Can you Find Buffalo Trails where You Live?

Can you Find Buffalo Trails where You Live?

Several bison trails (dips in road) crossing at right angles a beach ridge of ancient Lake Agassiz in Pennington County, Minnesota, near the northeast edge of the mid-continent grassland and the northeast edge of the former bison range. Fence is along crest of beach ridge. Photo from Lee Clayton.

We know that thousands of buffalo roamed across the face of the Great Plains in ancient times.

Where we live, in the northern plains of western North Dakota, they’ve been hunted for at least the past 7000 years—and likely grazed here for many more thousands before humans arrived.

They migrated across hills and valleys, sometimes stampeding in great herds, running for miles, such as during the rumbling thunderstorms and crashing lightning that lit up the skies.

When they ran—and even when they plodded along in great herds, grazing as they went—over hills, ridges and valleys—when the ground was wet they made deep trails in soft ground.

Then they walked away, only to return in another season, often following the same old trails.

The trails grew deeper and wider. Sometimes buffalo trails dominated the terrain so powerfully they changed the course of waterways.

Now geologists—and ordinary people like you and me—are finding buffalo trails in many places across North Dakota and the rest of the plains and prairies.

How do they find them?

Early homesteaders noted them first and some correctly identified them as buffalo trails and passed that knowledge down to their descendants who still work the land.

So if you’d like to find out where buffalo trails are in your area, start by asking old-timers and listen to what they have to say.

Some local people—ranchers, pilots and people with an interest in history—already know where there are honest-to-goodness buffalo trails.

And there are probably many more just awaiting our discovery.

If you do find any, please pass that on to us! We’d love to be able to share some of these ancient buffalo trails with our community—perhaps our Dakota Buttes Visitors Council can add them to our tours!

Here are ‘best ways’ to find Buffalo Trails:

  • In Spring when the grass is short (or winter days between times of snow cover)
  • Throughout the plains and prairies in pasture lands which have not been plowed
  • In soft and permeable soil (where rainfall soaks in readily—instead of draining off, which erodes slopes and destroys trails)
  • The trails are like trenches, about 3 feet deep—but on steeper slopes may be 9 to 12ft deep. As wide as 6 to 60 ft across—typically 15 to 30 feet. Stretched out invarying lengths depending on soil and terrain—may be as much as ½ mile long
  • In some areas trenches show up in combination with higher ridges of topsoil as if clumps of dirt have been kicked up and gobs of mud released after being stuck to hooves
  • Where they cross depressions the trenches may be replaced by ridges
  • Trails are usually straight or slightly curved
  • They may run parallel to prevailing winds—such as on the diagonal from Northwest to Southeast
  • May lead around bogs, to water or salty areas (?)
  • The trenches tend to cross ridges, small hills and valleys
  • They might be identified on hikes, from high points, low-flying airplanes or on Google maps

A North Dakota geologist who wrote about Bison Trails in North Dakota is John P. Bluemle. He was employed by the North Dakota Geological Survey from 1962 and served as ND State Geologist 14 years from 1990 until 2004.

Bluemle wrote the following report and says he adapted much of the content from an article by Lee Clayton: Bison trails and their Geologic Significance published in the national magazine Geology, Sep 1975.

John Bluemle worked with the North Dakota Geological Survey for 28 years from 1962, then spent 14 years as ND State Geologist, from 1990 to 2004.

Bison Trails in North Dakota: a Geological Survey

by John P. Bluemle

ND Geological Survey logo.

An unusual kind of landform found in several places in North Dakota was created by once huge herds of bison. The bison trampled shallow grooves across the prairie, forming trails that appear as lines on air photos.

These bison trails were first recognized in North Dakota in the 1960s by former University of North Dakota geologist, Lee Clayton.

The trails are shallow grooves or trenches, generally a few feet deep, several feet wide, and several hundred feet long. Where they cross narrow depressions, the trails sometimes change to low ridges.

The ridges probably formed as sediment [solid fragmented material such as gravel transported and deposited by wind, water, or ice] tracked downslope by thousands of hooves.

Bison trails are common throughout the grasslands of the northern plains, and, in fact, many have been misinterpreted as bedrock joints [a brittle area of a large rock body with pressure-induced fractures with the same orientation] or glacial features such as a small washboard ridge that forms from material along the leading edge of a glacier.

Bison trails are straight or gently curved, and they show up on aerial photographs as dark lines. The trails tend to be parallel to high-relief features such as bluffs and steep slopes, and otherwise they typically trend northwest to southeast, parallel to the prevailing wind directions.

 The trails were probably formed when large numbers of bison converged on water holes or were funneled along a particular path by the constraints of topography.

Bison Trails in the Denbigh Bog area in the old channel of the Souris River, about eight miles southeast of Denbigh in McHenry County. The arrow points to the bison trails along the eastern edge of the bog area. [Arrow is in upper ¼ th of photo, right of center.] The trails oriented mainly north-south, apparently a result of bison tending to walk around the edge of the bog. Bluemle.

The trails are best preserved where they cross areas of sandy soil, such as gravel deposits from glacial melt, perhaps because such soils are more permeable, allowing precipitation to infiltrate the soil rather than run off, eroding the slope and trails.

Even so, I have seen similar trails that cross areas of glacial till [till deposited mainly from glacial mudflows].

Bison trails around a southeast bend of Souris River flood plain in McHenry County, North Dakota. Hachured line [rectangle near top] marks the bluff at edge of flood plain.

In areas of low relief, as in parts of the Red River Valley, the grooves or trenches tend to lie parallel to the prevailing wind directions, which throughout much of North Dakota was from the northwest (in winter) and southeast (in summer).

In areas of medium to high relief, the orientation of the grooves is controlled by the local topography. The grooves tend to cross medium-relief features such as ridges, small hills, and valleys. The grooves tend to be parallel to higher relief bluffs and steep slopes.

The features appear to be restricted to grassland areas of the interior of North America. They occur throughout North Dakota, to the forest edge in western Minnesota, in much of eastern Montana and Wyoming, in most of South Dakota, and in southern Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta.

Could these ‘Bison trails’ have an alternative geologic explanation? 

