Skip to main content

How to Avoid Getting Attacked by a Bison

Let’s start with the facts: It’s highly unlikely you’ll ever be attacked by a majestic bison, symbol of the American west. The docile beasts, a species that once blanketed the continent by the millions now call only a few places home.

So, unless you’re passing through Yellowstone country (including the Grand Tetons) or the Wind Cave National Park area of North Dakota, you’re probably not going to encounter a bison. Although, a few wild herds are believed to reside elsewhere, such as Utah. The many commercial herds out there won’t be escaping their pens anytime soon, but the know-how wrapped up in avoiding an attack is worth having no matter what, as it applies to a lot of larger mammals in the creature kingdom.

For those off to the nation’s first and foremost park, it’s certainly handy info. An estimated 5,000 bison wander the many meadows and river valleys of this breathtaking western landscape. The population fluctuates a bit each year, as some of the animals are hunted when they mosey past park boundaries. Overall, though, this is the wildest batch of bison America has left and it’s a delight to be in the company of the animal.


For the record, bison are as quick as horses, able to reach speeds of 35 miles per hour. That’s a hell of a lot faster than you can run, even if you’re Usain Bolt. Oh, and they can weigh up to a ton, with a lot of that weight distributed in a massive, horn-clad head. That’s big enough for largest mammal in North America (sidenote: buffalo reside in Africa while bison live in America). No, they’re not going to eat you as they prefer grass, but they can trample you or launch you like a rag doll (warning: it’s a sobering video but worth watching to appreciate raw power)

In other words, you don’t stand much of a chance against the animal in the unlikely scenario where it feels provoked or threatened and charges your way. Every year, there are cases of attacks in Yellowstone especially, but the vast majority of the time, it’s the tourists who are making all of the wrong decisions.

Here are some pointers to avoid getting gored by one of these mostly peaceful critters:

Give Space

The National Park Service recommends that you leave at least 25 yards between yourself and any bison. You should do at least that. One of the most common and problematic scenarios involves people getting to close to a bison, often for a photo and Instagram glory. Keep your distance. As gentle as bison appear, they will charge if approached. Keep in mind that these are not merely cattle lumbering through the Rockies. These are wild animals that don’t trust you (and why should they?). Watch for a standing tail, as it indicates an upset bison potentially on the verge of a charge. When out on the trail and you see one from afar, gently announce your presence. Bison are fairly used to people in Yellowstone, but prefer knowing you’re around as opposed to being startled. 

Be Patient

There’s nothing more quintessential these days in Yellowstone than the bison jam. That’s when a herd, often in the several hundreds in size but sometimes larger, moves across a main road, resulting in a traffic jam. Turn your engine off and enjoy it, you don’t get this anywhere else. Too often, an impatient driver attempts to weave through the herd, in a rush to see the next Old Faithful eruption. If you value your health and the health of your car, just wait it out. Better yet, crack the windows and take in the prehistoric grunts and musical sound of countless hooves on asphalt.

Recognize Families and the Season

There are things to look out for when it comes to bison, especially when you’re on the trail and can’t simply hide away in your car. Bison mothers are justifiably protective of their calves, so never get in between mom and kids. Young bison can be more playful and exploratory so leave extra space. Tempting as it is to frolic about with these adorable little animals, momma bison does not approve. The rut occurs every summer and we’re currently in the midst of it. From about June to September, males can be especially aggressive as they’re competing for mates.

Last Resort

Should a charge actually take place, there are a few things you can do to protect yourself. Unlike a grizzly bear attack, playing dead’s not going to help you here. Nor will flailing your arms, getting big, or making a bunch of noise. If there’s a standoff, move slowly and away from the bison. Should things escalate, you’re advised to move as fast as you can and find shelter, whether that’s behind a rock or, better yet, up a tree. Cover your head and neck if you can’t safely leave the area and there’s no shelter to be found. Bear spray can be used as a last resort to stun the animal and, hopefully, scare it away.

Don’t be an Idiot

I can’t stress this enough: Don’t be an idiot. That means, don’t try to feed them or catch a bull’s attention by tossing a rock his way. Don’t place your son or daughter in danger by posing them dangerously close. And no matter what, do not be this (drunken) guy.

