Welcome back home: Bison return to Rocky Boy Reservation

The Daily Montanan, by Keith Schubert – October 27, 2021

Eleven Buffalo arrive on Rocky Boy Reservation as the start of a new herd. Chippewa Cree people gathered to welcome them.

BOX ELDER — Jason Belcourt said he teared up when the first of 11 buffalo arrived at the Rocky Boy reservation on Sunday night as part of an effort to reintroduce bison on the reservation, which have been absent from the land since the late 1990s.

“He jumped off the trailer went into the round pen, pawed and sniffed at the ground, and looked up at me,” he said. “It was a pretty powerful moment. That’s when I knew we did what we needed to do.”

Belcourt, the Chippewa Cree tribal sustainability coordinator, has been working with the tribe’s buffalo board and council, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the American Prairie Reserve for two years to establish a buffalo herd on the reservation.

The efforts came to fruition on Tuesday when hundreds of people gathered on the reservation and clung to the fence of the 1,200-acre pasture in anticipation of the bisons’ arrival.

Hundreds of people gathered on the reservation and clung to the fence of the 1,200-acre pasture waiting for the buffalo arrival.

With local drum group the Montana Cree playing in the background, people cheered as the 11 bison — six from APR and five from the CSKT — bolted from a holding pen and trampled out into their new home. The 2.5 to 3.5-year-old bison became quickly acquainted in the pen. When the gate opened they paused for a moment before taking off into the distance.

As the bison ran off, Belcourt high-fived and hugged everyone around him, including Melvin Morsette Jr., chairman of the tribe’s buffalo board.

“It was awesome. Absolutely awesome. Exhilarating. Emotional,” Morsette said. “It’s a good feeling to have them home. They’re one of the top deities, one of the top gods … in our spirituality they’re one of the main ones.”

Chippewa Cree buffalo board and other leaders pose for a photo at the bison donation event.

The day’s activities began with a pipe ceremony conducted by tribal elders. Throughout the day tribal leaders gave speeches and dances were performed to the drumming by the Montana Cree.

A day later, Belcourt said he is still processing Tuesday’s event.

“I can’t even put it into words,” he said. “It was just an emotionally charged day. Lots of hugs. Lots of thankfulness.”

After the bison disappeared into the horizon, a bald eagle — another significant animal in Native American culture — came into view soaring above.

“The eagle was just another good omen that we managed to do something really grand,” Belcourt said.

Two hundred years ago, roughly 30 million bison roamed North America from Central Canada to Mexico. Now, only an estimated 360,000 remain in the same area, with less than 10 percent living in conservation herds and the vast majority being raised for commercial purposes.

“It’s a healing thing to bring these animals back to where they once roamed in the thousands,” said Shannon Clairmont, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, who helped organize transferring six bison from CSKT to the Rocky Boy Reservation.

Clairmont said Montana tribes have long been pushing for the management of bison. In the 1800s, millions of bison were slaughtered by white settlers. Since then, CSKT and other tribal partners have worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore the population.

“In the past, the bison were part of part of our living. They gave us everything. They gave us food for the winter. They gave us shelter with their hides. They gave us clothing with their hides. And then they gave us also tools,” he said. “I was glad to see them come to another Montana tribe.”

The bison donated by CKST share the same genetics as those that roamed the land in the past, Clairmont said. “These bison here are relatives of the original bison here that were on the plains. It has been a long journey for them, but they’ve made it full circle.”

Senior Bison Restoration Manager for the American Prairie Reserve Scott Heidebrink was in attendance Tuesday. “This is amazing because most of the time, we’re supplementing into herds, and so actually being on the ground floor starting a herd is really special,” he said.

The prairie reserve started in 2005 aiming to bring back a bison population that had been absent from the landscape for more than 120 years. Now, it has a herd of 813 and has donated 404 to tribal and conservation herds.

Of those donations, 242 have been to Montana tribes — 87 to the Fork Peck Indian Reservation, 81 to the Blackfeet Nation, 74 to the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, and now five more to the Rocky Boy Reservation.

Belcourt said he hopes the bison will help restore a sense of cultural pride for native youth.

“When you hear about a young person taking their life, I can’t help but think it’s from the trauma induced by efforts to strip of us of our culture,” he said. “This buffalo is going to remind us of our language, culture, and the teachings that we are not to hurt ourselves.”

Kids from Rocky Boy and Box Elder schools were bused in on Tuesday to witness the donation.

“It’s a historical event and I’m thankful for the kids to be able to witness it,” said Dustin Whitford, the tribe’s language preservation officer. But, he said, it’s not just about the bison.

“We can’t just preserve the existence of buffalo here; the language has to go along with it,” he said. “‘Pahskahmotos’ is the word we use for the Buffalo. And we consider it to be like a grandfather or grandmother. That’s how much we respect them.”

Of the 7,000 enrolled people, Whitford estimated there are only around 120 fluent speakers on the reservation, nearly all of which are elders.

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Buffalo Stampedes

Buffalo Stampedes

Once wild Buffalo started to run, they tended to stampede faster and faster, trying to stay ahead of the sharp horns pressing from behind. Photo courtesy of SDTourism.

Buffalo stampedes terrified people travelling across the plains.

Stampedes were often described by hunters, soldiers and early settlers on the plains and prairies. No one wanted to get caught in the midst of one without a way to escape—the stampede could be terrible in its consequences.

It took only a small trigger at times to start a buffalo stampede. The yipping of a prairie dog, the cry of a wolf or coyote, a flash of lightening, or a clap of thunder could set it off.

Sometimes it took just one buffalo snorting and starting to run on her own, for others to join in a chain reaction. In seconds a peaceful herd of grazing buffalo could become a charging mass that ran hard for 10 or 20 miles.