For example, the trench-like features had earlier been interpreted as representing bedrock joints and faults. They have also been interpreted as glacial disintegration trenches, a kind of long, narrow depression resulting from the melting of an ice-cored crevasse filling.

The disintegration-trench hypothesis became untenable, however, when the trenches were found in southwestern North Dakota, beyond the limit of glaciation.

Furthermore, the ridged portion of the features consists of thick topsoil, not fluvial sand and gravel as would be required were they disintegration trenches. A bison-trail origin seems to best explain the features.

Bison trails changing from trenches to ridges where trails cross a shallow depression in a proglacial fluvial [sediments formed from glacial river runoff] plain in northwest corner, Kidder County. North Dakota. From Clayton and Freers, who mistakenly called them disintegration trenches. [a kind of long, narrow depression resulting from the melting of a glacial crevasse] Blue color—depression. Brown color—buffalo trail ridge.

Observation of cattle trails on steep slopes has suggested an explanation for the ridged portion of the features. Clumps of dirt are kicked along the trail by the walking cattle, and globs of mud stick to their hooves.

On a sloping trail, the clumps tend to be worked downhill. This results in transport of material down the path and produces a ridge at the base of the slope in continuity with the trench.

Did bison actually make the trails?

Many nineteenth-century travelers commented on the abundance of bison trails on the Great Plains. In 1846, Francis Parkman noted bison trails near the Platte River, as did General J. F. Rusling. According to Alexander Henry the Younger, bison trails were abundant in northeastern North Dakota.

Why should bison trails be restricted to highly permeable soil?

On slightly permeable soil, most of the precipitation runs off, eroding the hillslopes and destroying trails. On highly permeable soil, most of the precipitation infiltrates, resulting in only slight slope—wash erosion. For this reason, bison trails have been preserved mainly in areas of permeable, coarse soil.

Where were the bison going? Why do the trails tend to be oriented northwest-southeast, parallel to prevailing wind?

Perhaps they were watering trails [trails made by range cattle generally lead to water]. The bison may have located water by the downwind odor of water or vegetation growing next to the water.

Or, perhaps, the reaction of the bison to the wind itself, rather than the odor, was the cause. Perhaps seasonal migration routes controlled their direction.

Bison trails are of interest to geologists for two reasons: (1) they may be confused with geologic features, and (2) they may have influenced drainage patterns.

Bison trails can be distinguished from joints and faults in that ridges tend to represent trails where they cross depressions. Trails can be distinguished from normal stream-eroded gullies by the tendency of trails to cross over hills and through depressions.

Small stream valleys throughout much of the Great Plains are aligned parallel to the prevailing wind direction.

A possible reason is the initiation of gullies by wind or bison trails.

Small gullies are commonly initiated where runoff water [and wind erosion] has been concentrated in cattle trails, so it seems probable that a pattern of bison trails like that would result in gullies and small valleys oriented parallel to the prevailing wind.

Obviously, many trails in North Dakota have been enlarged by gullying. However, the magnitude of this influence is difficult to evaluate because bison trails are preserved mainly in areas of permeable soils where erosion has been slight.

In areas of less-permeable soils, where gullying has been extensive, all trace of bison trails has presumably been eroded away during the past century (since the demise of the bison).

(Report by John Buemle, with additional comments and explanation in brackets from Dr. John Joyce, Hettinger, ND.)

Happy hunting!

References:

Beaty, C. B., 1975, Coulee alignment and the wind in southern Alberta, Canada: Geological Society of American Bulletin, v. 86, p. 119 – 128.

Bluemle, J. P., 2000, The face of North Dakota, Third Edition: North Dakota Geological Survey Educational Series 26, 205 p.

Branch, E. D., 1962, The hunting of the buffalo: Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 240 p.

Clayton, Lee, 1970a, Olfactory factors in landscape evolution: North Dakota Academy of Science Proceedings, v. 24, p. 4

Clayton, Lee, 1970b, Bison trails and their geologic significance: Geological Society of America Abstracts with Programs, v. 2, p. 381.

Clayton, Lee, 1975, Bison trails and their geologic significance: Geology, p. 498 – 500.

Coues, Elliott, ed., 1965, The manuscript journals of Alexander Henry…: Minneapolis, Ross and Haines, 1027 p.

Mollard, J. D., 1957, Aerial mosaics reveal fracture patters on surface materials in southern Saskatchewan and Manitoba: Oil in Canada, August 5, p. 26 – 48.

Zakrzewska, Barbara, 1965, Valley grooves in northwestern Kansas: Great Plains Journal, v. 5, no. 1, p. 12-25.

NEXT: Part 2: Crossbreeding Buffalo with Cattle in Canada

 

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Seasons Greetings

We had planned to bring you Part 2 of Crossbreeding Bison with Cattle—the Canadian experiments—for this week of Dec 28.

But with all the activities and closures of the holidays we were unable to get the research information we needed, so will be postponing Part 2 for awhile.

For now, we hope you were able to celebrate a good family Christmas—despite the problems getting together that many of us have had—and we wish you a happy, happy New Year throughout all of 2022!

We’ll meet with you again on January 11, 2022. That’s when our blog asks the question  Can you Find Buffalo Trails where You Live?”

Francie M Berg
Ronda Fink

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Crossbreeding Buffalo in U.S.—Part 1

Crossbreeding Buffalo in U.S.—Part 1

Are they Cattalo, Catalo, Hybrids or Beefalo?

This catalo is likely from a cross between a Buffalo bull and polled Angus cow. The offspring are born with random markings and conformation, this one turned out extra hairy with dark cape-like covering and slim hind quarters.

Cattlemen of the old west who struggled with cold and blizzards looked at the mighty monarchs of the Plains with admiration and considerable envy.

“Wouldn’t it be great,” they said, “To raise beef animals with the hardiness and smarts of the buffalo, which could still produce the large beef cuts from the tenderloin and hips of fat beef cattle?”

Surely that would be the best of both worlds! It sounded good. And amazingly simple.

From the beginning many people have attempted to crossbreed the two species.

Today crossbreeding—as beefalo—is again experiencing a resurgence in the health food market.

