How To Bribe A Bison

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Once on the open range west of Matfield Green, a turn to the north on M Road, followed by another turn west to 60 Road, will lead you to Cedar Creek, the ghost town of Wonsevu, and autumnal ditches filled with partridge pea.

Stop to admire the flowers or the rust-colored grasses sweeping over the hills, and a glint of light might catch your eye. From the road, it’s hard to determine the source. But this is open prairie, unfenced and accessible. Wade into the grasses and climb the hill, and you’ll discover a life-sized, perfectly detailed bison: a sculpture conveying all the strength and solidity of the iconic prairie animal.

Although the name of the sculptor remains a mystery, and I haven’t yet learned who commissioned the work, I like to imagine a rancher placing the bison on its hillside: perhaps as a tribute to early ranchers in the American West who helped to save the bison from extinction.

Not all of their names are well known. Frederick Dupree saved nine calves on his ranch near the Moreau River, in South Dakota. Charles and Mary Ann Goodnight built a herd in the Texas Panhandle. In the spring of 1873, Walking Coyote, a member of the Pend d’Oreille tribe, captured four buffalo calves while hunting near the Milk River in northern Montana, and by 1884 had grown his herd to thirteen head. South Dakota rancher Scottie Phillip and Charles Jones — the founder of Garden City, Kansas, and the first game warden at Yellowstone National Park — also rounded up remnant herds.

Still, despite these individual efforts, survival of the species remained uncertain until December 8, 1905, when a group of sixteen people, including Theodore Roosevelt, assembled in the Lion House of the New York Zoological Society and formed yet another society: one devoted to American bison.

The primary goal of the Society was to create a preserve where bison could be protected and their numbers increased. A South Dakota National Park known as Wind Cave seemed to meet their requirements; by 1911, a study by J.A. Loring indicated the park could sustain the animals. Stanley Bullock, the U.S. Marshall supervising Wind Cave at the time, agreed:

I do not think they could find a better location. There is plenty of water and shelter in the Park, and horses and cattle ranging there this winter are in better shape than any that I have seen elsewhere… the Park is an ideal location.

In a letter written on behalf of the New York Zoological Society, William Hornaday affirmed the gift that would become the nucleus of the Wind Cave herd:

The New York Zoological Society authorizes me to offer the American Bison Society a herd of ten buffaloes, consisting of males and females of various ages, to stock the Wind Cave National Bison Range, whenever it is established by Congress. I need hardly assure you that these will be animals of absolutely pure blood.

The Bison Society replied:

This gift is a most valuable one… It comes when Congress has under consideration the establishment of the Wind Cave National Game Preserve. The gift of this nucleus herd will be a strong argument with Congress for establishing the Game Preserve.

In the end, the Zoological Society increased the number of bison to fourteen: seven males and seven females. On November 24, 1913 the animals, individually crated in two steel train cars, set off by rail, arriving in South Dakota on November 28.

By the end of 1913, Secretary of Agriculture D. F. Houston wrote in his report to the American Bison Society:

The Government now has about 315 buffalo, distributed in six herds: the fifth and sixth having been established this year on the Niobrara Reservation, Nebraska, and the Wind Cave Park, South Dakota.
In this connection it is interesting to recall that the nucleus of the first herd, the one now in the National Zoological Park, was acquired twenty-five years ago through the late Eugene Blackford, and consisted of a pair of buffalo captured near Ogallala, Nebraska. Soon after, four others were presented by Dr. V.T. McGillicuddy, a public spirited citizen of Rapid City, South Dakota.
And so it happens that, after the lapse of a quarter of a century, buffalo [have returned to] each of the States from which the original herd was secured. The future of the species now seems assured.

Due to Wind Cave’s size and available forage, the park has been able to sustain a herd of about five hundred animals. To preserve the rare genetics of the herd, however, scientists recommended a total population of more than one thousand animals.

In order to reach this goal, Wind Cave entered into a partnership with the Nature Conservancy designed to create satellite herds composed solely of Wind Cave genetics: valuable in part because the bison contain so few cattle genes. These satellite herds currently exist at the Conservancy’s Dunn Ranch Prairie in northwest Missouri, Broken Kettle Grasslands Preserve in Iowa, the  Nachusa Grasslands in Illinois, and the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas: just a few miles north of my sculpted hillside bison.

In October, 2015, additional bison from South Dakota’s Wind Cave herd increased the number of animals at the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve to eighty animals, where a herd of seventy to one hundred bison is considered optimal.

When arrangements were being made to receive the most recent shipment of bison, Kristen Hase, Natural Resources Manager for the Preserve, said, “We have a truck at Wind Cave, and they are doing the roundup right now. What we get depends on how many animals they are able to round up.”

Hase’s caveat was appropriate, since rounding up bison never has been — and never will be — easy. When the nucleus of the Wind Cave herd was unloaded in South Dakota, it required a certain creativity:

By noon the unloading (from the train) was completed and the crates securely lashed or chained to wagons provided by citizens of Hot Springs. It was 7:00 PM when the caravan reached the park. The first animal took its release very calmly and disappeared into the darkness.
However, the unloading by the uncertain light of our lanterns and bonfire proved to be a more or less difficult task. Greatly to the surprise and disappointment of some of our spectators, we had a good deal of trouble in getting some of the bison out of their crates.

Fred Dille, a member of the U.S. Biological Survey, described the difficulties this way:

To suggest to a buffalo that he must back out of a crate by poking him in the head [is a technique that] will work with an elk but not a bison. Your actions are but a challenge to him, and he does not propose to give ground.

According to the Bison Society’s final report:

In several cases the operation was more like removing the crate from the animal than the animal from the crate. At last our task was over, and it was with something of a feeling of relief that we realized our trip had been brought to a successful conclusion.

When the most recent shipment of Wind Cave bison arrived in Kansas, they first were placed in small pens and pastures to help them adjust. Getting them to the pens after that, for veterinary care or culling, would be complicated by the fact that bison aren’t cattle, and behave rather differently. “The more you try to force them to do something they don’t want to do, the more they push back,” says Randy Miller, a Nebraska rancher who raises bison for meat.