Once running, the buffalo herd trampled everything in their path, including other buffalo too slow to keep ahead of the mass. They could not be turned. Or they would turn abruptly at some obstruction.

In April 1846 George Andrew Gordon was out hunting with four friends on the plains of northwestern Texas.

Gordon became separated from the others and in trying to find them, he lost all but one of his rifle bullets. To see better, he began to ride his horse to the top of a nearby hill.

Suddenly he heard a low murmuring sound “as of the wind in the tops of pine trees.”

The sound increased and became a deafening roar. The ground shook and he said his horse shook with fear. But the only place of safety seemed to be a small grove of trees at the top of the hill.

 A moment later he saw the buffalo coming and kicked his horse into a gallop.

The trees were about a foot in diameter and free of undergrowth. Only one tree had branches low enough for him to reach.

Gordon stood up in the saddle and grabbed a branch, pulling himself and his heavy rifle up into the tree.

The rushing buffalo were almost upon him, when they apparently heard or smelled his terrified horse, and tried to turn or stop, but slid and fell in a heap.

“In the twinkling of an eye,” he recalled later, “they were overwhelmed by the pressure behind. I have never seen two railroad trains come together, but one who has seen the cars piled up after a wreck can imagine how the buffalo were heaped up in an immense pile by the pressure from behind.”

A small trigger could start a buffalo stampede. The yipping of a prairie dog, the cry of a wolf or coyote, a flash of lightening, or a clap of thunder could set it off.

The buffalo in the rear kept coming at a gallop, but as they reached the heap of trampled and dying buffalo just in front of the horse and man, they dodged to one side or the other.

He watched from his perch on the tree, while his horse stood there against the tree shaking with fear.

“I could now enjoy a spectacle which I fancied neither white man nor Indian had ever before seen. The front rank as they passed was as straight as a regiment of soldiers on dress parade. The regularity of their movements was admirable.

“It appeared as though they had been trained to keep step. If one had slackened in the least his speed, he would have been run over.”

It took nearly an hour of “alternate terror and pleasure,” as Gordon described it, for the entire herd to pass out of the small grove of trees, as he clung tightly to his branch.

He sat there a few minutes after they’d gone, wondering if he’d had a bad dream. Then he climbed down from the tree and took up the reins of his horse, who was still standing there shaking. (Told by (Ital) David A. Dary, The Buffalo Book: The Full Saga of the American Animal, 1974.)

Sharing the Expertise of Buffalo Jones

This drawing depicts Theodore Roosevelt’s account of a Texas hunt in 1877 by his brother Elliot and his cousin John, who were caught on the Staked Plains by a buffalo stampede. Their only chance was to split the herd, which they did by shooting continuously into the charging mass. Credit Frederic Remington.

Buffalo Jones describes a stampede and how he coped with it, in his book Buffalo Jones’ 40 Years of Adventure

“During the third of a lifetime spent on the Great Plains of the interior of the continent, I have witnessed many stampedes of buffalo, wild horses and Texas cattle.

“Twenty-five years ago a stampede of buffalo—which then roamed in vast herds numbering millions—was an everyday affair.

“What caused the huge, shaggy monsters, accustomed to the tornado, the vivid lightning, the terrible hail that frequently accompanies the sudden, short storms of the prairies, the wolves and the thousand-and one strange phenomena of nature to stampede at apparently nothing is one of those problems that will admit of no solution.

“Sometimes it was a flash of lightning from a dark cloud. Again, a cry of a starved wolf, the appearance on the horizon of a single figure, a meteor, or perhaps something as insignificant as the barking of a prairie dog sitting on the edge of its burrow.

“If a single animal snorted and started to run, if only a rod, all others near it would start in an opposite direction from it and thus others were frightened until all were a surging mass.

“A herd once started, I have seen the whole prairie for miles absolutely black with the fleeing beasts.

“There was nothing so indescribably grand, yet so awful in its results. The earth, shaken by the heavy tramp of their hoofs upon the hard ground, fairly reverberated as they passed a given point.

“Woe to him, her, them or it that stood in the way of the mighty throng of infuriated, maddened animals!

“Nothing but annihilation, absolute and complete, their portion.

“A buffalo stampede, indeed! How few there are today who have ever passed through this thrilling experience; this moment when the heart fluttered at the roots of the tongue. When the pursuer, revolver or gun in hand, the spurs rolling on the sides of his frightened steed, endeavored to force him nearer to the most horrid of all beasts to the eye of a horse.

“Still on and on, like a cyclone in its fury went the great mass, the living cataract, plunging up as well as down the hills and over the plains, tearing and cutting every vestige of vegetation. And woe unto any and all living creatures that chanced to be in its pathway!

“Often have I heard the heavy rumble as if a terrific peal of thunder were reverberating in the distance. I could see a great cloud without water.

“I could feel my blood run cold and my hair stand on end, as I knew that the sound was not thunder, but the roar of the beating hoofs of a living avalanche.

“I knew the cloud which was approaching nearer and nearer was not rain, but dust and dirt thrown high in the air by the nimble feet of the countless host of buffalo.

“To flee from their wrath would have been the height of folly. All that could be done was, if possible, to find a high bank which they could not ascend and station myself on the highest cliff and rest content until the herd had passed by.

“If no such retreat was near, then I must rely on my trusty rifle, which was always with me, both day and night.

“To be sure, I did not depend on shooting them to lessen their number, but to divide the herd and turn their course.

“This was done by elevating the weapon over the herd just enough to miss their great humps that rolled on toward me like millions of iron hoops, bounding in the air at every little obstacle encountered.

“Then, when they were within 50 yards, the trigger was touched and the ball whistled furiously over their heads.

“The buffalo with one great impulse of dodging the missile, swerved to the right or to the left, owing to which side of them the bullet had passed. Then a great rent or split would open out and the moving mass would pass by on either side.

