Teachers: Do you remember what you did last summer?

Teachers: Do you remember what you did last summer?

Summers are busy for all of us—and all too short with lots to do. As a teacher you may be trying to crowd in all the trips and events you missed the last 2 years.

One thing we can absolutely guarantee, if you come to southwest North Dakota for the BSC Dakota Bison Tour it will be a field trip you’ll never forget!

We’re sending out a special appeal to you who are teachers—because this entire BSC Bison Symposium is planned especially for you. It brings you the ammunition you need to tell the full Dakota buffalo story—at its most fascinating. And for good measure, it brings you right into the middle of a large buffalo herd.

This is a 3-day Buffalo Event that will enrich Teachers:

Bismarck State College’s Dakota Bison Symposium, June 23-25

Register now: call 701-224-5600 or visit


An opportunity to learn about our National Mammal, the American Bison—past, present and future—through presentations, panel discussions, film, art, tours, exhibits, Native America music and dancing culinary arts, and a tour of authentic buffalo historic sites.

Here are 3 reasons for you to come on tour to southwest North Dakota—Friday, June 24:

  1. It’s a day you’ll never forget
  2. You’ll never look at buffalo the same again
  3. When you teach Buffalo and early Native American life in our state you’ll have tremendous stories to tell—and the resources to do it well.

We Made a Trial Run

One beautiful morning last summer Loren Luckow and I met Larry Skogen and Eric Holland—leaders of our BSC Bison Symposium planning committee from Bismarck—at the historic Kokomo in Lemmon SD.

Inside the Kokomo are John Lopez’s fighting full size bison bulls made from spare parts. And other sculped gems.

We’ll grab a quick take before heading out on buses to briefly circle the Petrified Park. Then on to Shadehill Buffalo Jump.

Larry Skogen is a hometown educator who spent his career as President of Bismarck State College in Bismarck. Then he retired and suddenly had plenty of enthusiasm and time (we remind him!) to help plan this Symposium.

Erik Holland is an educator too. In fact, Curator of Education at the North Dakota State Historical Society. The system in our state is that the Historical Society does North Dakota curriculum material for schools, and teachers can use what they want, as they think best for their own classes. Especially for 4th and 8th grades, and on to advanced classes in High School and College.

Together we took a day-long trial run—the 4 of us—just to see how long it would take at each stop and how feasible the whole Dakota Bison Symposium tour would be with maybe 2 or 3 buses filled with visitors.

Of course I wanted to show our visitors everything we have here!

But I’ve had some experience with my own family—kids and grandkids.

They all love to go out and see some of our Buffalo sites! But “some” is relative. They get tired of hiking over the hills—especially if it’s hot, or cold or really windy.

And when we stop for a picnic, they’re usually done. They pretty much want to stay in one place for awhile—or go home.

This is truly a unique place where we live—and especially the buffalo heritage. My husband Bert, a veterinarian thought so too. He enjoyed working buffalo herds.

But whenever I’d say “Wouldn’t it be fun to have a few buffalo? We have such a nice pasture right here at the edge of town. People would love to see them.”

He’d just shake his head; “Too hard on fences.” Then he’d quickly change the subject. He didn’t even want to talk about it.

In introducing you to our southwest region of North Dakota, I would love to show you many, many things. How about this:

The US Forest Service pasture in this photo shows buttes and badlands of the North Grand River in what we call Sitting Bull’s Last Stand. He and his hunting band from near Mobridge came and in two days—October 12 and 13, 1883—killed the very last great wild herd. About 1,200 buffalo in all.

 In his 1899 book “The Extermination of the American Bison,” William Hornaday wrote, “There was not a hoof left. That wound up the buffalo in the Far West. Only a stray bull being seen here and there afterwards.” In this photo you see a special group of visiting Buckskinners. We’ve led many tours here. It’s also been called the Butchering Site because the early settlers found so many bison skulls and bones here.

A beautiful, higher-altitude outcropping of rocky hills, the pine-covered Slim Buttes are a delightful place for hiking, camping and picnicking.

One of the last great hunts was here too. A hunting party of about 100—mostly the Lakota Dupree family, their relatives and friends came here near Christmas in 1880, hunted buffalo for 3 months in an extremely cold and snowy winter, as described by the missionary Thomas Riggs, invited along.

They killed some 2,000 buffalo and took home over 500 prime hides.

The Battle of Slim Buttes was launched when survivors from the Battle of the Little Big Horn under Chief American Horse camped here overnight on their way back to the Black Hills and were attacked by remnants of General Crook’s branch of the US army on Sept 9 and 10, 1876.

This horseshoe bend in the South Grand River is where we think the Native American Dupree family might have come over the horizon (at center left in this photo) in their horse-drawn buckboard with a few outriders to rescue calves that next spring after their winter hunt—in 1881 or 1882.

They became internationally famous for being one of the 5 family groups who saved the buffalo. Imagine them finding a herd of buffalo grazing here—drinking and resting among the big old cottonwood trees. Photo by FM Berg.

The last of the great wild buffalo herds came here around Christmas 1880 to the relative safety of what was then the Great Sioux Indian Reservation. They were in flight from white hide hunters armed with big guns who cut across the corner of Montana coming north and east in pursuit.

Instead of crossing the Yellowstone River, this half—about 50,000 in all—came east into the Great Sioux Reservation. The other half crossed the Yellowstone, then fled north into the waiting guns of hoards of white and Native hunters and were soon slaughtered. For nearly 3 years these last buffalo survived—longer than anywhere else. Native elders said they came to care for their Lakota brothers and sisters before the white hunters killed them all.

