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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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