Horses can’t be used, because a fast-moving bison could harm or even disembowel a horse. On the other hand, helicopters and large trucks, useful in other settings, might well frighten or stampede the herd. On a tour of Konza prairie three years ago, when I asked Chod Hedinger how they manage to herd their own bison into corrals, he laughed and said, “Candy, of course!”

Bison candy isn’t fudge, or taffy. Instead, pellet-sized range cubes, composed of alfalfa, grain, molasses, and binder, are dropped from a vehicle traveling toward the corrals. As cattlemen know, no ruminant on four hooves can pass up such a sweet treat, and bison are no exception. Once they’ve become accustomed to following the feed truck, they’ll simply eat their way into the corrals.

On the morning I left the Tallgrass Prairie, I saw the effectiveness of bison candy for myself.

During my stay at Matfield Station, the bison had been roaming the hills well beyond the range of my camera, but that morning I found them grazing near their pens. Even so, tall prairie grasses made a clear view difficult.

img_3530Tallgrass Prairie Bison, Chase County, Kansas
(click any photo for greater size, clarity)

Unwilling to pass up my last, best opportunity for photos, I opened the car door, stepped up on the frame with one foot. and balanced myself against the door with the other. Focused on keeping the camera steady, I heard the approaching truck, but didn’t bother to look until it was next to me. When I turned, its driver leaned out the window and said, “Getting any good photos?”

“They’re not going to be the best,” I said,”but they’ll do.” “Well,” he said, “would you like to get closer?” I stepped down from my perch.”That would be great,” I said. “Is there a place where I could get a better view?” “Sure,” he said. “I’m heading out to the pasture now. Climb in, and you can ride along.”

Climb in, I did: noticing along the way that the old pickup had been outfitted with a mchanical feed hopper. When Gene explained that it was filled with range cubes, I knew we’d be doing what Chod described to me at Konza Prairie: taking a load of sweet treats out to the herd, bribing them to follow the truck.

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As we bounced across the pasture, Gene turned on a siren that sounded for all the world like a Kansas tornado warning, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. Laughing, he said, “First, we have to get their attention — let ’em know we’re out here.” Then, he gestured toward the horizon. “Look over there,” he said, “coming across the dam.”  Turning, I spotted a herd of bison barreling straight toward us, as nimble and quick as horses.

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“They do seem to know your truck,” I said. Gene grinned. “We’ll circle around and wait for stragglers, then start for the pens. I won’t start dropping feed until I’ve coaxed ’em along a bit. They’ve got to learn to follow to get the feed.”

Looking out the window, I pondered an especially large bison running alongside the truck. “I think this one’ll follow. He’s got a wild look in his eye, like he might be candy-crazed.”

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Cruising a pasture in a pickup isn’t the best way to take photos, but eventually we came to a stop. Gene kept sounding the siren as the bison streamed in and surrounded the truck: mentioning in an off-handed way that it probably would be best if I didn’t get out. “Not to worry,” I said. “They’re beautiful, but I’m not about to try petting one.”

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Still, with only two or three feet between us, it was possible to admire details I’d missed in the past: the variety in the color and texture of their fur; the sound of their feeding as they ripped grass from the ground; and their alert, responsive gaze.

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There were bison who seemed to be best friends,

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and delightful young calves.

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All seemed impatient as they gathered around the truck, and we began the journey to the pens. They trotted along happily for a while, but began drifting off when no feed appeared. That’s when the hopper was activated, and the bison were rewarded.

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Once the feed hopper had been emptied, Gene got out to make sure all was well,

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while bison who already had taken their share of the treats licked their lips, and hoped for more.

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Happy with how close we’d come to the pens, Gene grinned at a lone bison still begging at the window. So quickly I almost missed the gesture, he reached out and grabbed a fistful of hair from the shedding creature. “Here,” he said, handing it to me. “Here’s a souvenir for you, in case your photos don’t come out.”

img_4433The Giver
bisonfurAnd the gift

As we turned the truck with its empty hopper toward the road and began retracing our course across the pasture, the bison showed no inclination to follow. No doubt experienced enough to know the treats were gone, they returned to their grazing, and seemed content.

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Watching them as we pulled away, I felt a similar sense of contentment. The bison had grass, water, and sky. They had the comfort of the herd, a curving horizon to embrace them, and protectors willing to do what they could to help undo the damage of the past.

What more could a creature desire?

Comments always are welcome. Do click any photo for greater size, and much greater clarity.

119 thoughts on “How To Bribe A Bison

  1. Interesting post. I don’t know a lot about bison but the few I’ve actually seen looked pretty scruffy. I was especially interested in their hair in your photos. The dark hair on their heads seems a different texture than the rest of their hair. Awesome animals.

    1. If you saw them in spring, you may have seen them when they were shedding their winter coats. They certainly do look scruffy then; in fact, scruffy hardly does it justice.

      I noticed the difference in the hair that you did. They have a very soft, fine undercoat, and a second coat that is made up of longer and coarser hairs, but the curly hair on their heads suprised me. I suspect that biologists have explained that somewhere, and I just haven’t found the answer yet. One uneducated guess on my part is that, because they graze continually, they’ve developed close, tight hair on their heads so it doesn’t interfere with feeding. But again, that’s just a guess.

      They are awesome. I’ve seen them before, but always at a distance or in a pen. This was something different.

    1. Thanks, Janet. It was one of those unexpected experiences that came my way during the trip, and I really enjoyed it. Not only were the bison great, Gene was a great guy. We both had celebrated birthdays in the past week, and while I had come from Texas to Kansas, his wife was traveling from Kansas to Corpus Christi, where their nephew was getting his pilot’s wings. It’s a small world, indeed — and there’s always a connection to share.

  2. Your photos are awesome and the experience so interesting. I love how you dig deep into the topics you write about. When you write, you take us with you with your descriptions. Did you just happen on to this opportunity or did you seek it out? I pass by a bison farm fairly often and my husband used to know the owner, so I’ve seen them up close, too. The size and power of those animals is so impressive….and scary.

    1. It was a little of both, Jean. I had made of point of going back to the Tallgrass Prairie to try and get photos of the bison. They’d been moved from their usual pasture, where they would have been more accessible, so I just kept going back, hoping for a better look. Then, on my last morning there, Gene saw me as he was beginning his work day, and invited me along for the ride.

