Buffalo Heifer attacked by Grizzly

Buffalo Heifer attacked by Grizzly

Grizzly bear and buffalo well-matched. Imagining Head-Smashed-In, Jack Brink

In another unusual rescue, a Blackfoot Indian reported seeing a buffalo bull charge a grizzly bear that had attacked a heifer.

The grizzly was lying in wait, hidden by a trail near a creek when a small bunch of buffalo trailed down to drink. Led by a young buffalo heifer, they came down the bank in single file.

As the heifer passed under the clay shelf where the grizzly hid, he reached down with both paws and caught her around the neck, then leaped on her back. She struggled to escape.

Suddenly a “splendid young buffalo bull” came rushing down the trail and charged the bear, knocking him down.
They fought fiercely. The grizzly tried to grasp the bull by the head and shoulders, but could not hold him. The bull slashed furiously with his heavy horns.

Blood gushing from mortal wounds, the bear tried to escape, but the bull would not let him go. He kept up the attack until he had killed the bear.

Even then he continued to gore and toss the carcass off the ground. The bull seemed insane with rage.

The Blackfoot hunter—who was also hiding near the trail—was much afraid he’d be discovered and attacked too. Finally, much to his relief, the buffalo left the carcass and went off to join his band.

(Source: George Bird Grinnell interviewing Blackfoot hunter.)


Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Noble Fathers we saw in Actiond

Noble Fathers we saw in Actiond

Wild buffalo bulls protected cows and calves from wolves. The Buffalo Book, David A. Dary.

Buffalo bulls are born with a strong sense of responsibility.

The “noble fathers,” as they’ve been called in earlier times, for protecting mothers and calves from the ravages of wolves. In blizzards and fierce storms, it was said, they form a triangle facing into the wind and shield cows and calves from wintery blasts.

I saw those “noble fathers” in action once myself.

We were riding horseback in the North Unit of Teddy Roosevelt Park with some friends.

Our kids were teenagers then and we were about 15 riders. We rode over a hill and saw below us—spread out and grazing—a herd of about 60 buffalo.

They looked up, startled by the sudden appearance of so many riders, and started to run. We pulled in our horses and paused to watch.

They didn’t run far. The big bulls stopped in an open area and formed a tight circle facing us, shaking their massive heads, while cows and calves took the inside.

It was clearly a defensive position they all understood—and we did too—the calves well-hidden and protected with their moms, and the males ready and eager to take us on.

Describing a similar defense in the 19th century, Colonel R.I. Dodge, wrote in his Plains of the Great West:

“The bulls with heads erect, tails cocked in air, nostrils expanded and eyes that seem to flash fire, walk uneasily to and fro, menacing the intruder by pawing the earth and tossing their huge heads.”

We paused and watched the amazing bulls for awhile, charmed to think that for over 100 years this herd and their ancestors had lived safely inside the national park—without any large enemies to fear.

Yet this generation of noble fathers stood ready to fight us off and protect with their lives the young calves and their mothers, just as dozens of observers described their responses to danger long ago.

No hungry wolves would have broken through their defenses that day!

No wolves or grizzly bears or hunters.

Of course, we skirted far around the herd and let the bulls think they had stood off our attack.

(by Francie M. Berg.)

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Great Indian Buffalo Horses

Great Indian Buffalo Horses

Painting by CM Russell, Amon Carter Museum.

According to all accounts, the Indian horses were better trained for the job than those of white hunters, reported William Hornaday. He credited this to the fact that shooting with bow and arrows required free use of both hands.

This was only possible when the horse took the right course of its own free will and as guided by knee pressure alone, held close to the buffalo during a charge.

“Indeed,” he wrote, “in running buffalo with only the bow and arrow, nothing but the willing cooperation of the horse could have possibly made this mode of hunting successful.

“But for the willingness and even genuine eagerness with which the buffalo horses entered into the chase, hunting on horseback would have been attended with almost insurmountable difficulties.”

Indian horses seemed to take special pleasure in running buffalo.

The Hon. H.H. Sibley told of the dedication of one horse that had lost its rider on a Red River Metis hunt.

“One of the hunters fell from his saddle and was unable to overtake his horse, which continued the chase as if he of himself could accomplish great things, so much do these animals become imbued with a passion of this sport!”

Another hunter who left his favorite buffalo horse in camp for a day’s rest, asked his wife to tie the horse. But the horse pulled loose and galloped off to join the hunt.

“He continued to keep pace with the hunters in their pursuit of the buffalo, seeming to await with impatience the fall of some of them to earth. The chase ended. He came neighing to his master, who he soon singled out, although the men were dispersed here and there for a distance of miles,” wrote Sibley.

