Support your local bison

by Jeff Durbin [or read short version]

EACH YEAR SEVERAL visitors to Yellowstone National Park are gored because they approach bison too closely, usually for photo opportunities. I have wondered about this ever since I passed through Yellowstone several summers ago, and was handed the standard park brochure with an insert warning me not to go near the buffalo. It doesn't seem like a mistake we should be making: to walk up to an animal perhaps six feet tall at the shoulder and weighing 1800 pounds, which possesses curving, sharp horns that are decidedly not ornamental, and which, we all must know, can run as fast as a horse. How have bison sunk so low in our regard?

It doesn't help that we usually see them in preserves and zoos, which make any animal look, to varying degrees, a lesser version of itself. And maybe we think herbivores can't be dangerous, that the big predators—grizzlies, wolves, mountain lions—have a monopoly on fierceness. My own theory is that we feel sorry for bison. We know what they used to be like, even if some of our impressions are a little mythical, and we know what we did to them in the 19th century. Most of us feel bad about that, and pity doesn't often go together with a healthy fear.

From that Yellowstone trip, though, I recall one particular bison, who wouldn't tolerate any philosophical musings at his expense. He stood in a meadow of clipped green grass at the shore of Yellowstone Lake, bull-sized, his tattered June coat trailing in the breeze, staring straight over the water, looking far from a lesser version.

In the course of a summer job in Utah, I learned of the Henry Mountains in that state's sparsely populated southeast corner. The Henrys are known, though barely, for being the last-named mountain range in the United States and for having a herd of bison. The first obscure honor came in 1872, in the midst of John Wesley Powell's explorations following his famous 1869 descent of the Green and Colorado rivers; and the second in 1941-42 when 23 animals were brought from Yellowstone. There are now over 400, and they live in a condition as wild as could be expected in an era when migrating salmon travel by truck and ascend fish-ladders. After a year of thinking about it off and on, I went there to look around.

* * *

My first three days in the Henrys consist roughly of hiking forty-five miles in chilly, wet weather, and numerous attempts to will bison into the viewfield of my binoculars. I have arrived with some knowledge of the herd's favored summer and winter ranges but no reports of recent sightings, until I meet someone on my way to Birch Spring for water who saw 19 bison the previous week at a place called Mud Spring.

Below 7000 feet this country is sagebrush-juniper grassland, and there are enough contours in the landscape that 20 bison, or 100, could easily be concealed from view. Gullies, juniper stands, rock outcroppings all present possibilities. Near Mud Spring I find some signs: what looks like a wallow, a dusty depression that the animals rolled in, and tracks crossing a shallow eight-foot wide stream. The wallow is days old, though, and so are the tracks. My tracking skills are not what you'd call highly developed, but forced to make a guess, I'd say 10 animals crossed the stream four days ago. It has taken me nearly all day to walk here and determine this. Before me to the north are the Blue Hills, nearly unvegetated, blue-gray from bentonite ash sprayed out from the five Henry Mountains volcanoes. The disadvantage of the Blue Hills for someone seeking 19 animals is their area, a couple of hundred square miles.

Walking back to camp in the dusk I meet a group of ranchers, and the oldest one (he calls himself a “stockman”), hearing about my search, has news. His friend flew over the Henrys in an airplane recently, and saw over 300 bison in the area between Clay Point and Cow Flat, where they will spend the winter. I'm surprised that the bison are already on their winter range in mid-October—I'd thought to find them still moving down the mountains on their way there. Furthermore, this winter range is not one I'd read or heard about.

It goes to show that bison go where they damn please. In the 1800s people commonly—and mistakenly—spoke of the orderly north-south seasonal migration of the bison herds. Actually, the bison were well-adapted to snow, with heavy coats of hair and the ability to plow snow with their foreheads to find something to eat. And there was nothing to gain by leaving, say, North Dakota in winter and heading south to South Dakota or Nebraska where there was just as much snow. The bison moved irregularly, seeking only good vegetation and water. Sometimes in winter they moved into the shelter of forests, or down to lower elevations, but the movements were unpredictable. The Native American Plains tribes, which knew the bison best, made educated guesses as to herd locations, but had no guarantees.