      I loved being close to them, but I must say that seeing that herd come pounding over the dam may have been the best single moment. It’s amazing that such large, apparently plodding creatures can suddenly transform into large, apparently light-footed and fast creatures. They can run at speeds up to 40 miles an hour — just amazing.

    1. It is good. The first time I ate bison was in 1957, during my hometown’s centennial celebration. It was considered an oddity then, but now you can find it fairly easily — at least around Houston. I like the taste, and it’s lower in fat. There are even some ranchers in Texas raising it now — good for them, i say!

  3. There was once a time when a bison herd took days to pass through, when they roamed the prairies from Canada to Texas. How awe-inspiring it must have been to see one and experience the thunder of their passage. The period of time when the “buffalo hunters” nearly eradicated the species is one of the all too many shameful episodes in American history.

    Only in America can you find “buffalo” that aren’t really buffalo (the American bison), antelope who aren’t really antelope (pronghorn), dogs who aren’t really dogs (prairie dogs) and owls who live in a hole in the ground (burrowing owls).

    1. I’ve read some accounts of those bison herds, including a couple written by travelers who stopped at two famous Kansas overlooks: Pawnee Rock and Point of Rocks, in the Cimarron grasslands. And like others, I’ve been sickened by those famous photos of piles of skulls and skins. If there’s a lesson in all that, it may be that species can be pulled back from the brink of extinction, and that individuals can make a difference.

      Of course, it isn’t only the species at issue. I’ve only learned the phrase “keystone species” in the past year or so, but it points to another reality: the bison and the prairies were so inextricably linked that the slaughter of the bison also contributed to the loss of the prairies.

      I saw bison, pronghorn, and prairie dogs on this trip. But I still haven’t seen a burrowing owl. I love that they’re sometimes called “howdy owls.” I’ll keep looking for one to say howdy to.

      1. Burrowing owls are sometimes active in the daytime, although they prefer the crepuscular times of day. However, if they are out in the daytime, they can be really hard to spot because their feathers get bleached out by the sun and give them such good camouflage. They often lurk right at their burrow’s entrance. They’re also not very big, only 7.5 to 11 inches tall. What I’d love to see is one chasing beetles through the grass — they will run down their prey. They also have “naked” legs. Like chickens, but unlike most other owls, they have no feathers on their legs.

        They used to be classed under the genus Speotyto, but they’ve been reclassed into the genus Athene, species cunicularia — the same genus as the little owls the Greeks associated with the goddess Athena (they hang out on the Acropolis) The ones we have here are Athene cunicularia hypugaea.

        There’s a large vacant lot out behind the VA clinic here, and the prairie dogs have colonized it. I’ve seen at least one burrowing owl in among the prairie dogs. They are capable of digging their own burrows — but why should they when they can “recycle” one of the prairie dog burrows that’s already dug?

        1. That video is wonderful. I did a little looking to see how far east their range comes, and the answer, of course, is “not very.” I need to spend more time in the Panhandle: that much is clear.

          I’d love to see one. It saddens me that their long-terms prospects are iffy. I read that loss of habitat and war on the prairie dogs means fewer owls. Are ranchers up that way still going after the prairie dogs like they used to? I understand that the burrows can be a problem, especially for horses, but still….

          Watching them run is amusing. They remind me of roadrunners.

  4. Thanks for this visit with bison. Honestly, for such massive, imposing beasts, they have rather sweet faces. What an experience and what must the American prairies have been like when they roamed in full force.

    1. I thought exactly the same thing, Tina. They do have sweet faces, and those tiny eyes seemed so expressive. That may have been my projection, though, since it seems their vision is quite poor, and they primarily use hearing and scent to make their way through the world.

      The phrase “thundering herd” makes more sense to me now. Seeing even a small group of these animals on a dead run was impressive.

  5. You certainly took great advantage of an unusual and wonderful chance to visit the bison, and up close too. They are awesome creatures.

    In the region where I live there are many ranches that have their own bison herds, and about 40 miles away is the National Bison Range where they range free in natural habitat. There is a 20 mile loop road through it that is open in the summer and I make that drive every year. It is also the home of deer, elk, bighorn sheep and bear. Always enjoyable to visit!

    1. I’ve seen plenty of bison over the years, but most have been penned, or relatively far away, in their pastures. The chance to see them on the move was great. It also made clear why there are so many warning signs at places like the Tallgrass Prairie, and why so much of the tagging, sorting, and other veterinary work is done so carefully. Chris Helzer, over at The Prairie Ecologist, has a great post with photos about a 2012 bison roundup that shows some of the complexities.

      I read a good bit about the National Bison Range while I was writing this. Those yearly visits you make must be wonderful. Perhaps some day I’ll have the chance.

      1. At the bison range here they still use horses to do the annual roundup where they move the bison into pens where they can give them health checks and shots if needed. A decade ago they would get volunteer horsemen to help. I always wanted to do that but was never able to.

        1. Are horses preferred at places like the Bison Range because the herds are larger, and their range is significantly larger? At the Tallgrass Prairie, everyone knows precisely where the bison are, because they’ve been put there, and they’re fenced. Where larger herds are allowed to roam freely over a much greater area, I imagine a first task would be to find them — and I’d think that horses would be far more efficient.

          1. It’s quite large, but also a lot of it is on a steep, rolling hillside where you couldn’t get a truck, and even the flatter areas are not in the least drivable.

  6. What a fun story, Linda. You were lucky to run into Gene and his ‘candy’ fed herd. Peggy and I have run into Bison several times during our wanders. Yellowstone, and particularly Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota have provided our closest encounters. A big bull seemed quite content to walk along side our van at TRNP. He was BIG.

    Tule Elk in California have a similar story. They were thought to be extinct until a pair of them were discovered. Today they can be found in a number of places in the state. At the beginning of November Peggy and I encountered a Roosevelt Elk herd up near the Redwoods. That blog is coming up before Christmas. –Curt

    1. Right place, right time certainly did apply. Since I’ve only passed through North Dakota and Montana, and never have been to Wyoming, I’ve clearly missed some great opportunities to meet bison up close and personal. This went some way toward making up for that lack.