During the bison population bottleneck, after the great slaughter of buffalo during the 1800s, the number of bison remaining alive in North America declined to as low as 800, according to David A. Dary in his (Ital) Buffalo Book, 1989.

A handful of ranchers gathered remnants of the existing herds to save the species from extinction. Some thought it would be important to breed a few bison with cattle in an effort to produce more cattle with the hardiness of bison. Accidental crossings were also known to occur when buffalo cows ran with beef cattle.

Two early crossbreeders were Buffalo Jones of Kansas and Charlie Goodnight of the Texas Panhandle, both pioneer buffalo ranchers who rescued wild buffalo calves.

In northwestern Texas, Charles Goodnight ran big herds of cattle, 148 buffalo and 35 cattalo, the latter being a cross between the wild buffalo and the domestic polled [without horns] Angus cattle. The cross—when a rare calf was born, did not have horns.

In summing up his cattalo efforts Goodnight said: “I have been able to produce in the breed the extra rib of the buffalo, making 14 on each side, while ordinary cattle have only 13 ribs on each side. They make a larger and hardier animal, require less feed, and longer lived, and will cut a greater percent of net meat than any breed of cattle.

“No one knows how long a buffalo will live. I have had a buffalo cow more than 28 years old which produced a calf. The cattaloes are a decided success. They will carry their young and make beef at any season of the year.

“The buffalo, and the cattalo as well, never drifts with a storm, and knowing the road home goes there in the face of the worst blizzard.

“The buffalo has better manners than the domestic animal. For example, does not muddy the water of a pool or stream when it drinks, stepping up to the edge of the water only, and never stepping in.

“I believe it will only be a matter of time until they will be used on all the western ranges.”

However, he added, “Buffalo and domestic cattle will not mix in the same herd or be at all neighborly unless grown up together from calfhood.”

Buffalo Jones’ Grandiose Claims

Buffalo Jones was even more enthusiastic than Goodnight.

In his book Buffalo Jones 40 years of Adventure, published in 1899, Jones wrote in glowing terms of his beloved crossbreds.

It all started, he said, while travelling through the plains after a terrible blizzard that fateful winter of 1886, when he saw thousands of dead cattle carcasses. 

“When I reached the habitat of the buffalo, not one of their carcasses was visible, except those which had been slain by hunters.  Every animal I came across was as nimble and wiry as a fox!” he wrote.

“I thought to myself, ‘Why not domesticate the buffalo which can endure such a blizzard, defying storms which would destroy cattle?’

“Why not infuse this hardy blood into our native cattle and have a perfect animal, one that will defy all these elements?

“Catalo are produced by crossing the male buffalo with the domestic cow. Yet the best and surest method is the reverse of this [domestic bull with buffalo cow].

“Only the first cross is difficult to secure. After that they are unlike the mule, for they are as fertile as either the cattle or buffalo. They breed readily with either strain of the parent race—the females especially.

“It is very difficult to secure a male catalo. I have never been able to raise but one half-breed bull and he was accidentally killed before becoming serviceable.

“The half-breeds are much larger than their progenitors of either side, the cows weighing from 1200 to 1500 pounds.

“Major Bedson of Manitoba, succeeded in raising a male half-breed, but unfortunately made a steer of him when young. At 5 years old he was butchered, and dressed 1280 pounds—equivalent to a live weight of 2480 pounds.

“The quarter and three-quarter buffalo are not so large as the half-blood. About the same size as ordinary good cattle.

“The fur of the three-quarter and seven-eighths buffalo makes the finest robes. This fur is perfectly compact and when bred from the black strain of cattle is as handsome as that of the black beaver.

“Some of the half-bloods are excellent milkers, yielding a fair quantity of milk, which is as rich as that of the Jersey. The nearer they approach the full-blood buffalo, the less quantity is produced, but the milk is correspondingly richer, as the milk of the full-blooded buffalo cow is richer than the Jersey’s.

Many cattle breed crosses were attempted over the years, including this Brahmalo—the offspring of a Brahman cow and a buffalo bull from Afton, Oklahoma. It was said to grow a buffalo coat in winter and sheds to a Brahman hide in summer. Photo by Charles Ball.

“The catalo are quiet animals, so long as you keep hands off. They are good feeders, have excellent appetites and are invariably in excellent flesh, though fed on any kind of provender. I have successfully wintered them on the range without any artificial food or shelter, as far north as Lake Winnipeg. They withstood the cold when the mercury reached 50 degrees below zero, without artificial food or shelter.

“I have succeeded in crossing with almost all the different breeds of cattle, but the Galloway is unquestionably the safest, most satisfactory and produces the finest and best robes.

“The catalo inherit more of the traits of the buffalo than of the domestic cattle. They face the blizzards and when the first of the unwelcome storms appears in early winter, the domestic cow and her calf bid adieu to each other. The cow drifting with the storm—while the calf faces the blizzard and follows the buffalo herd.

“They all have solid colors—they are either black, seal brown, brindle or white. I never saw or heard of a spotted catalo. They are somewhat inclined to be cross, and when the cows have young calves at their sides are exceptionally so.

Cow might be brindle—or white face if from a Hereford mating. Hair was claimed by Buffalo Jones to be ‘as handsome as that of the black beaver.’

“After all my experiments in crossbreeding, I feel confident it can be made successful if the right class of cows is secured and they receive the proper treatment—without which none can hope for success.

“I did not only make a failure, but two or three of them. Yet by persistent efforts succeeded in a remarkable degree in producing the very kind of animal my imagination dwelt upon while in western Texas in 1886.”

Another claim—apparently quoting Jones himself—reported, “Buffalo Jones has made a thorough study of the habits of these animals, and by careful experiments in crossing with native cattle has produced a race which he calls the catalo, a magnificent creature.

“The head is less clumsy, the hump less prominent, and the hinder parts more symmetrical than in the buffalo.

Sometimes the head was less clumsy, the hump lower in a cross, but not always. This photo came from Elk Island in Canada.