The explorers, Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, too, were impressed with the passion for buffalo hunting of the Indian horses they purchased from the Shoshones in trade.

After they had trekked to the Pacific Ocean and back, they divided their party, and Clark took the southern route by boat through rich buffalo country down the Yellowstone River.

Their Indian horses he delegated to Sergeant Pryor with a couple of riders to bring their 49 Indian horses downriver along the shore.

But he got a complaint from Sgt. Pryor, who sent word that he needed at least one more rider.

It was almost impossible, Sgt Pryor said, to drive the horses along the shore with the help of only two men. There were so many herds of buffalo grazing on the rich grasses and the Indian horses were so interested in hunting them, that they tried to round-up every herd they saw.

“In passing every gangue of buffalow, the loos horses as soon as they saw the buffalow would immediately pursue them and run around them,” Clark wrote in his journal.

“All those that speed sufficient would head the buffalow and those of less speed would pursue on as fast as they could.”

Sgt. Pryor found the only practical method was to have an extra man ride ahead—and whenever he saw a herd of buffalo to chase them off before the horse herd came close enough to pursue them.

(Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1804-1806.)

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Enormous Buffalo Herds of the 1800s

Enormous Buffalo Herds of the 1800s

One eastern artist’s idea of what a big herd of buffalo might look like. The Buffalo Book, David A Dary.

During the fall rut—or breeding season—huge wild herds of buffalo came together on the plains.

Descriptions often had it that the hills were “black with buffalo as far as the eye could see.”

Explorers and travelers often tried to describe and estimate how many buffalo they could see from a single vantage point.

On viewing a large herd of cattle one day, a Canadian named John McDougall was amazed to learn there were 23,000 head in the herd before him. He said that cattle herd in one small valley was far smaller than the immense buffalo herds he’d seen spread out over a dozen hills and flats in the plains.

Comparing herds from memory, he ventured, “Many times from hills and range summits, I had seen more than half a million buffalo at one time.”

During their journey from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean and back, Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark described their astonishment at the huge buffalo herds they encountered through the Dakotas and west as far as the Rocky Mountains. Always there was plenty of meat for their hunters to feed the boat crews—until they actually reached the mountains—when they were sometimes desperate enough to eat their horses.

It was on their return journey, in August 1806—when they saw their largest buffalo herds—travelling through South Dakota’s White River country. They reported in their journals,

“We are convinced that 20,000 would be no exaggerated number—more than we had ever seen before at one time!”

A North Dakota railroad surveyor once stood on a high point from which he added up what he saw:

“For a great distance ahead every square mile seemed to have a herd of buffalo upon it. Their number was variously estimated by members of the party, some as high as half a million. I do not think it any exaggeration to set it down at 200,000.”

One traveler, Thomas J. Farnham, crossed Kansas for three days on the Santa Fe trail in 1839, driving a team all the way through what appeared to be one large migrating herd.

He wrote, “We travelled at the rate of 15 miles a day—15 times three days equals 45. Take 45 times 30 [miles across] and you get 1,350 square miles . . . so thickly covered with these noble animals, that wen viewed from a height it scarce afforded a sight of a square league of its surface.”

Colonel Dodge reported to William Hornaday that he drove 25 miles through a herd migrating north along the Arkansas River. He estimated it to be at least two miles wide, averaging 15 to 20 buffalo per acre.

Hornaday repeated Dodge’s figures, estimating that he had seen 480,000 buffalo. When he added the herds Dodge saw earlier that day from the top of Pawnee Rock, his day’s total reached 500,000, or half a million head of buffalo.

Hornaday speculated that if Dodge’s herd had been 50 miles long by 25 miles wide, “as it was known to have been in some places”—it would have contained 12 million head.

Deducting two-thirds of this—in figuring a possible wedge shape in the front—he came up with over four million in the herd, “which I believe is more likely below the truth than above it.”

 Another question often asked is, “How many millions of buffalo were here when the first Europeans arrived?”

 Speculations ran high, and people believed them all. Obviously there were so many buffalo, how could the number be exaggerated?

One early estimate that took hold, was that of Earnest Seton, a famed Canadian naturalist. Seton estimated the square miles of probable buffalo range by their carrying capacity, and came up with 60 million or even 75 million buffalo that grazed the North American grasslands at one time.

 These totals persisted until recent times, when range specialists began saying, “Wait just a minute, there. Let’s do the math again.”

Turns out Seton estimated the heavily-used buffalo range at about three million square miles, double what today’s experts can claim.

Today’s range specialists insist the buffalo grazing the fringes of Seton’s enormous chunk of pasture were few to non-existent.