“With wonderful instinct those coming up in the rear would follow the footprints of their leaders and the great rent in the herd would remain open for hours at a time, for a quarter of a mile both in front and behind, when they would gradually come together in the rear of where I stood and thunder along in their mad career.

“It is true that one animal alone could not have made any impression on the great phalanx, but there is unity in strength and both were absolutely required in such time of peril.

“Such sights and sensations cannot be satisfactorily pictured to the millions of people now living and those unborn.

“I regret exceedingly that the Kodak was not a more ancient contrivance, so that a true representation could have been taken from life and handed down to those who will now only be permitted to read pen-pictures of the days which will never more return.

“As soon as the stampede ended the single herd was broken up into many smaller ones that traveled relatively close together, but led by an independent guide.

“Each small group is of the same strain of blood. There is no animal in the world more clannish than the buffalo. The male calf follows the mother until two years old, when he is driven out of the herd and the parental tie is then entirely broken.

“The female calf fares better, as she is permitted to stay with her mother’s family for life unless by some accident she becomes separated from the group.

“The resemblance of each individual of a family is very striking.

“Perhaps only a few rods marked the dividing line between them [the family herds], but it was always unmistakably plain, and each moved synchronously in the direction in which all were going.

“These groups are as quickly separated from the great herd after a stampede as is a company of soldiers from its regiment at the close of ‘dress parade.’

“The several animals know each other by scent and sound. The grunt similarly to a hog, but in a much stronger one and are quickly recognized by every member of the family. When separated by a stampede or other cause, they never rest until they are all together again.

“Their sense of smell is so wonderfully developed that neither animal nor man can pass them on the windward side within two miles without being immediately discovered.

“Indeed, often a herd has been stampeded by the scent from a single hunter even four miles away.”

Tragedy of a Stampeding Herd

Dary tells of a tragedy created by a stampeding herd. He quoted from Henry Shoemaker’s small booklet published in 1915 called “A Pennsylvania Bison Hunt.”

Shoemaker wrote that settlers were moving into Middle Creek Valley in central Pennsylvania and settling below the Seven Mountains where some 350 buffalo lived in summertime.

The wild buffalo were in the habit of coming down into the valley where conditions were easier with the deep snow and cold of winter.

The crops and haystacks of the new settlers would made this even more tempting.

So it happened that as the first winter of 1799-1800 became more and more severe, the hungry buffalo moved closer to the sheltered valley of Middle Creek.

One cold morning—led by a gigantic black bull the community had dubbed ‘Old Logan,’ after a Mingo chief—they came on the run into the barnyard of a settler named Martin Bergstresser.

“His first season’s hay crop, a good-sized pile, stood beside his recently completed log barn. This hay was needed as feed for the winter for his cows, sheep and team of horses.

“The cattle and sheep were standing close to the stack when they scented the approaching buffaloes. With Old Logan at their head, the famished bison herd broke through the stump fence, crushing the cows and sheep beneath their mighty rush and pulling to pieces the hay pile.”

Bergstresser in a nearby field cutting wood and his 18-year-old daughter Katie rushed to the scene and with Samuel McClellan, a nearby neighbor, they shot four buffalo.

The buffalo, terrified, stampeded up the frozen creek and disappeared.

“Woe to him, her, them or it that stood in the way of the mighty throng of infuriated, maddened animals!” Credit Nature Conservancy, Harvey Payne.

“Awful was the desolation left behind. The barn was still standing, but the fences, spring house and haystack were gone as if swept away by a flood. Six cows, four calves and 35 sheep lay crushed and dead in the ruins. The horses inside the barn remained unharmed.

“McClellan started homeward, but when he got within sight of his clearing he uttered a cry of surprise and horror. Over 300 bison were snorting and trotting around the lot where his cabin stood, obscuring the structure by their huge dark bodies.

“The pioneer rushed bravely through the roaring, crazy, surging mass, only to find Old Logan— his eyes bloodshot and flaming—standing in front of the cabin door.

“He fired at the monster, wounding him which so further infuriated the giant bull that he plunged headlong through the door of the cabin.

“The herd, accustomed at all times to follow their leader, forced their way after him as best they could through the narrow opening.

“Vainly did McClellan fire his musket. And when his ammunition was exhausted, he drove his bear knife into the beasts’ flanks to try and stop them in their mad course.

“Inside were the pioneer’s wife and three little children, the oldest five years, and he dreaded to think of their awful fate.

“He could not stop the buffaloes, which continued filing through the doorway, until they were jammed in the cabin as tightly as wooden animals in a toy Noah’s Ark.

“No sound came from the victims inside. All he could hear was the snorting and bumping of the giant beasts in their cramped quarters.

“The sound of the crazy stampede brought Martin Bergstresser and three other neighbors to the spot, all carrying guns.

“It was decided to tear down the cabin, as the only possible means of saving the lives of the McClellan family.

“When the cabin had been battered down, the bison, headed by Old Logan, swarmed from the ruin—like giant black bees from a hive.”

McClellan shot Old Logan as he emerged, but it was small satisfaction.

“When the men entered the cabin, they were shocked to find the bodies of the pioneer’s wife and three children dead and crushed deep into the mud of the earthen floor by the cruel hoofs.

“Of the furniture, nothing remained of larger size than a handspike.

“The news of this terrible tragedy spread all over the valley, and it was suggested on all sides that the murderous bison be completely exterminated.

“The idea took concrete form when Bergstresser and McClellan started on horseback, one riding toward the river and the other toward the headwaters of Middle Creek, to invite the settlers to join the hunt.

“Meanwhile, there was another blizzard but every man accepted with alacrity.