“The catalo is far superior to the domestic animal for beef. Steaks cut from its dressed carcass are delicious, and it has been proved that 100 pounds more of porterhouse steak can be cut from the dressed catalo than from the ordinary steer.

Buffalo Jones developed a unique theory, which seemed reasonable to many. Ideal crosses would be to breed one fourth buffalo for southern ranges, one half for the great plains, and a hardier three-quarters buffalo to live in the far north.

Many Names: But do They Matter?

Jones also coined the label ‘Catalo’—spelled to give 3 letters of the alphabet to each species, he said. Others later changed it to ‘Cattalo,’ as being plainer for pronunciation. The Canadians generally called their crossbreeds ‘Hybrid.’

It is said the term Cattalo is defined in the U.S. as a cross of bison and cattle which have a bison appearance, while In Canada, cattalo was used for hybrids of all degrees and appearance.

Still later, a new generation created the name ‘Beefalo,’ and started several organizations—which eventually joined forces as
the American Beefalo Association.

After nearly 150 years of crossbreeding this group now tells us, ‘The perfect balance has been found’ in 3/8th’s Bison and 5/8th’s domestic cattle. They apparently define a full Beefalo as one with 3/8ths (37.5%) bison genetics and animals with higher percentages of bison genetics as ‘bison hybrids.’

Beefalo brings a name change, but the same old claims are on display. Sure enough, this new cross allows ‘all the best qualities of both animals to be present.’ Can you beat that?

But who cares? It doesn’t matter, does it? Aren’t all these terms created for the purpose of appearing fresh, new and viable?

“It is claimed that the crossed breed combines the docility of the domestic animal with the endurance and the large size of the bison, and that the half-breeds grow to maturity in less time than domestic cattle.

“The flesh, also, is said to be very palatable, and the fur, while retaining all the good qualities of that of the bison, is much softer and finer.”

This Bramalo was bred on a Texas ranch where a herd of buffalo and Brahman cattle ran together for many years. Shown as an 8-year-old in 1923. Many ranches are said to have tried to cross them without success.

Less Glowing Reports

The Logansport Reporter, Indiana, back on Jan. 14 1898, had issued a warning, “One of the alleged successful experiments is located on a cattle farm a few miles south of Durrant Wis., where, it is said, three bison captured a few years ago have, by cross-breeding, increased to a herd of 43 animals; and the owners of the herd believe that an extension of their method of cross-breeding will bring them a fortune in the near future.

“The statement, however, has not been received with much favor by cattle dealers, who are aware of the ill success of several similar experiments during recent years.”

Perhaps Buffalo Jones’s catalo existed mostly in his dreams, charges Larry Barsness in his 1995 book (ital) Heads, Hides and Horns.

He reports that Jones in 1887 turned two-year-old immature buffalo bulls in with his Galloway cows, hoping for a hybrid calf crop—no calves resulted. The next year he reported 80 or 90 pregnant cows—but only produced 2 calves.

“Worse, 30 of the cows had died giving birth or before. But he cruelly kept on experimenting. He believed larger domestic cows would survive birth more successfully. When they continued to die he went on breeding.”

Barsness charges that most of Jones’ so-called catalo were purchased to save time in breeding and he actually bred catalo for only six years or so. Then he went broke and had to sell his hybrid herd five years after he’d bought it.

“Hardly time enough to allow him to become the catalo expert newspaper and magazine stories made him out to be. Jones didn’t deserve his reputation as a catalo breeder; his bad luck cut off his breeding experiments.”

Jones had run up against major difficulties. “First, too many domestic cows die; no cattlemen can stay in business losing a third of his calf-bearers each season. Second, surviving cows often abort bull calves or bear them dead. Third, any live bull calf often proves sterile.”

Barsness says others experienced these same losses of pregnant cows. Charles Allard gave up trying to raise cattalo on Flathead Lake, Montana, because he lost too many cows. Rutherford Stuyvesant gave up when 19 of his Galloway cows died calving. PE McKilip in Kansas quit after 10 years for the same reason.

The cross of a buffalo cow with a domestic bull (versus a buffalo bull and a domestic cow) kills fewer cows but the bulls were generally afraid of the hairy cows and kept away unless raised together with them from birth, he says.

If not raised together it seemed cattle wanted nothing to do with bison—and perhaps vice versa, as in this cartoon. Occasionally they did mate, but the outcome was unpredictable and seldom lived up to expectations.

No one knew then why the large death losses. Promoters likely tried to excuse or ignore it.

So is Fraud Involved?

While many ranchers still hope for a cross that works, a scent of fraud pervades.

The Logansport Reporter, Indiana, in 1898 published a story that noted: One of the most successful buffalo breeders was that of the late Austin Corbin, the local banker and railroad magnate.

“Austin Corbin, son of the original owner of the herd, when asked for his opinion as to the probability of successful crossbreeding of the buffalo with domestic cattle, said:

“It may be possible, but guided by a knowledge of experiments made by my father. I would require very strong proof of the fact before believing that it has been, or can be done with success.

“At the suggestion of the Duke of Marlborough, my father, several years ago, imported a herd of [30] Polled-Angus cattle from Scotland, for the purpose of cross-breeding with the bison on our cattle farm at Newport, NH. The conditions were most favorable, as the bison were thoroughly acclimated and had largely increased in numbers, but the attempt at crossbreeding was almost a total failure.

“The result was so unsatisfactory that the experiment was abandoned.

“The only successful attempts at crossbreeding that I have heard of was that of Buffalo Jones, owner of an extensive cattle range in New Mexico. When he was here, some five years ago, Jones claimed that his experiment had been a success.

“But when I saw him last, six months ago. I judged from his unwillingness to discuss the crossbreeding of bison that his experiment had not continued to be successful.”

A female with large forequarters and hump at Wainwright experiment station in Canada.

Buffalo Jones went bankrupt and had to sell out. But he went down gallantly declaring—just a little more time and his crossbreds would have made him a fortune!

As Jones put it, “If I’d just had more time, this would be a Million dollar herd.”

‘Didn’t turn out very well’

Sometime after the first heyday of beefalo struck our community in the 1980s I was visiting with a friend who’s family had purchased beefalo semen from a relative.