      Every time I come across “tule” I laugh. I still remember being told, out in the Sacramento delta, that “tule bushes” were the California equivalent to “boondocks.”

      There are plenty of pronghorn in western Kansas, but there are elk, too. They were essentially wiped out around 1900, but they were reintroduced in Morton County, and in the area around Fort Riley, and numbers have increased. Morton County’s also the home of the Cimarron grasslands, where I took my photo of the lone tree. I saw and photographed some pronghorn there, but never saw any elk. The thought of elk in the redwoods surprised me. I’ll look forward to your post.

      1. Did you run into the term, tule fog, Linda. It can be quite nasty, 50 vehicle crash ups nasty. I’ve been in the Valley when the highway patrol had to provide escorts.
        We have elk in Southern Oregon as well but not around where I live, darn it. I’d love to have them wandering through my yard like the black tail deer.
        Pronghorns mean wide-open spaces to me. I know I am in the west. –Curt

        1. I did, and as soon as you said “tule fog,” I remembered some of those crashes.

          I was close enough to the pronghorn this time to see those sweet faces really well. I think their long eyelashes are wonderful, and they certainly are built differently than the bison. Those legs seem to go on forever.

  7. While a bison is not an alpaca, they might have similar traits when it comes to mating.

    A sure way to find out if a female alpaca is pregnant, apart from doing expensive ultra-sound, is to run a male past the female. The female will spit at the male if she is pregnant.

    We used to do drive-by mating with a superb male named ‘Ruffo’s Ledger.’ A lovely and gentle male alpaca. His off spring were always easy to halter, easy to led at shows and with superb fleece, often below 19 microns.

    Ruffo’s Ledger always knew when he was in for a nice mating as soon as he heard the rattle of the trailer in which we transported him to owners of female alpacas who wanted to use his services. He would jump in the trailer in keen anticipation of meeting a willing female.

    We got paid in dollars and Ruffo would get some nice lucerne hay as a reward.

    I am not sure I would put a halter on a male bison, no matter how friendly his eyes.

    Great story, Linda and good photos too.

    1. Honestly, Gerard, about the only things I know about alpacas are that they’re “sort of” like llamas, and that years ago my dad had an alpaca sweater. I take it you raised them for a time — what an interesting experience that must have been. Was it in Australia?

      I did read that a female bison will simply walk away from a male if he shows up in mating season and she’s not interested. I don’t remember coming across anything about a girl bison’s behavior during pregnancy.

      Serendipitously, I did find something that connects the bison and your dingoes. Just as the disappearance of the bison helped to bring the demise of the American prairie, the fencing of the dingo seems to have led to the encroachment of woody brush in the eastern part of Australia. You can read about that here.

    1. No, that ranch and those sculptures are east of I-35, and fairly well removed from where I found the bison. I’ve asked Bill McBride, another artist and the proprietor of Matfield Station (where I stayed) if he knows the artist, but he wasn’t aware of the bison’s existence. He’ll figure it out eventually, since he’s an integral part of the arts community there.

      I know the number of herds are increasing around Texas: not only in the various preserves, but also on ranches. There’s one herd I see nearly every time I’m in the hill country. It’s great fun to see them, but I’d love to see a truly large herd, like Yellowstone’s.

    1. Beast or bird, it’s always great to have an up-close-and-personal look. In this case, getting close was fun, but how I got close was even more fun. I’m glad you liked the photos of those fuzzy faces.

  8. It’s hard to believe that at one time the dust from massive bison herds could be seen for miles. It’s comforting to know that good work is being done to help them.

    I smiled at Fred Dille’s description of trying to get a bison to back out of a crate. I know some people like that bison. Coaxing will get you a lot further than prodding. I guess that’s where the phrase “stubborn as a bull” originated.

    Weren’t you lucky that Gene came along in his pickup truck? Your photos are great. You’re really getting good at this. I’ve beginning to view you as an intrepid reporter, out there gathering information for us.

    1. While the work being done to help restore the bison is good, it’s a shame that we nearly lost them. Grandma always said that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure — the cure seems to be working with the bison, but there are other species that could use a little preventive care.

      Wasn’t that crate story funny? I love imagining those folks with their crowbars, removing the crates board by board. I saw another newspaper article about bison being moved to a new home, and the fellow in charge said roughly the same thing: “You suggest that they get on the truck.”

      I was lucky. Gene said he doesn’t always take someone with him, but if he sees someone who seems interested, and he can fit company into his work schedule, he does. It was a big hank of hair he got me, too. I’ve got it tied up with a red ribbon and sitting on a shelf in the living room. I think it’s a different hank of hair than the one Jimmy Rodgers was singing about when we were kids, but the experience was just as feel-good as the song.

  9. What a wonderful and unique animal. Your images came out really well and you were fortunate to be able to get so close. I love their massive furry foreheads and horns, and beautiful all-shades-of-brown color. It is such an iconic animal. How interesting about the treat and their behavior. There are so many secrets about animals one usually thinks are ferocious and unmanageable

    1. The details really were delightful. We so often see their image in silhouette, or see photos of them from a distance, that it’s easy to miss things like that curly hair. I most enjoyed being able to make eye contact with a few. The contrast between their tiny eyes and huge body was striking, but so was the realization that they were as conscious of our presence as we were of theirs.

      As intimidating as the big bison can be, the calves are pure delight. I’ve seen some videos of calves cavorting on this same prairie, and would love to be there one spring to record their pure sweetness. Of course, that means figuring out how to do video recordings: a nice winter project, perhaps.

  10. The sculpture and the mystery of its abandonment is ironic on so many levels. And now we’re intent on ‘saving’ the bison. With Theodore Roosevelt in the cast of characters. Amazing.

    Well done, and thank you for your good work.

    1. I don’t think the sculpture has been abandoned as much as carefully placed in a location where the animal’s close relationship to the prairie is highlighted. It’s almost as though, in the installation, the hills are as important as the sculpture. I am curious what material was used. If it’s Cor-Ten steel, it’s obviously a very new sculpture. Lots of questions!

      Thanks for your kind words. It was a great experience,and one that I was pleased to be able to share.