“About 50 hunters assembled at the Bergstresser home, and marched like an invading army in the direction of the mountains . . . They were out two days before discovering their quarry as fresh snow had covered all the buffalo paths.”

 “The brutes were all huddled together up to their necks in snow in a great hollow space known as the Sink in the heart of the White Mountains.

“The hunters looking down on them from the high plateau above, now known as the Big Flats, estimated their number at 300.

“When they got among the animals, they found them numb from cold and hunger, but they could not move, so deeply were they crusted in the drifts.

The hunters shot and slit throats with long bear knives . . .

“After the last buffalo had been dispatched, the triumphant hunters climbed back to the summit of Council Kup where they lit a huge bonfire.

“It was a signal to the women and children in the valleys that the last herd of Pennsylvania bison was no more and that the McClellan family had been avenged!”

Photographer nearly trampled to death

Cowboys on horses chase stampeding bison out of the pine trees. Forsyth used his dual cameras to shoot these stereographic scenes. Montana Historical Society.

One of the men attracted to Michel Pablo’s grand roundup of his near-wild buffalo was Norman A. Forsyth, a young photographer who began selling stereo cards and viewers door-to-door while attending college at Wesleyan University in Lincoln, Nebraska.

After college he moved west, still selling for Underwood and Underwood, an early producer and distributor of stereographic views. Attracted by the scenic beauty of Yellowstone Park, Forsyth worked as a tour guide and stage driver in Yellowstone five summers, taking scenic stereographic views along the way, and then set up a photography studio in Butte where he sold them.

Fascinated by what he read of Michel Pablo’s great roundup of near-wild bison he took his cameras to Ronan, Montana. There he made friends with Charlie Russell, a cowboy painter also attracted to the dramatic buffalo action they saw every day.

Forsyth shot stereographic views and Russell painted and sketched numerous scenes over the first three summers during which the Pablo buffalo roundup shipped most of the animals to Canada.

One day Forsyth scrambled down into some trees to get the perfect shot as the cowboy wranglers brought in a herd of buffalo across the river toward the corrals.

The Wainwright, Alberta, newspaper reported Forsyth’s near brush with death as the buffalo herd leaped up out of the river and charged directly toward him.

“The entry of the buffalo into the corral came nearly being accompanied by a regrettable fatality.

Mr. Forsyth, an enterprising photographer from Butte, Montana, being anxious to get some photos of the animals in the water, had stationed himself at a point of vantage amidst a clump of trees close to one of the booms in the river where he judged he would be out of path of the oncoming herd.

“However, they chose to take the bank directly below where he was standing, and before he could reach safety they were upon him in a mad, irresistible stampede.

“How he escaped being trampled to instant death is a miracle which even he cannot realize.

“He has a recollection of the herd rushing upon him and of having in some way clutched a passing calf which he clung to until it passed under a tree.

“He then managed to grasp a branch and although he was unable to pull himself up out of danger he was able to keep above the feet of the plunging herd.

“His dangling legs were bruised and cut by their horns and his clothes torn to shreds, but he still clung to the limb for life.

“Twice the herd passed under him as they circled back in an attempt to escape, but fortunately before he became exhausted they rushed into the corral.

“The Canadian Pacific officials and riders who knew the location chosen by Forsyth shuddered when they saw the animals rush in there and expected to find his body trampled out of semblance in the clay.

“Consequently, they rejoiced to find the luckless photographer slightly disfigured, but still hugging his friend the tree in his disheveled wardrobe.”

As the buffalo stampeded up out of the trees and into the corral, the cowboys rode to his rescue.

Scratched, bleeding and with his clothing ripped apart, Forsyth dropped out of the tree.

On the ground were his two costly cameras that shot dual picture stereographs, both shattered into many pieces and trampled in the mud.

He greeted his would-be rescuers with a sheepish grin, saying, “I think I have had enough of buffalo!”

[From a story told on her Blog [www.BuffaloTalesandTrails.com] by Francie M. Berg, Aug 25, 2020. ]

Racing a Train Across the Tracks

Tom McHugh discusses the leadership of a buffalo stampede in his book “The Time of the Buffalo.”

“The initiating animals, alarmed by some disturbance, dash off in headlong flight, thus giving the signal for retreat. Following by the others is virtually automatic. Some stampedes burst forth so suddenly that it is impossible to distinguish lead animals—if indeed there are any.

“At the beginning of a stampede, the buffalo rush headlong into a tight bunch, massing together with a herding instinct so powerful that the group can seldom be divided.

“This same stubborn tendency to bunch often thwarts ranchers attempting to drive a buffalo herd onto a different range.

“No matter what the technique—pushing with a line of men, chasing with jeeps or encircling with horsemen—the task is so difficult that many drives end in failure.

Buffalo can turn on a dime in the middle of a stampede and split off in several directions. Forsyth photo, MHS.

“Sooner or later one buffalo manages to outmaneuver its pursuers and squeeze through a minor break in the line, whereupon the rest of the animals quickly slip through the opening like so many links of a chain and the drive falls apart.

“Men within touching distance of the stampeding herd may shout and whistle and frantically wave their hands, but to no avail.

“Just as a single buffalo breaking through a line can disrupt a contemporary drive, a number of historic bison setting a determined course across the railroad tracks could derail a train. Once a few leaders had crossed, the rest of the herd would try to plunge after them, even when a train moved in to block the way.”

As Colonel Richard Dodge observed in 1872, the result would be utter chaos:

“At full speed and utterly regardless of the consequences, [the whole herd] would make for the track on its line of retreat. If the train happened not to be in its path, it crossed the track and stopped satisfied.

“If the train was in its way, each individual buffalo went at it with the desperation of despair, plunging against or in between locomotives and cares, just as its blind madness chanced to direct it.