The rancher and I talk buffalo for a while. I have him show me likely places on my topographic map. His hands, I can't help noticing, are about three times larger than mine. He likes the bison, though they compete with his cattle for forage, which is not abundant. The rancher knows that cattle and ranchers are not popular here with visitors, who are all excited about the bison. Utah has an agreement with the local ranchers to keep the bison herd at around 400 animals so that there is enough forage for everyone. Maintaining this number means 25-50 bison must be killed every year by licensed hunters.

Nearly the entire mountain range is under the jurisdiction of the BLM (Bureau of Land Management, a federal agency that owns about one-third of the 11 western states on behalf of the American people); the bison, however, like all wildlife, are the property of the state and subject to its will. Eventually the Utah Division of Wildlife would like to achieve a state of zero cattle in the Henrys, but the ranchers will be allowed to keep their grazing permits as long as they please—the permits could not be rescinded without an act of Congress.

Bison may eventually become the new ethic, and were of course the old ethic before Europeans moved into the west. In between was, and is, the time of the cattlerancher, the farmer, and government support. About sixty million bison happened to be in the way, however, of these new tenants. Not to mention a roughly equal number of pronghorn, plus numerous elk, deer, wolves, grizzlies, mountain lions, foxes and coyotes, and a couple billion prairie dogs. It was inevitable, given a frontier spirit that did not know the meaning of restraint, that the bison and others would have to give way. The only remarkable things about the destruction of the bison were its rapidity and ruthlessness.

East of the Mississippi River, the last bison was killed in 1832, in Wisconsin. Farther west, where the bison flourished, it was merely a matter of time. When the buffalo hunters went out onto the Great Plains in 1883 for another year of collecting hides, they discovered to their amazement that there were virtually no bison left. All they could do was turn to killing the wolves that gathered around the bison carcasses, earning one or two dollars per hide, or bone-collecting, another frenzy that lasted five more years—it took that long—until the prairies were picked clean. Soon there were perhaps 100 wild bison left in the United States, all in Yellowstone, their number dwindling yearly due to poaching. At that point, in 1894, a tad late in the game, Congress and the President finally passed the first federal legislation to protect the species.

* * *

It's pretty clear to me that I won't find 19 bison in the Blue Hills, so I must go to Cow Flat, following the stockman's report. Halfway there, just before dark, I turn my car onto a dirt road, drive a mile into the desert, and make camp for the night. This is the Burr Desert, and somewhere around here the Henrys bison were released in 1941 after being transported from Yellowstone. They stayed between here and the east side of the mountains for two decades, until 1962 when they were corralled and checked for suspected brucellosis. Infected bison were killed, and the rest vaccinated. The herd did not take kindly to this interference; 10 animals died during handling. Shortly after, the bison emigrated over the mountains, and from that year forward they made their residence on the west and southwest sides of the Henrys.

The land I'm heading into is of two parts: the lower elevations are rolling hills of saltbush, shadscale, rabbitbrush, sagebrush, fishhook and prickly pear cactus, and a few grasses; they are completely treeless except for the washes, which are dry this time of year. The road is slick in places with some sort of alkaline deposit that hasn't completely dried out from rain. A thousand feet higher I enter stands of juniper; were I to ascend 500 more feet, toward Mt. Hillers, pinyon pine and some Ponderosa pine would appear. The road goes from slick to rocky. At one place I have to get out and remove the larger stones. Pretty soon I'm getting out every couple of minutes to landscape the road. It's time to stop.