His uncle was promoting it–I believe, as a way to get wealthy—in much the Buffalo Jones manner. (If he just had more time . . . as he went broke!)

When I asked my friend about their experience, he replied briefly that “It didn’t turn out very well.”

I didn’t press him for details. And he didn’t offer any. Obviously, his family hadn’t become rich.

Today there’s a resurgence of the Beefalo A.I. adventure, along with higher prices for buffalo beef and the special attraction of ‘organic health foods.’

It’s easy to artificially inseminate a few cows—or half the herd—without a thought for the possibility of dangerously incompatable fluids.

Consider this: Every state in the U.S. has several well-paid cattle experts and researchers. Most states also employ experts on horses, pigs, sheep and some even goats and poultry.

But in the US, does any state experiment station employ Bison researchers? I don’t think so.

This is not to say that bison ranchers are not hard-working men and women who make valuable contributions to the rural economy and to the conservation of bison. They are!

It is through the work of farmers, ranchers, conservationists and policy makers that buffalo have been brought from the brink of extinction to a healthy 400,000 head in North America today. Most of these bison are on commercial buffalo ranches.

Still, every Bison rancher is more or less on his or her own to find their own way. They learn from each other—and from the Bison organizations they belong to. Good for them, but it’s not enough!

Why haven’t disinterested researchers been giving the breeders facts? These producers are in business, and they need to know the research.

Recently there’s hope that more facts are on the way soon—with the new Center of Excellence on Bison developing at South Dakota State University. That science should be worth waiting for!!

Learning the facts about crossbreeding buffalo should also be interesting. I hope they’ll add that to the plan for research.

My observations on the dilemma of crossbreeding

The difficulty has always been that most of those who raise and market crossbred bison have a ‘dog in the race.’ And that’s been true since early times when this all started—at least 150 years ago. Fact is, promoters cannot be relied on to tell the whole truth, barnacles and all, which is needed.

But Buffalo ranchers and would-be crossbreeders deserve to know the truth from the start.

Up until now, U.S. research on buffalo has not involved disinterested agricultural researchers. Of course, marketers and promoters tend to be biased—we should expect that. Some certainly tell wild tales about their amazing beefalo and cattalo as did Buffalo Jones.

 They find ways to ignore or excuse the infertile bulls, high death rates of mothers and calves, and the ungainly-shaped offspring they sometimes produce. Instead of the boasted ‘best of both species,’ offspring may be even more likely to harbor the worst of both.

But what about the Canadian researchers?  They did a lot of weighing and testing through their 50 years of research. They must have found some answers.

But in his blog, ‘All About Bison,’ Tim Frasier of Frasier Bison calls crossbreds, “The bum-steer of yester year!”

America is a place of innovation and experimentation, according to one journalist. This included cross-breeding of many kinds—such as cattalo—especially in the old west, he wrote. Not surprising that some turn out to be the “Bum-Steer” creations of history.

Frasier even tackles the entire topic of testing the DNA of Buffalo herds.

As a skeptic, Frasier writes, “A few web sites out there would have you believe that the only pure bison are the ones in Yellowstone and maybe a couple other public herds. They state percentages and numbers to defend a thesis more possible than statistically probable.

”The media likes to refer to our private or ranched bison as all or most having cattle DNA, yet all or most of these herds started from the original remnant herds of less than 1,000 head. The Yellowstone Park bison herd started with 25 animals, of which [most] were donated from ranchers.

“Not only has the entire Yellowstone Park herd not been tested, but the entire existing bison species has been tested at less than 1%. Among that, less than 1% show less than 1.5% cattle introgression or genes.

“Today bison number around [400,000] with 95% of those being privately owned. Most private herds have yet to be tested for cattle.

“I am left thinking…..’What’s the big deal?’

Frasier says bluntly, “The burden of proof remains squarely placed upon science. We will continue to do our part, while we wait for science to have more facts.”

Frasier is right, of course.

In truth, there’s really not much in the way of good research at all about Bison in the U.S. as yet. And Canadians, who conducted authentic research seem to be largely silent, as far as I can discover.

Two important organizations—the National Bison Association and the Intertribal Buffalo Council—have adopted codes of ethics that prohibit members from intentionally crossbreeding.

Tim Frasier says there is no good reason to pursue any new lines of Beefalo. This cross takes the benefits of both away, he says.

 “Cross breeding bison with any other species, for any reason is strictly prohibited in association code of ethics and represents the commitment of integrity to the species and our consumers.

 “Frasier Bison will not knowingly foster any crossbreeding operations. We do this by ‘just saying no’ when folks want to buy bison for that purpose. Along with being very arduous to accomplish for not much result, it is also potentially dangerous to the health and welfare of the bison involved.

“I think it was Issac Newton who said, ‘Nature is pleased with simplicity, and nature is no dummy.’ We keep it simple and only breed bison to other bison.

 “There’s another saying that fits, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’

 “Bison is a wonderful product and a cool animal without being fixed.”

 Tim Frasier adds a bit of sage advice, “Breed bison to bison, only!

 

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NEXT: Crossbreeding Buffalo in Canada-Part 2; Great Hopes for Northern Canada
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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!

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NEXT: Crossbreeding Buffalo

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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.”]

 

NEXT:

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Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

The Trophy was the Journey

CELEBRATE NATIONAL BISON DAY Sat, Nov, 6, 2021!!

Bison in the Henry Mountains, Utah, where a target 500 buffalo and cattle run together on the same BLM range. Photo credit Bill Bates, Wildlife Section Chief for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

“They have a huge hump, giant head, eyeball the size of a billiard ball. What is not to like?”  – Padgett Powell

My once in a lifetime hunt ended on a beautiful Saturday morning in early November 2017, but it began many years earlier.

The animal would be the first and last bison I will ever kill. Something that only a handful of hunters get the chance to do in the twenty-first century.

The trophy was indeed the journey it took to reach this milestone.

My quest to understand and learn about the bison has carried me across thousands of miles: from the badlands of North Dakota, to Montana’s National Bison Range, from Yellowstone National Park, to Utah’s Antelope Island State Park.