Buffalo were known to set a determined course across the railroad tracks. Once a few leaders crossed, the rest of the herd plunged after them, even when a train was standing in the way. This could derail a train. Sketch credited to Wm. Hornaday.

“Numbers were killed, but numbers still pressed on, to stop and stare as soon as the obstacle had passed. After having trains thrown off the track twice in one week, conductors learned to have a very decided respect for the idiosyncracies of the buffalo . . .”

Helpful Stampedes

Stampedes can be dangerous, even today.

On the other hand, stampedes were an essential tool for ancient hunters planning a buffalo jump. One secret of every Buffalo jump was how to get the stampede just right.

Stampeding a buffalo herd a quarter-mile before they came to the cutbank was a trick that often sent them over in confusion. Sketch courtesy of Jack Brink from Head-Smashed-In Jump.

Drive lines for ancient Buffalo Jumps may have looked something like this, funneling a stampeding herd toward the drop-off and a successful harvest. Courtesy JBrink.

No one knew their prey better than did those ancient hunters of the prairies and plains.

They had to be experts. For thousands of years they hunted buffalo without horses or guns.

Archeologists believe those ancient hunters started a stampede as they brought the herd fairly close to the cliff, probably less than a half-mile away.

Then the hunters pressed hard, plunging their prey into an all-out stampede. With huge bodies packed tight on all sides, stout horns slashing from behind, all charging at full speed—the lead buffalo could not stop or slow down. 

The mass of horned animals behind would have prevented any escape. They could only run faster.

Their headlong charge carried them over the precipice at the last moment—for a successful harvest!


NEXT: Crossbreeding Buffalo


Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Bison Sounds and Vocalization

Bison Sounds and Vocalization

What sound does a bison make? Your answer may not come as quickly as “moo” for a cow or “baa” for a sheep. But . . .

Buffalo sounds include anything from the high-pitched bleats of a calf looking for its mother to the deep, low rumblings of male bellows heard during mating season. Other common bison sounds consist of grunts, snorts, coughs and growls.

Calves produce a variety of sounds such as high-pitched grunts and bleats. These vocalizations are commonly associated with searching for their mothers or playing with other calves.

As calves grow older, they will not stay entirely close to their mothers. When they have traveled too far, the mom will utter a series of low-pitched grunts. The calf responds with higher-pitched tones.

So next time you find yourself in a national park or wildlife refuge, tune in to listening for the classic sounds of bison!

In honor of our National Mammal, enjoy this Yellowstone bison rut footage from the 2020 virtual roadshow.

Male bison “bellow” in order to announce their presence and establish dominance in a herd. During the mating season or “rut,” bellowing becomes more prevalent, creating a signature sound of midsummer in Yellowstone. NPS

At the end of spring, females are mainly in small groups tending to young calves. Bachelor groups and lone males spread across the plains, not too far off, but in the same locality.

By July, big groups of bison begin coming together in large open areas for the mating season, known as rut.

Bulls display their dominance by grunting, wallowing and fighting. A challenging bull might grunt, snort, blow or growl to get a female’s attention and the defending bull roars back in an impressive bellow that is described as closely resembling the roar of a lion.

These bellows have been compared to revving up an old Chevy truck!

Bellows of a buffalo bull in rut have been compared to revving up an old Chevy truck!

It is believed that the bellows announce the male’s presence and establish dominance within the herd. The frequency and power of sounds increase during male-to-male competitions or when they are trying to find mates.

“I have been assured by old plainsmen that under favorable atmospheric conditions such sounds have been heard five miles,” wrote Wm. Hornaday.

During the mating season or “rut,” bellowing becomes more prevalent and big herds come together, creating a signature sound of midsummer in Yellowstone Park and Custer State Park in the Black Hills.

The bison rut takes place in July and August. After a bull has proven through face-offs that he is strongest, he focuses on females. In late summer male bison along the Mary Mountain Trail and elsewhere in Yellowstone Park bellow to display their dominance over other bulls.

During rut, the quiet plains fill with male bison bellows, low sounds that travel far for females and potential competitors to hear and respond. Pillars of dust rise into the air as the bison wallow, rolling in the dirt.

Males sometimes urinate on the ground before wallowing, covering themselves with their pheromones—a special odor. When a bull bison rolls on the ground, he’s also urinating, spreading his scent. His urine tells a story to others.

Both male and female bison wallow throughout the year to deter flies and shed fur, but there is a notable increase during rut.

The ritual of the rut helps ensure the survival of the fittest, earning a bull the chance to gain a female’s acceptance as mate.

The dominant bulls join and remain with a mixed cow-calf group, tending to females and warding off competitors.

A bull must continuously defend his females from opportunistic males. He selects a female and “tends” her—stays close—for two or three days until she’s ready to breed, defending her against other males. If she has a calf, it is unceremoniously bumped out of the way.

After breeding, dominant bulls select another cow and again stay close while fighting off other bulls.

This activity is extremely strenuous for the major bulls—and during the two or three months of rut they lose weight–as much as 200 pounds, or 10% of body weight.

George Catlin, artist and observer on the upper Missouri during the 1830s, once reported seeing several thousand buffalo in rut raising huge clouds of dust. They pawed the earth, “in mass, eddying and wheeling about… plunging and butting at each other in the most furious manner.

“All [roaring]] in deep and hollow sounds; which mingled together like the sound of distant thunder at the distance of a mile or two,” wrote Catlin.

“The actual combats, which were always of short duration and over in a few seconds after the collision took place, were preceded by the usual threatening demonstrations, in which the bull lowers his head until his nose almost touches the ground, roars like a foghorn until the earth seems to fairly tremble with the vibration, glares madly upon his adversary with half-white eyeballs and with his forefeet paws up the dry earth and throws it upward in a great cloud of dust high above his back.”

