdome GlacierSnowdome Glacier, part of the Columbia Icefields.

Athabasca Glacier

And the mother of them all, the Athabasca Glacier, largest in the Columbia Icefields, is the glacier the Ice Explorers drive visitors onto.  In 1844 this massive glacier covered the area across the street at the Columbia Icefield Centre, where the parking lot now sits, another testament to how far these glaciers have retreated.

Sunwapta Falls

Thundering Sunwapta Falls, whose power can be felt and heard when you stand on the bridge above it.

Athabasca Falls

The massive power of the Athabasca Falls is created as the Athabasca River funnels into a narrow gorge.

Mountain goats

Mountain goats come down from the red cliffs of Mt. Kerkeslin to lick mineral deposits along the road.

A trip to the Canadian Rockies would be incomplete without experiencing this spectacular drive on the Icefields Parkway and the Columbia Icefields.  As we drove the winding roads, I was remembering a post I had recently read by blogger friend Sue, who had recently biked this route with hubby Dave and a group of other cyclists.  I bow down to you both. 🙂

Those Spectacular Canadian Rockies ~ Banff and Yoho National Parks

While visiting friends in Cochrane, Alberta, we had to make the difficult decision of how to spread out our limited time in Canada.  I recall when we lived in Yellowstone shaking our heads each time a visitor came into the park with a few short hours to spend.  We wondered if it was worth the time to visit when so much would be missed.  Here we were faced with a similar decision, during peak tourist season, and I found myself as excited as those first-time Yellowstone visitors, wanting to see it all.  We were so close to many national parks so of course I wanted a taste of as much as possible, rationalizing that we could always return for more.

Our first stop was Banff National Park, in the Alberta province, where we pitched our tent for three nights at Lake Louise campground.  What began as a 16 square mile hot springs reserve is now 4125 square miles of unparalleled mountain terrain, Canada’s first National Park, home to seven National Historic Sites.  Banff, along with Jasper, Yoho, and Kootenay National Parks is recognized as part of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Ok bear, here I come!
Ok bear, here I come!

I thought our western mountains were breathtaking, but Canada really takes it up a notch with their Rockies, a beautiful melding of heaven and earth.  There is an unspoiled “wild-ness” here, thanks to the  ice-age glaciers acting as landscape sculptors, creating the rugged mountain ranges and gouging out the valley into a deep basin.

Spectacular glaciers and turquoise lakes above treeline on the Iceline Trail
Spectacular glaciers and turquoise lakes above treeline on the Iceline Trail

The glaciers that covered the Canadian Rockies have vastly retreated but have left behind vivid memories found flowing in the turquoise and jade green waters, unusual gorges and canyons, and unique rock formations.

The next morning we set out for the much smaller Yoho National Park, in the province of British Columbia, and the second Canadian National Park.  The unusual name for this park is a Cree expression meaning awe and wonder, which was exactly what we were feeling throughout our first hike in a Canadian park.

Although the smallest of the four parks that form the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks UNESCO World Heritage Sites, it holds some of the oldest and most significant shale fossil beds in the world, as well as 36 peaks soaring above 10,000 feet.  It packs a punch!

Takakkaw Falls - 830 foot drop in one stretch and 1260 foot drop in total, among the highest in Canada
Takakkaw Falls – 830 foot drop in one stretch and 1260 foot drop in total, among the highest in Canada

Since we had time for only one hike in Yoho, we chose a memorable hike, the Iceline Trail.  There are several ways to tackle this hike, out and back, a shorter loop and the big loop.  Guess which one I chose? 😉

Terry climbs to get a better view of Takakkaw Falls
Terry climbs to get a better view of Takakkaw Falls

The Iceline Trail via Little Yoho (the big loop) is 13-miles, with many of those above treeline.  It’s roughly 3000′ of elevation gain made for a challenging hike, but the 360º views of glaciers, flowing streams, and one of the tallest waterfalls in all of Canada made it worth the effort.