Editors' Recommendations

Mark Stock
Mark Stock is a writer from Portland, Oregon. He fell into wine during the Recession and has been fixated on the stuff since…
How to Remove a Tick: A Simple Guide to Safely Getting Rid of Ticks
tick leaf

For even avid outdoorsmen, dangerous wildlife encounters are exceedingly rare. Most apex predators from bears to sharks to mountain lions tend to keep to themselves. It’s the smaller critters that are often of most concern. That includes everything from ants to spiders to ticks. Bites from the last of these are among the most common. Unfortunately, they also have the highest potential for health risks and even death from complications. Here’s a step-by-step guide for avoiding and safely removing ticks.
How to Avoid Getting a Tick Bite
If you’ve spent any significant time outdoors, knowing how to avoid ticks and tick bites is probably second nature. The most obvious way to avoid an encounter is to stay away from areas where they’re likely to be hiding. Tall grass, dense brush, and fallen logs and branches are all prime grounds for ticks. Wear light-colored clothing and tuck pant legs into socks when heading out on a hike or in any of these areas.

The most proactive way to avoid ticks is to repel them by wearing bug repellent on your skin. If you prefer the all-natural route, lemon eucalyptus oil is the most proven and effective chemical-free option. Nothing works better, however, than DEET. Wearing a chemical repellent that’s at least 80% DEET— something like Sawyer Jungle Juice 100 is best — is almost guaranteed to keep mosquitoes, leeches, chiggers, in-laws, dogs, babies, and ticks away. If you spend significant time outdoors, consider doubling up on the repellent by treating clothing with a spray-on permethrin treatment.

Read more
5 Tips for How to Survive a Shark Attack
great white shark

Most of us subconsciously think about sharks each time we are in the ocean, but around later summer when the Discovery Channel rolls out its annual Shark Week programming, the world is once again reminded about the dangers and non-dangers of the apex predators who can ultimately destroy us with one or two bites. At the end of the day, you are swimming in their home — a shark attack should never truly be blamed on a shark because they are just going to do what a shark does in the ocean. The actual chances of a shark attack are rare, although they do happen, so it’s best to have some basic knowledge of what to do in case you are faced with a one-on-one encounter.
Maintain Your Calm
Easier said than done, right? For most, just being in open water alone can be a bit nerve-wracking. Now imagine encountering a shark and trying not to panic. It’s not easy, but it can help save your life. If you encounter a shark, your first instinct will be to swim away immediately. Resist your urge because the further you are from the shark, the more likely you are to get bitten. Panicking will put the shark in predatory mode. Just because you are sharing the same space with a shark doesn’t mean that you are automatically on the dinner menu. Most sharks are just curious, so try and remember that in the moment and do your best to maintain calm.
Look the Shark Directly in The Eye
Like man’s best friend, sharks respect assertiveness. Without being aggressive — and while maintaining your calm — keep your eyes on it and show the shark that you’re a predator as well. If the shark gets close to you, push it away. The last thing you want to do is start a fight with a shark but showing them that you are not docile can be your best last-ditch effort.

If the Shark Attacks, Fight Back
The unfortunate reality is that if a shark decides to attack, you won’t have much say in the matter. A shark might even just take a test bite first, which can cause serious injury. And if it becomes a full-bore attack, your chances are slim, so doing something is better than nothing. If this is the case, now is the time that you want to go wild and start punching however you can. Go for the eyes, nose, and gills, or just swing and hit whatever you can.
If Your Arm is Attacked, Keep It Over Your Head
A shark might take a bite and then decide that they have lost interest. If you are fortunate and this is the case, swim as fast as you can to safety while raising your wounded arm above your heart. By doing so, you will stem the bleeding.
If Bitten, Avoid Looking At The Wound
The wounds that these animals can inflict can be devastating. By not looking at your wound, you can attempt to avoid going into shock. Think about a little kid scraping their knee. They typically don’t start crying until they see the blood. You will know that something is wrong but do your best to get yourself to safety before assessing the damage.

Read more
How to Escape an Alligator Attack
alligator swamp

Alligators have been around in much their present state for more than 35 million years, though they have ancestors dating back more than 200 million years. In that time they have evolved into apex predators, threatened by no living creature other than a human being, assuming said human being is well-armed. The average size of an adult American alligator is 12 feet long, with an average weight of about 800 pounds. American alligators tend to have around 80 teeth and a bite force of up to 3,000 pounds per square inch. Also, they can swim at up to 20 miles per hour, while Olympian Michael Phelps tops out at around six mph in the water.

Should an alligator get those 80 teeth sunk into you with that 3,000 PSI jaw power while you are in the water, you're not going to have a good day, especially once it starts doing a death roll, a maneuver designed both to incapacitate and dismember prey. So rule #1 of surviving an alligator attack is to not get bitten at all, and certainly not while you're in the water. But it would still be overkill to avoid the entire state of Florida and much of the South more generally to avoid said bite.

Read more