For decades I’ve studied and observed this country’s national mammal, and I have grown to love it, which you can’t do until you actually get to know the animal. Because of this journey, my interest in the bison will be a lifelong love affair.

How can I claim to love the very thing that I worked so hard to kill? I’ve thought of this often lately.

John Mason said it best, “I do not hunt for the joy of killing but for the joy of living, and for the inexpressible pleasure of mingling my life, however briefly, with that of a wild creature that I respect, admire, and value.”

At the apex of their reign the American buffalo (Bison bison) roamed over much of North America in countless numbers.

However by 1890, less than a thousand animals could be found on the entire continent! Today there are scattered herds in private and public ownership.

Utah has three of these herds, one on Antelope Island, one in the Book Cliffs /Indian Reservation, and one on the Henry Mountains.

John Mason said it best, “I do not hunt for the joy of killing but for the joy of living, and for the inexpressible pleasure of mingling my life, however briefly, with that of a wild creature that I respect, admire and value.” Buffalo in the Henry Mountain Range, photo credit Russell Nielson.

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For the entirety of man’s existence in North America, we’ve struggled with the meaning of this animal, with the ways in which its life is intertwined with our own…I sometimes imagine that we saved the buffalo from the brink of extinction for the simple reason that the animal provided a handy mirror in which we could see our innermost desires and failures, and our most confounding contradictions. Our efforts to use the buffalo as a looking glass have rendered the animal almost inscrutable. At once it is a symbol of the tenacity of wilderness and the destruction of wilderness; it’s a symbol of Native American culture and the death of Native American culture; it’s a symbol of the strength and vitality of America and the pettiness and greed of America; it represents a frontier both forgotten and remembered; it stands for freedom and captivity, extinction and salvation. Perhaps the buffalo’s enduring strength and legacy come from this chameleonic wizardry, this ability to provide whatever we need at the given moment.  –Steven Rinella, American Buffalo

Bison in Utah’s Henry Mountains are among the few herds in North America that are genetically pure. This is because in 1941, fifteen cows and three bulls were captured in Yellowstone and released by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources into the San Rafael Desert in Southeastern Utah.

The Henry Mountains—in background—rise directly out of the barren, but scenic deserts of Southeast Utah. Credit RN.

The herd eventually migrated to the Henry Mountains. This herd is the only free-roaming herd in the lower 48 states that is managed by hunting alone and has 1600 square miles in which to roam. The sustained target population is 500 animals.

The Henry Mountains rise directly out of the barren, but scenic deserts of Southeast Utah. A certain mystique has always surrounded the mountains and they are steeped in history.

These mountains are located northwest of Lake Powell and east of Capitol Reef National Park. They are about 60 miles long by 20 miles wide. Before being named the Henry Mountain, they were known as the “Unknown Mountains” and for good reason.

The Henry Mountains were the last range in the United States to be “discovered” (1860) and didn’t appear on any maps until 1872.

They were one of the last-surveyed and last-named mountain ranges in the lower forty-eight states. They were named by Almon Thompson (John Wesley Powell’s brother-in-law) in honor of Joseph Henry, the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and its head for 32 years.

Under Henry’s direction, the national weather forecasting service was born. One of American’s greatest scientists, Henry invented the first practical electric motor, telegraph and electric relay. He also pioneered in the study of sunspots, and innovated the development of lighthouse foghorns and lights to aid ships in navigation.

The “henry” was named in his memory and is one of eight recognized units of electrical measurements (the ohm, the ampere, the volt, the coulomb, the farad, the joule, the watt and the henry).

All bison hunts are limited and permits are granted with drawings. It took 23 years to finally draw my coveted ONCE IN A LIFETIME hunter’s choice (either male or female) permit for the first any-legal-weapon (rifle, bow, muzzleloader) bison hunt on the Henry Mountains in 2017.

Whether I had a successful harvest or not I would never get another chance for an additional permit. Thirteen resident and two non-resident permits were issued tags based on accumulated points (one point for every year of applying for a permit) and/or luck for the time slot of Nov. 4th to the 16th.

The day before the hunt we came around a bend in the road and a bull stood right in the middle of the track. Good omen or cruel trick? What a way to get the adrenal flowing! Credit RN.

There would be a total of 80 permits awarded across five hunts in the Henry Mountains for 2017. The numbers of these permits vary each year and are based on data, such as aerial surveys assessing the herd’s current population.

Of these 80 tags 39 were to be cow-only harvests and would be open during two slots in December. The first ever archery-only hunter’s choice hunt ran from Oct. 6th—20th and then there would be a second any-legal-weapon hunt from Nov. 18th—30th.

Also, from my statistical analysis, I found that 73 hunters had the same number of bonus points as I did. Of these 73 only 41 applied this year. Fifteen people purchased an additional bonus point, which left 16 hunters uncounted for (death, absence, etc).

Of the 41 applications 15 drew tags somewhere in the state (Antelope Island, Book Cliffs or Henry Mountain). For the hunt slot I applied for, 24 hunters made application and 6 drew a permit.

Utah has a unique way of drawing once-in-a-life time permits, in that half are used for those sportsmen with the largest number of bonus points and the other half are true random.

It felt terrific to be selected after such a long wait. However, given Utah’s system, it was a bit frustrating when I met a sportsman on this hunt (a self-proclaimed “redneck from Tremonton”) who drew after only four years of applying.

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For me, hunting is not a symphony, not a painting, not to be defined. It is a long, fascinating road leading to moments never to be forgotten. –Frances Hamerstrom

My interest with the Henry Mountain bison was probably sparked by stories I heard from my Uncle Albert Henry Peterson who had a successful hunt in the 1960s with his friend Jim (who had the tag).

However my “love affair” with the Henry Mountains started in 1992 when I accompanied Steve Smith on his bison hunt there where he killed a young bull.

In subsequent years of 1994, I was with my sister Nadean when she killed her cow bison, in 1998 when brothers Kyle and Bryce Egbert bagged their cows, and then again in 2002 when Wade Carter took his cow with a muzzleloader.