Bison use all their senses of smell, hearing and sight. In rut they sniff the air and their bellows can be heard for miles. Photo courtesy of National Park Service.

At one point Catlin describes a close encounter with a large number of buffalo:

“Near the mouth of White River, we met the most immense herd crossing the Missouri River— and from an imprudence got our boat into imminent danger amongst them—from which we were highly delighted to make our escape.

“It was in the midst of the ‘running season,’ and we had heard the ‘roaring’ (as it is called) of the herd when we were several miles from them.

“When we came in sight, we were actually terrified at the immense numbers that were streaming down the green hills on one side of the river and galloping up and over the bluffs on the other.

“The river was filled, and in parts blackened, with their heads and horns, as they were swimming about, following up their objects, and making desperate battle whilst they were swimming,” he wrote.

Research at the U of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine shows that heavier bison bulls produce lower (deeper) formants and this predicted higher mating success, even when controlling for mass.

Their study was conducted during July and August of 2004-2007 at the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, in the Sandhills region of north-central Nebraska.

Field recordings and behavior observations were made on a herd of 325 individually identifiable (branded) bison. Herd-wide observations were conducted continuously during daylight hours throughout the reproductive season and included measures of active participation in rut  (tending male-female pairs and attending rival bulls), copulations and the outcomes of agonistic interactions between bulls.

Observations were conducted from 4-wheel-drive vehicles to which the bison were accustomed.

Tending bulls were recorded during sessions in which a single tending pair was followed and recorded for 20-30 min.

Tending pairs consisted of a male guarding a female by standing close and using agonistic  (aggressive) displays and physical fighting in an effort to prevent the approach of other males.

Bison were monitored throughout the reproductive season to acquire data on dominance levels and copulations. Biological tissue samples were used to assign parentage to sired offspring.

Body mass of recorded bulls was measured in late September (after the peak of the rut) during the annual autumn roundup conducted by staff for herd management purposes.

Bison were weighed in a hydraulic squeeze chute containing a built-in scale. Exact ages were available for all bison included in this study through unique brands and records.

Dominance scores for each bull were based on the outcomes of aggressive interactions between bulls during rut.

Agonistic interactions were recorded when two bulls approached each other to within five body lengths and one bull turned away in a different direction by at least two steps. The first bull to turn away was recorded as the subordinate—or unsuccessful—bull in that interaction.

Agonistic interactions included a variety of behaviors ranging from bellowing, visual displays and parallel walking to pawing, wallowing, charging and physical fighting.

Dominance scores for each bull were calculated as the number of successful interactions divided by the total number of agonistic interactions viewed per bull during the reproductive season.

The study concluded that bulls bellowing with lower formants (from longer vocal tracts) reflect their greater fitness.

This sent positive information to the bison herd of dominance, mating success and reproductive success—the siring of more offspring—across long distances.

These signals were judged to contain information for the herd about the bull’s competitive ability, quality, condition, motivation and sexual receptivity.

The vocalizations may reveal information about the male’s competitive ability, physiological quality and condition, and sexual receptivity—in other words, the bellows denote fitness-related information important to the herd.

They indicated that the acoustic qualities such as the frequency, length and volume of the bellows demonstrate which males are more dominant, and therefore, a better mate for females.

Scent of a Bison

If someone comes near you, can you tell who it is just by their smell? The North American Bison can. Their sense of smell is so good that they can tell the difference between smells from over a mile away!

This sense of smell comes in really handy when they are trying to figure out if predators are nearby. With their amazing sense of smell bison can take one whiff and make a clean getaway.

Bison use all their senses—smell, hearing and sight. The sense of smell is especially well developed, and bison reaction to the odor of an observer is often more marked than reaction to sight or sound.

In rut the bison bull is using all his senses—smell, hearing and sight

Both smell and hearing are acute. They can pick up strange odors on a stray breeze as well as weak and distant sounds.

They are able to detect another animal by smell at a distance of 3 kilometers (1.5 miles).

Ancient hunters understood they had to hide their human scent or cover it over with buffalo odors.

The most important communication is with pheromones and smells, related to reproduction.

Through their senses of touch, smell, hearing, and vision, the members of a herd weave into one another. A cow identifies her calves in the first days mainly by smell; then she recognizes it visually, and finally by its calls. Grunts and bellows resound and carry manifold meanings for members of the herd.

A bull smells the urine and rear end of females, which can tell him whether she is in heat or not.

Bison Eyes View 90 Percent of Surroundings

Often it has been said that buffalo have poor eyesight. But perhaps it’s not so much that their eyes are weak—as that they are unlike the eyes of predators.

Eyes are positioned on opposite sides of the buffalo’s head. This makes it difficult for them to see and focus ahead without turning. Many have concluded that buffalo have poor eyesight.

However, Steven Rinella, who studied all aspects of buffalo alertness in preparation for his lonely Alaskan buffalo hunt, after his tag was drawn in lottery, says their eye location allows for panoramic vision.

Rinella points out that buffalo—like other targets of predators, such as bison, deer and cattle—have eyes on opposite sides of the head. This gives them a wide panoramic vision—rather than the sharply focused vision of predators.

In searching for his wild Alaskan Buffalo, Steve Rinella says he had to worry about both sight and sound—what the buffalo see and what they hear.

“Sight is most important. While an animal might not immediately run off when it sees me, it certainly will not forget that I’m here. Usually an animal will spot me by detecting the movement of my body,” he writes in American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon, 2009.

“If you look at a large herbivore [plant eater] such as a buffalo, you’ll see that its eyes are laterally positioned or placed on opposite sides of the head. This type of eye placement allows for panoramic vision.

“A buffalo can see almost 90 percent of its surroundings without turning its head (obscured, however by wisps of hair).

“Lateral positioning is superb for the detection of predators that are lurking to the sides and rear of an animal, though it does leave the animal with a compromised ability to see visual detail.