  11. What a wonderful post, Linda. It renews my faith to know people are out there willing to retain such a grand species!! These photos are fantastic, you really did an outstanding job here!

    1. Thanks, GP. The Nature Conservancy does fine work, not only in habitat restoration but also in education. They’ve been active in helping to preserve prairies within a couple of hours of my home, and although there aren’t any bison running free on those prairies, they are important for other species. It’s always great fun to visit any of them, but this visit clearly was special.

      1. Back in the ’80’s, I was a member of the Board of Directors for Wilderness Islands and we used to do our best to save the small patches of brush and wetlands around here, especially over the aquifer. Back then I wasn’t on a SS budget and often contributed to them. The Conservancy does great work!

        1. Good for you, for serving on the Board. Money’s important, but there’s a lot of real work to be done — from making decisions to planting grasses. There’s a lot of educating to be done, too — especially with the children. Never mind not understanding nature, or being detached from nature. In too many cases, we’re teaching kids to be afraid of nature. Thank goodness there are people trying to reverse that.

  12. Hey. Lucky you to have that experience. They are impressive animals. I’ve had encounters with bison in 3 locations. Yellowstone has several which we’ve seen on our visits. I used to work summers at Fermilab near Chicago. They maintain a small herd.

    The most enjoyable encounter was in the Black Hills. We left our cabin early one morning to go to the lodge in Custer St. Pk. for a big breakfast. On our way across a broad meadow the road passed directly through what appeared to be hundreds of bison grazing. We slowed to a crawl and carefully moved through the herd. Several times we had to stop and wait for an opening to advance a few more feet. Our son was about 4. We all sat with mouths open.

    1. I didn’t know about Fermilab’s bison herd, or that they’ve been engaged in long-term development of other wildlife habitats. I thought immediately of Johnson Space Center, which has been doing some of the same things. There aren’t any bison there, but there are plenty of deer, and an abundance of prairie plants.

      Clearly, North and South Dakota and Wyoming are the places to go to find large herds of these wonderful animals. I imagine one advantage to being stopped in your tracks while waiting for that furry sea to part is that you could get wonderful photos, and still have time to just enjoy the experience.

      One thing I’ve learned about the way bison graze is that they keep moving — sometimes even eating while they walk. As they move on, the prairie grasses they’ve left behind have time to recover. Where the buffalo roamed, there weren’t any overgrazed fields.

        1. That’s a bit of a sad tale. Still, I’m glad they decided not to try and maintain a herd that had to be penned. Given the circumstances, it seems best to let the line simply die out.

          Fallow deer are relatively common here in Texas: brought in as exotics on game ranches. They’re pretty creatures, although I’ve only seen them a handful of times. We have axis that were brought in, too. Some of those have escaped captivity, and as the feral herds grow, they’re presenting real problems. Like plant invasives, they’re thriving: competing with the native deer for resources, and wreaking havoc with crops.

        1. What a wonderful experience that must have been. The photos are great. It’s pretty clear what season it is, too. Not only is there lots of nice, green grass, that shedding process seems to be doing nicely. The one of the calf wandering under the big one’s chin is funny — they are such sweet little creatures. Thanks so much for digging them up . They’re a great addition to the post.

    1. I’m sure there are times when it’s not so pleasant — the dead of winter comes to mind — but it would be quite a job, wouldn’t it? I wonder if people like Gene come to recognize individual animals: if they have personalities, as well as distinguishing physical features. Another question, for another time.

  13. One of your best posts, Linda. Conjoining the many threads that make up the bison blanket, and augmented by close-up photography of both your guide and his flock, you have woven it all together with finesse. Both my husband Ron and I marveled at your pictures.

    The part describing that the crate is removed from the bison as opposed to the bison bursting from the crate is the best. Sort of explains how they were easily and systematically killed in the 19th century.

    Hooray for the rebuilding of the herds around the country.

    And no, I will not eat bison just as I don’t eat lamb.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Cheri. I’m with you on not eating lamb, but a nice buffalo burger’s fine by me. What I really enjoy is venison sausage, but that’s harder to come by around here than buffalo. It seems as though the craze for beefalo has ended. Cattle/bison crosses just didn’t work out as well as ranchers had hoped.

      Your mention of the systematic killing of bison reminded me of a place one of my Canadian readers told me about: Head-Smashed-In buffalo jump, in Alberta. When I first read about it, I was taken aback, World Heritage Site or not. Still, it’s clear that targeted hunting by skilled hunters — for food and clothing — was better by far than the indiscriminate “sport” hunting that took place.

      And they are coming back. There are around a half-million animals in commercial herds now, and about thirty thousand in preserves: both helping to bring back the prairies.. Now, if we can just keep from paving over and developing every last acre in this country, things may keep improving for them.

  14. Such a fabulous story!!

    I like my coffee, especially good coffee but for some odd reason, perhaps nostalgia, I only drink Folger’s, peculated over a fire when I camp. I also prefer to drink it out of a blue porcelain coated mug.

    One morning in Theodore Roosevelt National Park while my kids were still sleeping in the tent, I poured a cup of coffee and wandered off down the road to watch the sun rise.

    There was no wind, no yakking birds or yipping chipmunks – just the silence of the prairie. As the road curved west, I noticed a strange shadow slowing overtaking my shadow. A bull buffalo was following me, not more than an arm length behind. I still do not know how something that big could be so quiet. I turned in a wide, slow circle and headed the other way. He followed me most of the way back to the campsite but wandered off just short of the entrance.

    1. On that morning, at least, the best part of waking up was a bison very nearly in your cup. (Those company jingles were often silly, but they do have staying power.)

      What a wonderful memory. It’s interesting that you didn’t hear him. On the other hand, when they aren’t thundering across the land or bellowing at one another, they do seem to be fairly quiet animals. That wide, slow circle seems like the perfect reponse: especially the “slow” part. No need to excite the fellow. It does sound as though he was out for a stroll himself, or maybe even curious. As much as they get stared at, he might have wanted nothing more than to stare back for a while.

      Were the kids jealous when you told them?

      1. You are onto something there. Bison like to gawk too. :)

        The kids weren’t jealous, they just demanded to be taken to see the old bull. He wasn’t far away. Still we kept our distance.