All together I spent 13 days either scouting for or hunting these five successful bison harvests from the Henry Mountains. During this pursuit the number 13, considered unlucky by many, became my “lucky 13” and seemed to crop up in diverse places, at sundry times and weave a common thread to the outcome of my hunt.

In 2009, I made a trip to hike Mt. Ellen’s 11,506 foot peak with Mark Rogniske. I was filled with awe at those incredible, magic sunsets over the water pocket fold of Capital Reef that can’t be replicated anywhere else in the world!

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As you hunt, you bond with the animals. You start to match heartbeats, and when you do that respect for them and for the land comes naturally. When you hunt buffalo, you know that the herd is not just one big group; it is a collection of families. Sometimes they’re all together and sometimes they separate…  –Wildlife biologist Richard Sherman, Where the Heart Is

The pit crew: Chad, Jill, Don, Steve W, Mark P. Credit RN.

In May 2017, when I learned of my successful draw my trophy journey began. In the following months I gathered both harvest and aerial data from the division of wildlife resources, and had phone conversations with the state’s wildlife biologist.

I collected maps from the Bureau of Land Management who administers the mountain range, and most importantly, planned and carried out three scouting trips to the Henry Mountains to re-acquaint myself with the roads and terrain.

During these 13 days of scouting in this year alone I saw more than 250 bison in herds from five to more than 70 animals.

The most important and meaningful thing I did during this time was to assemble my “bull pit crew,” This crew consisted of 13 valued members who at some point during my three scouting trips or actual hunt would share the trophy journey on the Henrys with me.

I also met other hunters including Greg Solberg from Grand Junction, Richard Ballard from Logan and two tourists Peter and Michael from Germany at “sunset point” who had hired a guide to take them to the “most remote place in Utah.”

With much help from George Richardson we upgraded my Ruger .270. We floated the barrel, changed from a Weaver 4x to a Leopold 3×9 variable scope, loaded up plenty of 150 grain Nosler Partition bullets, and sighted in my rifle. It was the same gun my father had saved for so he could buy it for me when I was a teenager.

Chad & Mark Peterson also helped with the ballistic and gun patterning. Most of these crew members I was able to treat to the world famous Bessie Stewart’s Pinto Bean Pie at the Sunglow Café in Bicknell, UT.

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The true hunter counts his achievements in proportion to the effort involved and the fairness of the sport.  –Saxton Pope

At last the months of planning, dreaming, and anticipation were over and it was time for the hunt.

On Thursday Nov 2, we loaded up firewood (that Jeff Carver provided), and then Brad Allen, Steve Allred and I headed to our prearranged spot at McMillan Springs campground.

We set up the wall tent that the Bailey’s furnished and then spent the next day and half scouting for the elusive bison.

The day before the hunt we came around a bend in the road and a mature bull stood right in the middle of the track. What a way to get the adrenal flowing! Never before had this happened to me! Was it a good omen or a cruel trick?

On the Friday night before the opener we located five bulls and watched them ‘til sunset.

It takes a great effort to get to the Henry Mountains. As my crew continued to arrive late Friday I was very pleased that three of my nephews were able to be with me for the hunt. Brandon had flown in from Missouri, Todd and Mark from Washington and Cedar City respectively. Also Larry Mickelsen from Soda Springs ID and George Richardson from Manti, both life-long friends of mine.

Under the huge, full moon my bull pit crew and I put together a plot to find the bulls the next morning. How could anyone sleep that night?

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When it comes to the cold, buffalo have a lot of anatomical tricks up their sleeves. Proportional to body size, the buffalo’s trachea is larger than that of any other large land mammal; when it takes a breath of cold air, the air is pre-warmed inside the trachea before it moves down the animal’s lungs. This way, ambient air temperatures have a diminished effect on the animal’s core body temperature, which is 101.6 degrees Fahrenheit. A buffalo’s coat of hair is another handy adaptation. The thick, shaggy coat is so well insulated that snow can settle on its back without melting. The hair above it’s eyes is so short that it looks like someone buzzed it with a electric clipper. This shortness prevents freeing water from accumulating against sensitive eye tissues. Domestic cattle have longer hair around their eyeballs and are commonly blinded by gobs of ice. – Steven Rinella, American Buffalo

That night as the wind blew and the hours slowly passed, I thought about the bull that might be experiencing his final night on the mountain, after what I hoped was a long and good life having fulfilled the measure of its creation.

If I had the chance for a harvest tomorrow, I wanted my bull to be admired and yet respected by my rifle and me. I wanted my shot(s) to be swift and clean and I reviewed the unique anatomy of the bison to make sure this would happen.

As I nervously shivered in my warm sleeping bag, I thought about my father. In the morning I planned to carry with me the two most cherished possessions he left me: the .270 Ruger rifle and the hand-made knife he gave me at high school graduation. I would also be wearing the buckskin shirt his mother, my Grandmother Nielson, hand-made in her 90th year.

When I awoke in the morning my nephews would be wearing their buckskins my sister Sherrie, their mother, had hand-made for them. We were all carrying on a treasured legacy.

Hunting is so much more than the high points of any one sense. It uses all five senses – and all the knowledge I have accumulated up to that time. – Frances Hamerstrom

Finally morning came! Arising at 5:00 a.m. and after a quick breakfast we all hustled down to the Head of Bullfrog drainage where we had last seen the five bulls.

We all hustled down to the Head of Bullfrog drainage where we had last seen the five bulls. Credit RN.

The full moon was still incredibly bright and lit up the desert country to the west. We were in our spots before any other hunters arrived, which was our main objective for heading out so early.

As the sunrise crept over the mountains to the east and the morning stars slowly faded, the coolness of the morning was biting. Brad, George and I were on the same knoll that we had left the night before while watching the five bachelor bulls.

Steve had stationed the other members of the bull pit crew at strategic overlooks to watch and wait, perhaps impatiently.

About 9:00 a.m. the first sighting of four bison appeared. George and I made a plan to try and work up the draw that they seemed to be coming down. Brad was to stay with the spotting scope and provide any information about their movements that he could.

After skirting up the ravine, I saw animal legs through the juniper trees. George and I tried to assess where they might be going and how we could intercept them. We worked up a ridge and came to an opening just moments before four mature bulls walked into full view—no more than 80 yards away!