“Predators—owls, humans and lions—have eyes that are frontally positioned, allowing for narrower, more binocular vision. (Humans see a little less than half of their surroundings at any given moment.)

“Frontal positioning is superb for depth perception, which enables predators to calculate the proper timing and trajectory for effective strikes and to concentrate on a specific target. This is essential because a 150-pound mountain lion needs to have a very precise strike if it’s going to take down a 300-pound yearling elk.

The eyes of predators—like wolves and owls—are positioned in front of the head for sharp focusing and precise strikes on their prey.

Rinella also says that humans see a much more colorful world in the daytime, but more darkness at night than do buffalo.

The retina of the eye has two types of photo receptors—rods and cones, he points out. Rods are more sensitive than cones—and they are much better in low-light—but they don’t detect colors.

So maybe because both buffalo and their predators are active at night, they have more rods and fewer cones.

Human eyes have a density of cones in the center and more rods at the edges, he says. So try looking out of the corner of your eye when trying to see in the dark. “You’ll see it more clearly.”

Bison are typically alert and wary of an observer whether seen or heard, but a careful approach to a viewpoint is often possible if the wind has not carried the scent to them. After an observer is scented, flight is usually immediate. The herd runs for at least a short distance.

Sight more frequently causes flight than does sound, according to one expert, and an observer sighted on foot is more disturbing than one on horseback. In winter a skier is usually detected as soon as in view of a herd, although the skier may be a mile or more away. However, if the skier uses white clothing, approach to less than 100 yards is sometimes possible unless scent disturbs the bison.

The tail is a highly expressive organ, and through vision bison can participate in the ebbs and flows of dispositions and moods that show themselves through the tail, as well as through movements of the body and head.

The Wholeness of Senses

Craig Holdrege in his book “Seeing the Animal Whole—And why it Matters,” notes that all of the buffalo senses are part of a whole, coming together in one animal.

“We realize that the various grunts and bellows have meanings in the relations among the members of the herd,” he writes. “All such activity radiates out from the bison as a centered, attentive being. Sentience is an expanding and contracting agency by which the animal opens through its senses to participate in a specific world of qualities.

“The bison expands into a wide world through senses such as hearing, sight and smell and draws more into itself when tasting, ruminating and digesting.

“Every movement the animal makes embodies sentience, whether flicking of flies with its tail or swimming across a river. Every part of its body is ensouled, but the sentience itself—the soul of the animal—is not, just as the animal’s life is not, a ‘thing’ that can be localized.

“One exception to the usual wariness of bison is common,’ he writes.

“Solitary bulls are probably as aware of an observer in a given set of circumstances as is a group of bison. However, these bulls are much more inclined to stand their ground, particularly near roads, where they are more accustomed to people.

“Their tolerance of approach is misleading; they are not aggressive, but when approach is beyond tolerance, they will depart. The line of departure may be through or over unwary people who sometimes nearly surround one of these bulls.”

This can be dangerous for visitors who have come too close, typically for photos.

[Note: We are unable to find a sound recording of a Buffalo Calf calling its Mother—or the Mother’s call and response. If anyone will send us a video of these sounds, we’d love to add it to this educational Blog on “Bison Sounds, Smells and Eyesight.”]




Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Rounds, Heinrich Introduce Indian Buffalo Management Act

NBA Weekly Update for October 29, 2021

WASHINGTON—U.S. Senator Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, and Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) introduced the bipartisan Indian Buffalo Management Act, legislation to create a permanent buffalo program at the U.S. Department of the Interior and help promote and develop tribal capacity to manage buffalo.

 “The American buffalo is a treasured animal and resource for Native American communities across the United States,” said Rounds. “The Indian Buffalo Management Act gives tribes the capacity to manage their buffalo populations, utilize the many benefits from buffalo and provide input into federal buffalo management policy. I am committed to helping tribes in South Dakota restore their historical and cultural ties to buffalo herds and make certain that this is a meaningful step for Native American communities.” 

“The American buffalo, or bison, is central to the culture and history of many of our tribal nations, including a number in New Mexico,” said Heinrich. “That’s why I’m proud to introduce this bipartisan legislation with Senator Rounds to provide Tribal communities with access to additional resources and opportunities to manage these revered animals and restore their habitat.”

“The Indian Buffalo Management Act will restore the cultural, historical, spiritual and traditional connection between buffalo and tribal people; create employment and economic opportunities; and provide the Tribe with access to traditional, healthy and self-sustaining food source,” said Clyde Estes, Chairman of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe. “We thank Senator Rounds for working with us and listening to our request of introducing this important legislation in the United States Senate.”

“Our goal has always been to expand our buffalo herd to produce one large enough to supplement our Food Distribution Program, to assist our elders when they need buffalo meats or parts for a ceremony and to work with our local schools to aid in the educational benefits of buffalo restoration,” said Mike Faith, Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and Vice Chairman of the InterTribal Buffalo Council. “We greatly appreciate the leadership of Senator Rounds and his colleagues in introducing this legislation that will help us reach those goals. As the Lakota Holy Man, John Fire Lame Deer once said, ‘The Buffalo gave us everything we needed.’ This legislation is therefore a very positive development.”

“Senators Rounds, Heinrich and the others who have stepped up to introduce this bill are to be commended,” said Ervin Carlson, President of the InterTribal Buffalo Council headquartered in Rapid City. “It is simply impossible to overstate both the importance of the buffalo to the Indian people and the damage that was done when the buffalo were nearly wiped out. By helping tribes reestablish buffalo herds on our reservation lands, the Congress will help us reconnect with a keystone of our historic culture as well as create jobs and an important source of protein that our people truly need.” 