        BTW, do you know how to distinguish between a false charge and a real charge from bisons and bears?

        During a real charge, they don’t stop.

  15. The history between man and the bison isn’t the most beautiful. But your personal story certainly is. How amazing to get the chance to get this close. And you used it for your benefit, capturing some amazing photos.

    1. The loss of the bison was a sad chapter in American history: no doubt about that. But it’s good to see them coming back, along with at least a few prairies. We’re certainly more knowledgeable about the interrelationship of things now. Whether we have the will to act on that knowledge is something else.

      It was an amazing opportunity, and I’m so glad I exchanged the telephoto lens for my 18-135mm before getting in the truck. The telephoto would have been better in some circumstances — for example, when they were coming over the dam — but there just wouldn’t have been time to change lenses for the photos near the truck. So it worked out fine. The experience did give me a new appreciation for people who photograph things like soccer games. Bison move a lot faster than flowers.

  16. Aw, that baby bison is just so cute!! Yes, the adults are striking and magnificent, but the babies make you want to cuddle them. And yes, I realize that that’s NOT happening, ha!

    I’m so glad you were able to get up close and personal with these fantastic creatures, Linda. And to bring those shots and their story to us. My book-learning didn’t include much in the way of bison, so I learned a lot here. Interesting how they follow the feed truck, then return to their open spaces. Perhaps they’re showing us wisdom?!

    1. The bison are cute, and they behave much like puppies and kittens. A blog friend from Kansas made this video of bison calves frolicking on the Tallgrass Prairie in 2014. As great as the video is, I can only imagine what it would be like to see them in real life.

      There’s not much difference between bison following a feed truck and Dixie Rose coming to full attention when I rattle a bag of treats. Once she’s had her portion, she’ll beg for more, but if I don’t give in, she gives up and goes back to whatever she was doing, just like the bison beginning to graze again. I’ll bet Dallas does the same thing.

      Conditioning can be a terrifically strong force, and knowing how to utilize it makes handling animals much easier. Occasionally, of course, they turn the tables on us. I’ll bet you’ve experienced that, too!

      1. That video really brings them to life! I don’t imagine I’ve ever thought about baby bison — I mean, you always see photos of the adults, who are impressive but not as “cute.” Good points about the treats and yes, Dallas is a master manipulator. It’s his sad-eyed look that makes you cave every single time — no wonder he’s fighting a bit of a weight issue, ha!

    1. That’s impressive. When I saw that it roamed during the Pleistocene epoch, I remembered that the giant, VW beetle-sized, armadillo-like creature called the glyptodon lived during the Pleistocene, too. It would have been quite a sight had the longhorned bison and the huge armadillo roamed together at the same time, but alas: the glyptodon lived in South America.

    1. Any animal in the world can be coaxed, Lisa. Throw a little peppermint ice cream in the back of that truck, and I’d follow right along, as nice as you please.

      My impression was that their eyes were quite small. No doubt their generally large size contributed to the impression. But now I’m confused. For every article I’ve read that says they have small eyes and poor vision, I’ve found one that says they have large eyes and good eyesight. I suppose those could be judgment calls, but it’s still kind of funny.

      Someone needs to go out into the herds and do some more testing. They could use this eye chart.

      1. Julie, the previous owner of the Cinto property, is a veterinary opthomologist. Perhaps she could do that study now that she’s back in Colorado and on the road to recovery.
        Yes, you are right about training — here in Ecuador a man tosses worms to the petite antpittas and coaxes them into close range for photos…

        1. Angel Paz! Is that the man yho mean? I remember you wrote about him in your blog, and I found this video of him with Maria. A range cube or a worm — whatever works, no?

          I’m glad to hear that your friend is in the process of recovery, too. Life certainly can take some turns, but that’s good news.

  17. Great history and reporting on bison. A couple of surprises for me. One is that a bison can outrun a horse. I would never have guessed that.

    Second regards the male/female make up of bison herds. You refer to a group who had 14 bison – 7 male and 7 female. Do they have a dominant male? How do that many males “share” females? My I am showing my ignorance, aren’t I? I do know that males often fight other males if there are too many in ratio to female? Or maybe I don’t know that either!

    Also, how bad am I to call all these animals buffalo rather than bison? What is a buffalo if he is not a bison?

    1. I’m learning right along with you, Oneta. I was surprised by how fast those little hooves can carry a bison. And just today I learned that the reason for the big hump is that the muscles it contains help to raise that massive head.

      The buffalo/bison distinction is interesting. Early settlers called our bison “buffelo” because of their familiarity with Asian water buffalo and African Cape buffalo. But our buffalo actually is a bison. There’s a nice synopsis here, along with photos. Photos always help.

      I’m less clear on the intricacies of their social order, but I do know that, apart from mating season, males and females (with their calves) stay in separate groups. The females have a hierarchical structure, with a dominant female. I guess the guys just hang out, singly or in small groups.

      When mating season arrives, the boys start looking for a girl, and hilarity ensues. For example, I read that a male who favors a particular female will stand in front of her, so she can’t see his competitors. Given how large a bull can be, that might be pretty effective. There’s a lot of head-butting between the males, to show who’s strongest.

      If a female isn’t interested in the winner of the competition, apparently she can just walk away. Somehow or other, it works. And that’s about all I know about that!

  18. I love how when you go someplace you totally immerse yourself in the environment or culture or history. You jump in with both feet and dig and find the most interesting stuff! I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have done that and look at what we learned, thanks to you!

    The photos are fabulous and what a terrific experience you had. And I have to say I really love a guy who asks if you are getting any good photos and when you reply says “Would you like to get a little closer?” I need him to give lessons!

    1. I did a little digging on this trip, Jeanie, but so many wonderful experiences came to me unbidden. Then, I did my digging after the fact.

      It’s the local, the unusual, the “characters” that appeal to me. I have a friend who’d be perfectly happy crossing the country while staying every night in a Holiday Inn and eating in franchise restaurants. Her goal — and she admits it — is to travel wtihout ever feeling like she left home. The good news is, she can do it. The better news is, I don’t have to. And neither do you, and neither does Rick. Aren’t we lucky?