They were not moving extremely fast, but I believe they knew we were there and were headed for the junipers on the far side. George was still in the trees some distance away, so I knew I had to make the decision myself. I picked the lead bull that gave me a good broadside shot.

At the roar of my Ruger all of the animals became confused.

George called “Which bull?” I returned “The first one.”

The bull that I had just shot stopped but was still standing.

The smallest bull was now right in the way for a good second shot. I waited for what seemed like an eternity for the animals to reshuffle.

Finally I had another chance to place the fatal bullet. After the report of my rifle the bull went towards the junipers and laid down. The other bulls, which were merely a distraction to my focus at this point, moved off.

There would be no long tracking today, only the wait for the bull to go gently into the light of peace.

I named the now lifeless bull “Lucifer,” not in the traditional biblical sense for being bad or evil, but because he was the bright light along the journey’s road. The Venus Star to my life-long love affair.

 

Lucifer: Latin word meaning “the morning star” or as an adjective “light bringing.”

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“Killing a large animal inevitably gives me a sense of sorrow. I know it will hit me before it does. it hits as I run my fingers through the tangled mane of the buffalo’s neck. The animal feels so solid, so substantive. I feel compelled to question what I’ve done, to compare the merits of its life with the merits of my own. It’s not so much a feeling of guilt. There’s no moment when I want the buffalo to stand back up and walk away, no moment when I wish the bullet would retreat back into the barrel. It’s more complicated than guilt. Seeing the dead buffalo, I feel an amalgamation of many things; thankfulness for the meat, an appreciation for the animal’s beauty, a regard for the history of its species, and, yes, a touch of guilt. Any one of those feelings would be a passing sensation, but together they make me feel emotionally swollen. The swelling is tender, a little bit painful. This is the curse of the human predator, I think.”  – Steven Rinella, American Buffalo

Now the work began. The bull pit crew, who had all found their way to the meadow, was swift to action and worked with great efficiency.

Brad A, Mark A, Brandon A, Todd A and Russell celebrate the trophy seven-year-old bull shot Nov 4, 2017. They wear buckskin shirts made by family members. Credit RN.

But first there was a moment to pay honor and tribute to the mighty seven-year-old bull. It was a beautiful animal with 17” long horns (and a circumference of 13”). We took pictures and relived the chase and then got to work.

It took more than four hours to butcher, skin and cut into multiple pieces. Then Brad A, Mark A, Brandon A, Todd A, and Russell haul them 300-400 yards to my pickup.

George R, Steve A and Russell. I named the now lifeless bull “Lucifer” because he was the bright light along the journey’s road. Credit RN.


Brad A, Larry M and Russell. We took pictures and relived the chase. Credit RN.

We left no parts of the beautiful specimen behind (this was another best-case scenario hope of mine).

It took more than four hours to butcher, skin and cut into multiple pieces. Then Brad A, Mark A, Brandon A, Todd A and Russell haul the pieces to my pickup. Credit RN.

I was also required by the division of wildlife resources to take blood and tooth samples so that they could age the animal and test for diseases like brucellosis. This data would be helpful in managing the herd in future years.

When we got back to camp, we learned the brothers from Tremonton had killed one of the five bachelors from my group earlier in the morning in the drainage above us. We also met up with Phillip Johnson, the son of Evan Johnson (Grandma Nielson’s brother) from Mt. Pleasant who also had a tag. He had not had any luck yet despite having 19 crewmembers to assist.

We finished the work of securing the animal for transporting while at our camp spot and Brad, Larry and George took him to Manti and Spring City for cooling, hanging and cutting up.

The rest of us stayed the night as Steve Allred the master of comedy entertained us. We broke camp the next day after a heartfelt expression of gratitude by Steve, now the master of sincerity, who said he’s now too old to not express thankfulness…

My 13 reasons of gratitude could really be many more! First and most important I am thankful for those members of my support crew whom I could not have accomplished the hunt without. This crew also includes many family and friends supporting me from distant places like Newfoundland Canada, San Diego California, and Monument Colorado. For Don Simmons the oldest, and perhaps the strongest and my most faithful supporter at 91 years of age.

My Grandmother Nielson made my buckskin shirt when she was 90 years old on an old Treadle Sewing Machine—the final one she made, as she passed away later that year. Credit RN.

My Grandmother Nielson made my buckskin—Mule Deer—shirt when she was 90 years old on an old Treadle Sewing Machine. It was the final one she made as she passed away later that year. She made hundreds of buckskin shirts, jackets and coats, beside baby booties, etc, through the years for family and friends (see newspaper article). My sister took patterns from some of her work and made shirts for her sons as kind of a coming-of-age gesture (had to kill two deer to have enough leather to make a shirt). Additionally, we were taught and trained to use as much of the harvested animal as possible which included the hide.

I also express gratitude to those who helped bring the bison back from the brink of extinction. What an amazing, wonderful, interesting, majestic animal! LONG MAY THEY ROAM!!

The hunters enjoyed one last, beautiful sunset from their campground. Credit RN.

Blog 44 written by Guest Editor J. Russell Nielson, of Salt Lake City and hometown Manti, Utah,Lucifer and Lucky Thirteen” Nov 2017.

Thanks Russell, a magnificent tale, well told! Your quotes from other hunters are so effective and put into words the respectful and even awed response with which many hunters approach their game. So glad you included them! It’s fun, too, that you gave us your “lucky 13” as it applies to your trophy buffalo—circumference of base of each horn nearly 13 inches, 13 members of your “bull pit crew,” the 13 days you spent scouting with earlier hunters in the Henry Mountains on five previous trips. And 13 showed up again with 13 resident permits granted in your special year 2017 and 13 important Henrys and Henries in your life. We are delighted to present your authentic Buffalo Hunting story in honor of National Bison Day, Nov 6, 2021, First Saturday in November! Let’s all celebrate the day by telling—and enjoying—Buffalo stories!   -Best Wishes, Francie M. Berg, Editor www.BuffaloTalesansTrails.com ­

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NEXT: Buffalo Sounds and Vocalizations
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