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Bison World Means Big Things for Jamestown

Bison World Means Big Things for Jamestown

(From the Jamestown Sun)

Don’t ya just love great thinkers?

Walt Disney had his skeptics when he first planned for an entertainment site in a Florida swamp.

Bison World, intended for Jamestown, ND, in many ways makes more sense for a 21st century North Dakota than Disney’s ideas did midway the 20th century.

Disney’s was based on his own cartoon characters. It’s said he told inquirers that he first had the idea for a new kind of amusement park when he took his young daughters out for the weekend and found that “…existing kids’ parks and fairs were often dirty, sleazy, money-grubbing places.”

In one year, he had a clean and enjoyable amusement park suitable for families.

Bison World will be a different sort of amusement park. It would be geared toward families and history, for sure. But it would be educational, visually spectacular and a location where, like the National Buffalo Museum, the real west can be seen, touched and experienced.

Bison World is based on Jamestown’s existing monikers of being the Buffalo City of North Dakota: the National Buffalo Museum and its 26-foot-tall “pet” bison (Elmer Petersen’s “World’s Biggest Buffalo,” circa 1959) and the herd of live bison residing along Interstate 94.

The state of North Dakota even uses bison on its license plates, so it’s a no-brainer that Jamestown is perfect for a bison-themed park.

Brian Lunde is among the creative minds who … like Petersen’s, has become one of the “visionaries” in and for Jamestown. The names of many planners have been in the paper and in this column. Jamestown is blessed to have so many generous and creative thinkers plotting the future of the city. The bison is an important creature in our history here, but also in our country’s history.

JAMESTOWN, N.D. (NewsDakota.com)—The Jamestown Stutsman Development Corporation (JSDC) has released the results of a financial forecast of the proposed Bison World theme park near Jamestown.

The compilation of the forecasted financial information was conducted by Eide Bailly, one of the nation’s leading accounting and business advisory firms.

The forecast demonstrates that the planned tourism attraction on state-owned land adjacent to I-94 will be a successful economic development and diversification project for North Dakota. Nearly all of the projected financial benefits will flow back to the state as Legacy Fund earnings or taxes into the general fund if the investment is made from the state’s $8.7 billion dollar Legacy Fund.

The forecasted financial statements reflect that the project would be a highly profitable investment for the state. The five-year projected returns show a range between $34 and $39.3 million flowing to the state from a $72.5 million dollar investment, a return of over 50%. The average annual return would be between $6.8 and $7.8 million or 11%. State sales tax revenues on over $68 million dollars in tickets and merchandise in just the first five years are also expected according to the study which compiled data from the North Dakota Department of Commerce and Apogee Attractions, a leading national theme park designer and operator.

The projected return on investment also shows that the Bison World attraction would surpass the average annual performance of the Legacy Fund for the last five years and the last 10 years. In fact, in the fifth year of operations, the project’s 12.6% return would double the current ten-year average return of the Legacy Fund.

“This information confirms what we believed from the beginning as we planned this project. It will be a great investment for North Dakota,” said Connie Ova, CEO of JSDC. “In fact, all of the scenarios evaluated show a profitable project. We are confident that this project will surpass the returns the state is currently getting from its Legacy Fund investments outside our state and outside our country.”

Supporters of the project are expected to present their theme park plans and financial projections to a formal “vetting committee” of the State Investment Board in the coming days. Economic development projects in North Dakota are now urged to seek investments from the state’s sovereign wealth fund (Legacy Fund) under a new state law (HB 1425) enacted during the last legislative session.

Bison World was presented as the kind of project that would access the Legacy Fund when H.B 1425 passed the legislature overwhelmingly. Besides its many benefits for the tourism industry, the project will also help diversify North Dakota’s economy, provide a solid financial return to the taxpayers and turn non-productive state land into a revenue producing investment.

North Dakota’s tourism director, Sara Otte Coleman, said that “Bison World—A Legendary Experience” will add a destination attraction to expand our state’s tourism industry.

“The addition of a major attraction between Fargo and Bismarck on I-94 would attract additional travelers looking to spend time in North Dakota.” Otte Coleman said. “Most of our tourists come from states east of us. Our goal is to provide clusters of activities that draw new visitors and keep them in the state longer. If we can get them off the interstate and into a major attraction, we can cross-promote with other destinations across North Dakota. Bison World accomplishes that goal.”

Bison World will likely become the number one tourist attraction in the state drawing over 300,000 paid attendees annually, according to Jamestown Tourism Director Searle Swedlund. He added that the project “is located at one of the country’s last and best undeveloped interstate exits for tourism with over 8.8 million people passing by it each year.”

In releasing the study, Ova said the final architectural, civil engineering and schematic design work on the project is expected to be completed in early to mid-October and will be released at that time. The entire report is available upon request from Connie Ova CEO of JSDC.

Additional Highlights
— Significant additional revenues from naming rights, corporate sponsorships, private functions and licensing agreements could increase the revenue projections—and return on investment estimates—but are too early to predict at this time.

— The Bison World project is expected to hire some 400 employees and, during the first five years in operation, pay over $21 million in salaries and benefits.

— The “Probable Market Share Attendance” analysis projects an average of 227,500 paid attendees each year. In the “High Market Share Attendance” analysis, the average grows to 262,100. The “High Market Share Attendance” scenario projects nearly 173,00 more paid attendees to Bison World in the first five years than was projected by Apogee Attractions in their formal market study. (One Apogee Attraction analysis outside of this study, however, does show that paid attendance could surpass 300,000 paid attendees annually).

— All four scenarios reflected in the report show a profitable project for North Dakota. Even in the “stress test” or “breakeven attendance” analysis, where net income from ticket sales, merchandise sales and musical shows is “zeroed out,” the project still returns a profit every year due to sales and income taxes that continue to flow to the state from the project.

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

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