The California scientist Dale F. Lott, who grew up on the National Bison Refuge in Montana objected to Seton’s figures in his book American Bison: A Natural History. He argued that Seton

drew a line around every reported location of bison in North America, including most of the Rocky Mountains and all of Idaho, where bison were known to be rare to nonexistent.

Lott said Seton then calculated the entire region at close to full carrying capacity, even though buffalo were likely rare on the broad fringes of that range.

Llewellyn Manske, PhD, Research Professor of Range Science, at the NDSU Research Extension Center in Dickinson, ND, reports that the known buffalo ranges did not contain 3 million square miles, but only about 1.2 million.

This included lands from the foot of the Rocky Mountains to the Appalachian Mountains and from southern Texas to the Canadian Shield in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta—all of the tall grass, mixed grass and short grass prairies and parts of the eastern deciduous forest and aspen parkland, for a total of 575,000 square miles in the Great Plains and 650,000 square miles in the central lowlands.

Manske says the peak buffalo population was likely about 30 million.

Lott concludes, “About all we can confidently say is that primitive America’s bison population was probably less than thirty million—perhaps on average three to six million less.”

That was still a lot of buffalo!

(Compiled from many sources for Buffalo Heartbeats Across the Plains, by FM Berg, 2018.)

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Buffalo Mothers help Care for Newborn

Buffalo Mothers help Care for Newborn

Buffalo take care of each other, says Mike Faith, who was Standing Rock’s Buffalo Manager for some 20 years. He’s now Tribal Chairman.

Faith says buffalo watch each other for warning signs of danger or stress.

When it comes time for a cow to give birth she finds a secluded place such as a ravine with trees. There she has time for herself, to be alone when the calf is born.

When alone, she is able to bond with her newborn, nourish it, and defend that calf until its strong enough to join the herd.

But she’s not quite alone. The mother has several female friends who hang around—not so close as to interfere, says Faith—but near enough to watch for predators and possible interruptions.

: Buffalo cows often watch out for each other, and give help when needed. National Park Service.

“If a new mother gets up and moves away before she’s ready, she might not bond with her calf.

“If she gets spooked, she might abandon her newborn and not come back. The calf might die of starvation.”

Faith recalls that one morning he saw three cows acting in a peculiar way.

They were grazing on the plateau above a cut bank. One at a time, each buffalo cow walked over to the edge of the cut bank, looked down at the flat below for awhile and then returned to her grazing.

They stayed nearby, and occasionally each one went back and looked over the bank again.

As he sat in his pickup and watched, Faith couldn’t see what the cows were concerned about, but didn’t want to disturb them.

So he drove around where he could see the grassy area below the bank.

There he saw two coyotes circling a young, sleeping calf at some distance.

As he drove closer, the coyotes saw him and started to run.

They disappeared over the hill, but Faith said he had no doubt if the coyotes had come too close to the sleeping calf, the cows would have charged down the trail and chased them away.

The buffalo mother’s two friends were helping her keep watch and protect the sleeping calf.

As told by Mike Faith, Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman, Ft. Yates, ND.)

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Amazing Buffalo Hunting Feats

Stories of amazing exploits by Native hunters were told and retold around evening campfires.

Living among the Northern Cheyenne for a time, George Grinnell recorded more than one time when a hunter shot one arrow entirely through the bodies of two buffalo.

And if an arrow did not sink deep enough, the hunter often jerked it out of the running buffalo and fired it again.

Amazing exploits by Native hunters were told and retold around evening campfires.Amon Carter Museum.

There were tales of daring that unless seen, seemed scarcely credible, Grinnell wrote in his journal.

In one of his stories, he told of Big Ribs, a Cheyenne hunter, who rode his horse close up alongside a huge bull and, leaping on his back, rode the buffalo for some distance.

Then he pulled out his knife and gave him the death stroke, in the precise spot to kill instantly, leaping off as the bull fell.

Strong Left Hand, a Cheyenne with special power and accuracy in stone-throwing, told Grinnell he once killed a buffalo with only a stone.

“We had been shooting at buffalo,” he said. “They started to run and as the last one was going by I ran ahead of it and as I did so, picked up a stone from the ground.

“As I got in the buffalo’s way it charged me, and raised its tail showing that it was angry. Just before it reached me, I threw the stone and hit it in the forehead, and it fell over, dead.”

In the same way with a rock, he said he had killed an antelope and an eagle.

In another hunt, a man called the Trader was thrown from his horse onto the horns of a bull.

One horn hooked under his belt and held him there while the galloping bull tossed him furiously back and forth.

Unable to jump off, the Trader bounced back and forth on the buffalo’s head for a considerable distance.

Finally the belt broke and he fell to the ground unhurt, while the bull ran off.

(George Bird Grinnell, The Cheyenne Indians: Their History and ways of Life, Yale U. Press,1923.)

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

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