    1. It was remarkable, Becca. And the more I think about it, the more i realize how varied it was. I’m a little amazed at how much I experienced in three weeks — far more than I could have anticipated.

  19. Immensely entertaining post! Loved this bit: “In several cases the operation was more like removing the crate from the animal than the animal from the crate.” Loved, too, the bison candy episode. Leave it to a plains dweller to come up with a siren to split the air and summon the herd!
    I was a groupie while my wife Janine was an intern at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, a research outfit dedicated to researching the way back to perennial, polycultural agriculture, with the prairie as the model. Fascinating, long-range stuff. While Janine was immersed in the day-to-day, minute-to-minute stuff of the work of an intern, I was on the fringes, playing at painting to make a little extra money, and soaking in what I could.
    Buffalo and long-horn cattle were the bovines that were most often brought up in discussions, quite the animals and well suited for prairie life.

    1. It was an immensely entertaining experience, let me tell you. I may never hear a siren again without thinking of bison — an association some would find weird, but which probably is indelible.

      I just looked at The Land Institute’s webpage. I’m barely knowledgeable about prairies, let alone agriculture, but I know just enough to see the promise in their paradigm. A couple of years ago, I was introduced to the “three sisters” — corn, beans, and squash — and the advantages of growing them together. Then, I learned a bit about the disadvantages of monocropping. Add to that a vague understanding of the ways in which the bison help to maintain plant diversity on the prairie, and some of the errors of our ways become more understandable. Now, if only we could convince folks that acres of lawn don’t have to be the standard of beauty.

      Speaking of long horns, Steve Schwartzman left a link to a page about the long-horned bison, an extinct species from the Pleistocene that was pretty darned impressive. As for the prairie-bison relationship, a North Dakota State University song puts it pretty well:

      “Now this is the law of the prairie,
      As old and as true as the sky,
      And the Bison that keep it will prosper
      And the Bison that break it will die.
      As the creeper that girdles
      the tree trunk
      This law is the final word:
      For the strength of the Herd
      is the Bison
      And the strength of the Bison
      is the Herd.”

    1. I’m glad you were intrigued, SOL. Poor Kansas has a reputation for being a state where there’s “nothing to see,” but that isn’t true at all. Of course, there’s something to see everywhere — too often the fault lies not in the landscape, but in our eyes!

  20. That was fantastic, Linda!!! Gene was very nice to invite you along and you got some nice portraits. You sure do know how to get the most out of your trips.

    Wind Cave is one of the reasons (without my having heard of that specifically) that we support the Nature Conservancy. I much prefer their method of investing in land conservation rather than the in your face demonstrating employed by other organizations…although I do recognize their place in the whole picture…more to my personality, I guess. Cooperation seems a better way to go than the courts.

    Thank goodness for folks who work to preserve things and happily the bison didn’t go the way of the passenger pigeon.

    1. Like a perfect sunrise or an unexpected flower, some experiences just can’t be planned. The Tallgrass prairie has a bus that takes visitors through the prairie on a pre-planned route over roads, and it’s good to have opportunities like that available. But a bus ride can’t beat the ride i got, or even a good hike, for all that.

      I just realized that i didn’t include the Nature Conservancy sign that I meant to be a part of this post. Maybe the fact that I forgot it is a sign that it didn’t belong. In any event, I agree with you that their work is valuable and worth supporting.

      As a matter of fact, I just learned something I didn’t know. I was looking at the list of Nature Conservancy sites in Texas and discovered some acquaintances from my Hill Country days, Baxter and Carol Adams, contributed a large section of their Love Creek ranch to the Conservancy. I’ve often seen bison up there, and now I’m thinking that the land I see them on might well be part of the preserve. Further exploration is needed.

      The Conservancy also has added some bottomlands to my favorite Nash prairie. I missed a chance to go there when I was traveling, but I’m going to try and get there early in the new year. The Tallgrass prairie has bottomlands, too, and it would be fun to compare the two places.

      1. When one looks into it, The Nature Conservancy is doing a great job of gathering parcels, through both outright purchases and cooperative protection agreements, and the list is impressive. As we look towards the next administration’s apparent disdain for land protection and develop and extract philosophy, organizations that purchase tracts are our best hope for continued preservation.

    1. Isn’t that the truth? I always make sure to have an apple with me when I travel a certain road in the hill country, for this fellow. He’s ever-hopeful, and saunters over every time he sees a car slow or stop.

      And isn’t it funny how Christmas brings a hunger for traditional treats? I’ve already dug out the recipe for my grandmother’s sprits, and the pickled herring’s in the fridge. Being raised in a Swedish household left its mark.

      1. What a sweetie. I don’t think I will have any traditional treats this Christmas but I remember with fondness that my mother always had dried muscatel grapes and nougat for us at Christmas. Pickled herrings weren’t part of our Christmas, but I would gladly eat them.

  21. I really enjoyed this, especially today as we are buried in nearly a foot of snow and single digits (more snow on the way). I never visited Nachusa in IL all the years I lived there, but it’s not that far from Madison, so I can hope for a visit next year. Thanks for bringing that to my attention!

    I’d say you had a wonderful visit with Kansas.

    1. There are so many treasures out there, just waiting to be explored. If I hadn’t been committed to meeting family at a certain time, I would have stopped at Marais des Cynes, or any of the other half-dozen wildlife areas I noticed signs for. And there’s Nebraska, too, with the Platte River flyway. And…and…and…

      It’s so hard for me to conceive of you being in snow already, but it is nearly Christmas. Just in the past day or two, leaves here suddenly have changed. The crepe myrtles are their lovely yellow-orange, and I saw some oaks that are bungundy and that deep rusty red. Even the cypress, that didn’t seem one bit willing to change, suddenly have gone rust-colored. I’m taking this as a sign that your weather is headed our way — along with the fact that there suddenly are goldfinches everywhere.

      I’ll bet there will be snow on the bison soon, if there isn’t already.