A scouting trip into the hills produces 17 cows. For the first time I consider seriously the possibility that I won't find any bison. I'm having a good time, have had minor successes and failures, have been excited, but I realize I'm judging this trip by whether I find bison. The problem is that deer-hunting season begins Saturday, and it's Wednesday evening. There is nobody here now, but for eight days starting Saturday I don't want to be wandering around here. I could wait out the hunting season, but that has its problems, too. Can you write an article about looking for bison if you never find them? Will I become the laughingstock of some editorial office? How lame would it be if I stopped by a zoo on my way home, perhaps in Salt Lake City, and checked out the bison there?

I think, though, that the stockman could not be mistaken. There are bison here, but the land is extremely rugged to the west, with hills and valleys and mesas, and it could hide many animals. At least for the sake of visibility Cow Flat is below the treeline. The sky indicates dry weather for another day, and I spread out my sleeping bag over the pebbles of a wash. The moon is first-quarter, and whenever I wake up I can check its progress to the horizon. After it sets I use the constellation of Orion to judge the time till morning.

The next day I climb onto the Pennell Creek Bench. Every quarter mile or so I flush a black-tailed jackrabbit, and it peels off 30 or 40 yards until it feels safe again. The weather is mild and breezy, warming to about 65 degrees. There are decent panoramas to the west and I stop frequently to scan with the binoculars. Then I come down off the bench into the Pennell Creek Roughs. They are well-named: the topography looks like a rumpled blanket. Like the Blue Hills, they are gray bentonite mud. Also they are sparse: winterfat, some desert trumpet, and a plant I can't identify. The valleys between are more herbivore-friendly, and the hills are ringed by long, narrow mesas that also seem well-vegetated. This is not tall-grass or mid-grass prairie, though—it can support only a limited number of grazers.

At the crest of a rise I look into the valley beyond and see a dark-brown shape several hundred yards away. I whip the binoculars to my eyes, but I'm already sure it's a bison. It's lying on the ground, apparently napping. There are no others in sight. It looks massive, and must be a bull. I have no idea how to judge its weight at a distance, but if a bull elk is 800 pounds it must be approaching 1600 pounds. I retreat out of sight and dance around, trying not to yell. I feel like I've just hit a World Series home run. Then I jog along the ridge, still out of sight, trying for a better view of the valley. I walk carefully to the edge and look again, and there are three other bison. All are lying down near a dry streambed, spaced out in an area the size of a baseball infield.

The ridgeline curves around the valley, and I walk along it to get a little closer. Finally, I'm about 100 yards away from and 200 feet above the bison. I find a comfortable rock and set up the tripod and spotting scope. They are all bulls, going by their size. Even though I've seen bison before, and know them to be big, I can't get over how large they are.

One of the four stands up and is motionless for perhaps a minute. Then he switches his tail, licks his chops, pivots his body 90 degrees, and goes back to motionless, eyes closed. After a few minutes he sniffs the ground and looks like he's about to graze, but instead he settles back on the ground, head upright and nodding back and forth gently for about ten seconds. The top third of his horns are gray and polished.

From time to time the others have changed their sleeping positions, and now one of them is chewing cud while lying down. A second rises and also begins chewing cud. The first cud-chewer stands up and scratches his left side with his horn, sniffs the ground, defecates, turns around, and continues with the cud. What they are doing—like cows—is regurgitating already-swallowed chunks of grass and shrub from their first stomach, the rumen, in order to rechew them and digest more thoroughly.

All four have good coats, longer and lighter brown in front, dark and shiny behind the hump. The fur of the head and forelegs is dark brown, almost black. They appear peaceful, but I'm not tempted to make friends—the calm looks like it could turn to belligerence in a hurry. Another argument against friendship is our size and strength differential. Excluding humans, there is no predator in North America that will take on a healthy adult. Bison are not only the largest land animal on the continent, they are also powerful and quick and fast, and a blow from their horns could knock me unconscious if I was lucky enough not to be punctured clean through. We may pity them as a species for what has happened to them, but as individuals they have lost nothing. They are not in mourning for their ancestors—if you get inside their comfort zone you will suffer the consequences.

