Of all the iconic animals of the American West, surely the Plains Bison is number one.
Their story is one of inexcusable near-extinction, followed by a remarkable recovery effort. Before Europeans arrived, they are thought to have numbered around 60 million. By 1905 their numbers were down to less than 1000, including those in captivity. The pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge shot this series of stills in 1883,
later composed into a video:
The numbers were brought back up to the current 350,000, initially partly by cross-breeding with cattle, but that practice has long since stopped. The Yellowstone bison are pure bred Bison bison bison with no cattle DNA. (Yes, that is their scientific name!). These numbers are far below what they once were, but their survival as a species is no longer in doubt.
The males have horns whose ends point straight up:
The females have horns that curve elegantly inwards:
Boys will be boys, as evidenced by these two play-fighting:
But an adult male can weigh 2500 lbs
and do a lot of damage. This adult’s flank has been pierced by a horn, not seriously:
And just look at what they can do to a human being:
They are not all brute force. This one has lovely eyelashes!
And their topknot hair is luxuriantly wiry:*
Their thick coat insulates them well, but one of their pleasures is a good wallow in the mud. These dark circles are wallows created by the bison:
When winter comes, that coat is a pretty good insulator and also fairly waterproof:
The main challenge posed by snow is getting at the food underneath. In Yellowstone, which is at an altitude of over 8000 feet, an average winter brings over 12 feet of snow, with much more at the higher elevations. The bison swing their huge heads from side to side to bulldoze their way through the snow.
PS Bison are often called buffalo, but they are unrelated to the African buffalo or the Asian Water Buffalo, so bison is a better name.
PPS: From The New Yorker, a few days after my return:
*Talking of their hair, this is Hilaire Bellocs’ assessment:
The Bison is vain, and (I write it with pain)
The Door-mat you see on his head
Is not, as some learned professors maintain,
The opulent growth of a genius’ brain;
But is sewn on with needle and thread.