  22. Goodness, how wonderful to get so close to such magnificent creatures, given their sad history it is great to see them back, wouldn’t it be fantastic to think that one day enormous herds may once again roam free, if land could be allocated to them. What a marvelous memory for you, that holiday of yours sounds more wonderful after each post. Good to see your pictures, I know very little about these beautiful creatures.xxx

    1. At the rate we’re pouring concrete over this country, we’re lucky to have any herds left. We’ll never again have the land left to support anything like those huge herds. Now, the challenge is to stop the havoc we’re wreaking before even more species disappear. (I was at a presentation about such matters the other night, and I still haven’t quite gotten over it.)

      You’re right about it being a wonderful holiday — just filled with experiences. One of the first things I did when I got home was make a list of the things worth writing about, and it’s a good thing I did. I went back and looked at the list last night, and thought, “Oh, my. I’d forgotten about that!”

      Speaking of space, can you imagine the space needed for a bison rescue? I guess that would be the prairie — you certainly couldn’t stack them up in carriers!

  23. Must be great to be a female bison!

    I went to your reference and I must agree, I’ve been wrong. I tried to trick google so I asked for the population of buffalo in US. First up, a large square – “Population of Bison 500,000.” Right on, Google. Thanks, Linda, for more interesting facts from “LindaLand.”

    1. That’s funny: “LindaLand.” My mother always said I live in my own little world. Maybe I do. Out of curiosity, I searched Google using just the word “buffalo.” I got a city in New York. Then, I tried “buffalo animal,” and the page you mentioned popped up, with a photo of a bison. It’s good to see that they’re striving for accuracy over there in Googleland.

    1. Probably not, just because my times there varied a good bit, and most of my time was spent away from the pastures where the buffalo were roaming. I was as interested in the bottomlands and the areas where they’d been doing prescribed burns as much as the bison. I really was surprised to find them burning in the fall rather than the spring, but they did two while I was there. I saw one section a week after the burn, and the new growth already was six inches high. Amazing.

          1. Johnson I’m unfamiliar with, but the bloody Pampas Grass has gone feral around here so it’s definitely an invasive species and on my personal eradicate whenever possible list.
            Seeing animals running free on the prairie thrills my soul: )

  24. Fantastic story, Linda! Wonderful that you got to get so close (and so safely, thanks to Gene). There’s a wildness in these creatures. “I’m in no way tame,” their eyes and bulk seem to say.

    1. It was a great experience, Anne. Usually, there are hiking trails that allow a closer encounter with them, but theyd been moved to a different pasture that was closed off to the public, Sometimes, things do work out.

      As for that wildness: oh, yes. Just for fun, I asked the Great Google “can you tame a buffalo?” A short, to the point, and quite funny posting on Quora gave an answer (“No”) and some of the reasons. It was very enlightening.

  25. The bison statue is lovely standing majestically in the midst of the prairie grasses. I’ve seen the bison at Wind Cave and at nearby Custer State Park in South Dakota. They are amazing animals.

    1. How about that — I know someone who’s actually visited Wind Cave. It’s interesting how much influence that place has had in the bison world. I don’t understand a lot about genetics, but I do understand that expanding the pool of animals that don’t carry cattle genes is important, and they’re at the forefront of that work.

      I was trying to figure out why we never visted Custer State Park, or the Black Hills generally when I was a kid. I suspect it was a result of my mother’s aversion to anything having to do with nature, camping, or physical activity. We did make it to Mitchell, and the Corn Palace was great, but now I’d rather head farther west.

      1. The Corn Palace is amazing. Whenever we’ve gone across South Dakota, we stop at the Corn Palace and Wall Drug. I also really like the Badlands, and, of course, Mount Rushmore.

  26. Wow, what a lovely end of day post for me! They really are astoundingly beautiful animals, and to know that they fed indigenous people for thousands of years…. they really are something. Recently, travelling through Buffalo, I saw again their metal bison, which I suspect represent an animal that never knew Buffalo. All the same, I appreciated the image, and the reminder of these beautiful beasts. Not so long ago, at a conference, a Cree theologian made the comment that “Education is the new buffalo.” There surely is a deep truth in that, in that both are beautiful, unpredictable and the life sustaining.

    1. When I wrote about bison three years ago, I discovered that Houston’s Buffalo Bayou got its name from the animals. That made me currious about the city in New York, but that’s a little more mysterious. The city took its name from a Buffalo Creek that flowed there, but where the creek was named for the animal is, as they say, a matter for discussion.

      I had to laugh at your Cree theologian’s comment — not because it’s silly, but because I’m afraid it’s all too true in a way he may not have intended.

      It does seem that educated people are going the way of the buffalo. At least in this country, if nothing is done and one more generation passes through our universities, education may be extinct. I’m so horrified when I read of demands for safe spaces, coloring books, censorship, and linguistic “purity,” all I can do is throw on some Bach and find a book to read. It’s strong medicine, but it usually works.

    1. I thought about those herds when I was at Pawnee Rock and Point of Rocks. Can you imagine standing up there and watching them pass…and pass…and pass? I’m so glad we have a chance to see them roaming free again, even though their numbers are so greatly reduced. They’re a good reminder to take more care with other species.

      1. That would of been so amazing to stand at Pawnee Rock and watch them pass and feel the ground shaking under their feet. We certainly do need to take care of all creatures great and small and on land and sea!!

    1. That’s just the right word, Nia. It was an exciting experience, and so unexpected. That’s how so many of the best things in life happen — without planning or preparation. All we have to do is get out into the world, and live. A blessed holiday season to you. ~ Linda

  27. And what more could that creature named Linda desire than to have a truly serendipitous encounter with a genuine human being! Seriously, what a great guy – I love the pulled hair souvenir, too. The best friend bison photo is fantastic; the one of Gene is excellent, too.
    And don’t you love the Nature Conservancy? Find something good being done for the environment and you’re likely to find them in the middle of it.

    1. Every now and then someone will ask if I don’t get lonely or bored traveling by myself, and I just smile. There are so many interesting people to meet — and most of them are delighted to have someone take an interest in their world. I’ve learned so much, and certainly do have some interesting souvenirs! I don’t know which I like more: my hank of bison fur, or my railroad spikes.

      The more I learn about the Nature Conservancy, the more impressed I am. They do a lot of good work in Texas, and I’ve not yet visited all the places relatively near to me that they’re involved with. A new year’s coming — I could spend it all right here in Texas and be happy.

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