Bison number four gets up, stands for a minute, and begins grazing on what appears to be Indian ricegrass. Number one also gets up, and walks slowly down the valley along the streambed. Within seconds the others follow, also at a walk, and then all four break into an easy jog, close together. After only ten paces they stop. One grazes, another chews cud. I have time to re-identify them: Scar (there's a scar high on its left leg), Patch (a squarish bare area on left side), Hump (has the largest hump), and No-name (no distinguishing feature). Scar and Hump are somewhat bigger. No-name turns toward Scar, takes a step so that they're almost touching, and Scar wheels around suddenly and makes a short, explosive charge. No-name backs away simultaneously, and both return to their grazing duties as if nothing happened.

That's all the interaction I see from them: it's not rutting season, and these are mature bulls who no longer play much, as younger bison do. They simply stand, or graze. You might think, watching them, that they are not very bright. They do not, it is true, scratch calculus equations in the dirt. But their intra-group confrontations (and, if they're in a larger herd, the intra-herd confrontations) are not random hostilities. No-name, for example, will not chase off Scar—for now, it's always the other way around. There is an ordering of power, based partly on size but also on temperament, age, and experience. The ordering is fluid, not static; perhaps in the future No-name will have dominance over Scar.

Bison intelligence was also downgraded in the 1800s when the bison were being killed by the millions. During a hunt it was not uncommon for bison either to continue grazing or mill around the dead and dying bodies of their herdmates. That is why it was possible for hunters to rack up huge numbers of kills, and even compete with one another (all-time record: Thomas Nixon, Dodge City, Kansas, 120 bison killed in 40 minutes). The genus Bison, however, has been around for about a million years, whereas cartridge rifles made their first appearance in the 1870s. So bison evolved with no knowledge of bullets or the damage they could inflict.

I take advantage of the pause in activity of my foursome, and scope the farther mesas. Atop a north-south mesa about a mile-and-a-half away, a cluster of bison comes into view. After the shock of the moment—a brief episode of heart arrhythmia—it seems the most natural thing in the world to be looking at them; the herd gives off a powerful sense of belonging exactly where they are. I count 19 or 20 standing, either grazing or motionless, and another seven, perhaps, lying down.

I watch Scar, Hump, Patch, and No-name for a short while, then pack up: I want a better view of the herd. I retreat along the ridgeline, well above the four bison, but somehow I spook them, because when I look back they're jogging farther down the streambed. They stop for a second only, jog again, slow down, then break into a canter, smooth but purposeful, flush a jackrabbit, and round the corner of the hill out of sight. They are following what appears to be a trail. Bison have excellent hearing and sense of smell, but I think I was probably seen, as I was both downwind and quiet (their eyesight is very adequate, especially at detecting movement).

I run down the hill to have a look. I can tell where they lay from the disturbed ground. The valley cannot be called lush. How many calories a day do these guys need? I follow their route along the streambed, and there is a faint trail, not used much recently, just a slight depression two feet wide. I come to a tributary streambed they'd crossed on the run. This amazes me, because their tracks show the four bison jumped completely across it. It's not that it's such a difficult jump for them, but that I had watched them and was sure they hadn't jumped: there'd been no noticeable effort beyond the running. The gap of the streambed was nothing to them; they'd merely stretched out a bit to cross it.

Between me and the bison herd's mesa are the gray mud hills, and I immediately come across a fresh bison trail. It's possible the four I watched went this way, but whether it's been used within a day or within an hour, I can't tell. It is a beautiful trail, efficiently routed through the steep hills. Its curves are smooth, it doesn't lose or gain elevation unnecessarily, it crosses the narrow gullies at convenient places. At times it traverses slopes of 50 degrees (boyscoutlike, I have measured the slope with my compass), an angle that looks a lot more treacherous on a hill than on a piece of drafting paper. A long tumble into the gully below could be fatal for a heavy animal like a bison, but I know, and they know, that they won't stumble and fall.