One of the infamous red chairs found after completing the Iceline Trail.
One of the infamous red chairs found after completing the Iceline Trail.

The next day we decided to scale back our hiking and chose to hike the Lake Agnes Trail in Banff National Park to a European-style tea house, the highest tea house in all of Canada. It is probably the most “civilized” way to see the Rockies.  The trail is 4-miles round-trip, with a 1300 foot elevation gain, just enough for me after our previous day’s trek.

Lake Agnes tea house
Lake Agnes tea house

And a visit to Banff is not complete without visiting the most iconic site in the park, the emerald waters of Lake Louise, where millions come every year to bask in her beauty.  It is the most famous glacial lake in the Canadian Rockies, named for Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, daughter to Queen Victoria.

The iconic Lake Louise
The iconic Lake Louise

The world-famous Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise sits on the edge of the lake, striking an impressive pose.  And it looked like millions were there on the day we visited and none spoke our native tongue.

Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise
Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise

Enough though we visited during peak season and had little time to explore, we wouldn’t have passed on getting a glimpse into these two spectacular Canadian parks, and we will definitely be back.  I am already reading about Banff in the winter – snowmobiles, dog sleds, cross-country skiing, sleigh rides.  Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Hubby is not convinced. 😉

Next Up:  Icefields Parkway

Quiet, Uncrowded Waterton Lakes National Park ~ Alberta, Canada

What started at an annual Rotary meeting between clubs in Montana and Alberta quickly blossomed into an international spirit of cooperation, a convergence of like values, celebrating the peace and goodwill between two nations with the longest globally undefended border.

Upper Waterton Lake
Upper Waterton Lake

In 1932 Waterton Lakes National Park and Glacier National Park joined together as Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, the first of its kind.  The joint efforts of both the U.S. and Canada are reflected in their wildlife and vegetation management, search and rescue programs, and joint interpretive programs.  In 1995 Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park was designated a World Heritage Site.

In the 80+ years since, 138  international peace parks and similar protected transboundary areas have sprung up on five continents, some in the most combative corners of the globe.

Cameron Falls
Cameron Falls

While still in Glacier National Park I enrolled us for the International Peace Park Hike, an 8-mile hike along Upper Waterton Lake, which included a boat shuttle trip back from Goat Haunt.  Jointly led by a Glacier Park Ranger and Waterton Park Interpreter, this seemed the perfect way to begin our Canadian adventure.

Bright and early on a gray, cloudy day we headed for Waterton Lakes National Park, giving ourselves plenty of time, or so we thought, to purchase tickets at the marina and meet our guides at the trailhead.  Not aware of the road construction between Glacier and Waterton Lakes, the delays prevented us from arriving on time.  To placate my disappointment, Terry convinced me that a rainy, foggy day wasn’t the best time for a hike or a boat ride.  I reluctantly agreed.

Prince of Wales Hotel
Prince of Wales Hotel

We waited a couple of hours until the fog burnt off then proceeded to the same trailhead we missed earlier and hiked the Bertha Lake Trail, a 6.5-mile hike to an alpine lake.  The switchbacks seemed to never end, and at one point I remarked to Terry, “there had better be a damn fine lake and waterfall at the end of this trail”…and there was.

Bertha Falls
Bertha Falls
Bertha Lake
Bertha Lake

After a pizza/microbrew meal and a stroll around town, we decided, weather permitting, that a hike to Crypt Lake should be on the agenda for the next day.  It is rated by National Geographic as “one of the world’s most thrilling trails”.  Sadly it was a wash-out as the rains moved in and stayed for the day.  Nonetheless, we found Waterton Lakes to be a lovely little town, and vowed to return to finish the two hikes we had on the agenda.

“Shaped by wind, fire, and water, Waterton remains for all time a place of spectacular beauty, a Canadian legacy of mountains, lakes, prairies, forests, alpine meadows, and wildlife.”  Our visit to Canada may have gotten off to a soggy start, but an anticipated visit to friends put the sun right back into our days.

Next up:  Cochrane