After half a mile I arrive at a running stream that winds through the hills, collecting the runoff from the many gullies. Cottonwoods and tamarisk dot the banks. There are a number of tracks where bison (or possibly cattle as well) have drunk from the stream. Most of the cottonwood trunks are worn smooth at bison-height, scratching and rubbing being favorite bison occupations.

As I get closer to my target everything looks different. Soon I'm looking up at what I believe to be the right mesa, but I've lost track of the herd's location. The bison trail ascends this mesa, and I slow my pace. I already feel bad enough about spooking the four bulls, and if I end up scaring a whole herd away I'll have no choice but to turn myself in at the Penitentiary For Clumsy Naturalists and serve my sentence. And then there's the safety issue—I don't want to blunder into the midst of 30 or 40 bison who proceed to play pinball with my body.

So I creep to the mesa-top, and peer around. It is not so level here as I thought: there are hillocks and wrinkles and slopes that didn't register from far away. I am in a state of extremely high alertness, but minus any anxiety. I feel ready for anything. In a crouch I walk a few steps to higher ground, and off to the south a quarter-mile away are 20-25 bison grazing a hillside. There's a mound partly blocking my view, and I walk closer. I'm pretty sure they aren't the herd I saw before. Then I turn to my right, and realize that in my last ten steps the terrain to that side has opened up to view. I see a cluster of bison 100 yards away, and drop to the ground. I poke the binoculars through a shrub and see 21 animals, a third of them lying on the ground, with more probably down a slope out of my sight.

For the next hour I look at the two herds, having set up shop on a mound out of all sight. Through the scope's eyepiece the bison are huge, and at certain angles they look like elephants to me. The herd to the south has 57 animals, including perhaps nine calves, and I still count 21 animals in the near herd. There is some serious grazing going on (this mesa mainly grows ricegrass, shadscale and rabbitbrush). Sunset is about 30 minutes away, but I don't mind walking back in the dusk and dark. It is good to be here. For starters, there is the combination of the grazing bison and the late afternoon sunlight slanting over the mesa and the distant canyons and buttes. To the south, Navajo Mountain, a hundred miles away, marks the Arizona border, with the Colorado River (or rather Lake Powell) in between. The area I can take in, half the size of Connecticut, contains probably a hundred other people, and that isolation, and the scene before me, stops the passage of years.

There's also a mood that reminds me of camping in grizzly bear country in Alaska and the Yukon. No longer being the dominant creature in my surroundings awed me; I was outside the shelter of my human culture, and my power was of my own making. For the grizzlies' sake, especially, I was glad, because the world fit them. Likewise—if we don't look too hard—these two bison herds are living on terms they are accustomed to.

It takes about two-and-a-half hours to return through the Pennell Creek Roughs, get up onto the Pennell Creek Bench, and finally pick my way through the junipers to camp. Past the Roughs the ground is rocky and it would be an ideal time for an ankle sprain, but after the sunlight fades the moon gives me just enough illumination. Soon after I reach the treeline a screech owl flies toward me, twice circles slowly 12 or 15 feet over my head, and alights on a nearby juniper. Then it circles overhead a third time, noiseless, and for a second I think it will attack, but it flies off. I guess it was curious, but whatever its motives I'm grateful.

Next morning the five miles to the mesa go pleasantly, and there's a lot to think about from the day before. The sky has clouded up overnight, but over the course of the morning it clears. More black-tailed jackrabbits tear across the foreground, and 25 or so bluebirds flock from juniper to juniper, seeking berries. At the stream with the cottonwoods are four cows. The generous part of my brain is trying to be understanding, but after yesterday's bison these cows look pathetic. That happens when you've been bred over a period of five thousand years to produce high-grade beef. They are ugly and alien, can't take care of themselves, and get a cheap deal on public land. But that's another story. I continue on and find yesterday's mesa empty of bison, and none in sight. On the far side is a steep valley with Mud Creek at the bottom, and tracks show where the herd descended en masse for water. On the other side of Mud Creek are more gray-hilled badlands, and at the crest of one hill I see the bison on another mesa, maybe half a mile away.

I'm happy just to look at them from here. I eat something, daydream, get out my maps, watch their siesta. I wonder about the remainder of the Henry Mountains bison, as I've seen four, plus 57, plus the 40 here that I'm quite sure are the same as the partial herd of 21: that makes a total of 101 animals, leaving about 380 unaccounted for. But there are many miles in which to spread out. The two problems they'll have is finding adequate forage, and dealing with the November hunt in which 25-30 will certainly be killed (there are 30 permits issued this season, and success rates are consistently at or near 100 percent).

There's great interest now in ranching with bison rather than cattle—superior beef and self-sufficient animals, the theory holds—and interest also in restoring tracts of the Great Plains to some semblance of their former identities in order to support those bison. Good biological and economic reasons exist for both ideas. The Plains states, for example, have lost since the coming of cultivation over half their topsoil, over half their aquifer supply, and hundreds of towns, ghost-towns now, which were led to believe sustainable agriculture was possible on less than 20 inches of rain a year.

A return to the old Plains ecology, though, even in limited areas, is problematic. Much has been lost, and there are no recipes for restoring an ecosystem. Once it's gone you can try to copy it, but the result will be a color-by-numbers version of the Mona Lisa.

Let me be clear that I'm not arguing against these ideas; in fact I support them. But watching the bison today has discouraged me because though we have given them back something, we have not given much. The value of things like bison, and wildness (only an idea, after all), is rather lower on our priority scale than nuclear missiles and corporate tax breaks.

I don't like leaving the herd while I'm in this mood. When I'm through watching I'll hike back to my car and drive out of the mountains, and I want to remember these bison for their own qualities. Most of the 40 are lying down; three or four stand, including a huge bull standing in profile. He is heavy-furred, ready for winter. In the rutting season just past he undoubtedly knocked horns with the other males, and will probably have offspring in six months. I try to resist turning him and the herd into a metaphor or symbol. It's tempting, because bison are so tremendously impressive. But it happens too often, and it diminishes the bison. There is the danger of settling for bison logos, and sculpture, and state seals, while in the real world we do little for the animals. Or we satisfy ourselves with a compelling movie in which the white hero returns to the land of the buffalo and goes native, a cinematic exercise in nostalgia and regret. And we approach them to pet them and pose for pictures, and are occasionally gored in return.

I don't believe that bison are meant for that. Their role is to be their wild selves. They graze, chew cud, suckle calves, romp and play rough, bellow at and charge rival bulls during rut, swim across swift rivers, drown in quicksand, smell water three miles away, take afternoon naps, are curious especially under age four, find grass under snowdrifts, suffer wolf kills on calves and the infirm, die in prairie fires and tornados, withstand blizzards, wallow in mud and dust, stampede at 35 miles per hour, switch insects away with their tails, behave differently from individual to individual, rub trees and rocks in summer to remove their winter coats, mature with age, die from disease. The world they do this in has passed from their understanding.



1. During the last 10,000 years, two kinds of bison lived in North America, the Plains Bison and Mountain (sometimes Wood) Bison. When all bison were nearly wiped out around 1900, efforts to save them paid no attention to the distinction of these two subspecies. Yellowstone was home to the wild Mountain Bison survivors (Bison bison athabascae), and in order to increase the pool of breeders, scattered Plains Bison (Bison bison bison) were transplanted there. The animals intermixed, and the subspecies distinction was lost.

2. Most of us have always called this animal “buffalo” rather than “bison.” You can argue that the correct common name is the name history has given us, regardless of its biological rightness, and so there is nothing wrong with “buffalo.” On the other hand, common names change. We say kestrel now instead of sparrow-hawk, because a kestrel is a falcon and not a hawk. In fact, “bison” is making a strong bid for general acceptance. Saying “bison” tells us this animal is not related to the African and Asian buffaloes, but is related to European bison (now limited to Poland and Russia) through a common ancestor.