The Blacktail Trail in US Forest Service Pasture 9 offers a small lake stocked with bass, with fishing dock, picnic area and most dramatic of all—a 7-mile walking loop through rugged badlands, gumbo buttes and fascinating rock and gumbo formations. Photo FM Berg.

At the trailhead hikers hold open a spring-loaded gate designed to close itself—preventing cattle from invading the picnic site. FMB.

The Blacktail Trail offers a nice place to consider the complex relationship between the buffalo and Native people who lived here—from being a source of food to a font of social and cultural inspiration and connection to spiritual life. Native Americans honor the buffalo as sacred in ceremonies, stories, artwork, song and dance. FMB.

Blacktail Trail winds through rugged badlands and buttes to a hilltop blooming with wild flowers juniper trees and sagebrush. Many traditional Native stories of this land speak to the mystery of the origin of life. A common belief held by many Plains tribes is of the creation of humans and buffalo emerging from a cave or hole in the ground. FMB.

Here’s our agenda for the Friday, June 24 Field Trip:

7:15 am Check-in, Bus Assignments
7:45 am Buses Depart BSC

When you ride the bus you’ll hear buffalo tales and lore told by our local bus hosts: Ceil Anne Clement, Val Braun (both former teachers) and John Joyce, MD (retired doc and self-taught historian).

We hope also to have some Native Americans telling cultural buffalo traditions and stories along the way. Photo by Ronda Fink.

9:00 am Kokomo Sculpture Gallery, Lemmon, SD (single-day visitors meet buses here)

Inside the Kokomo Inn are John Lopez’s world-famous sculptures designed from spare parts. We’ll take a look at the buffalo and other treasures before heading out to briefly circle the Petrified Park in the buses. Then on to Shadehill Buffalo Jump. Photo credit John Lopez.

Shadehill Buffalo Jump    

One of our first stops is to view the authentic buffalo jump at Shadehill from across the lake on the north side.

It’s been authenticated as an ancient jump by three separate archaeological teams including the University of North Dakota at Grand Forks. Photo by Vince Gunn.

11:45 am Lunch, Shadehill Recreation Area

Johnson Buffalo Herd, Jim Strand Manager

Jim Strand takes a break in the Shadehill, South Dakota, pasture with Hoolie his saddlehorse to chat with Billy Bob, his latest bottle calf. Jim is manager of the 400-cow Blair Johnson buffalo herd. Photo credit Donna Keller.

On the trial run we stopped to visit Jim Strand’s live buffalo herd and drove among them, while Jim circled them with the feed wagon, which the buffalo knew brought a tasty snack. They came running over the hill—the bulls grunting and groaning in their own way. Photo by RF.

Larry and Erik said they loved being in the middle of the buffalo herd. Our visitors always do. In our tours we’ve found that’s a favorite—whether local old timers or tourists from afar—as long as they know they’re safe. Staying on the bus with the windows open for shooting great photos and videos to their hearts content! Photo RF.

Being in the midst of it gave the historians a chance to watch individual cows, bulls and calves close-up. Red dogs are what forest rangers call these young bison calves that are still cinnamon colored. They dazzle in the sun. By about 3 months of age the hump and nubbin horns begin to appear and their coats change to dark brown or black like their moms. Photo RF.

Hiddenwood Hunt Historic Site 

Our historic site at Hiddenwood on US Highway 12 halfway between Hettinger and Lemmon honors the June 1882 hunt in this wide valley. At that time 2,000 men, women and children travelled here from Ft. Yates and over 3 days killed 5,000 buffalo. Their Indian Agent James McLaughlin came along and described that hunt in detail in his memoirs. Photo FMB.

One of the signs at Hiddenwood explains 2 major historical events that happened here.

In 1874, Lt. Col George Custer and his 7th Cavalry camped here on their expedition to check out claims of gold in the Black Hills. A few years later, in 1882, one of the last great buffalo hunts took place at Hiddenwood.

For each event about 2,000 people camped here. For hundreds and thousands of years this was a famous campground for many plains tribes hunting buffalo. Photo FMB.

Last Stand–The Sitting Bull Hunt

This is where the American buffalo made their last stand—in this remote and beautiful valley of the North Grand River and others like it within a radius of perhaps 30 or 40 miles. These US Forest Service lands look much as they did 150 years ago when it was home to the last wild buffalo herds.

In the distance you see long ridges stretching across the horizon from east to west in waves, each wave a long divide of peaks, plateaus and flat-topped buttes splashed with shades of violet, lavender and blue. Each successive wave a paler shade as it recedes into the background.

A reporter riding through here with Custer declared he could see “no less than 40 miles.” He wrote, “The view is fine indeed . . . The well-defined, sharpened lines projected on the sky by rolling prairies and distant buttes is marvelous beyond expression and can never be appreciated unless actually seen.” Photo credit Kendra Rosencrans.

We know the dates and successes when Sitting Bull and his hunting party came here and killed the last great wild herd—1,200 buffalo died on October 16 and 17, 1883.

We don’t know precisely where, but it was certainly here or within a few miles of this place. Early settlers called this the Butchering Site, because of the many buffalo skulls and bones lying around.

Leg bones like these, found here, had invariably been smashed open to extract bone marrow. Photo FMB.

5:30 Dakota Buttes Museum (Hettinger)

Did Larry and Erik want to see more buffalo sites? “It’s just enough. Not too much!” they said.  So we headed to the Dakota Buttes Museum to see Prairie Thunder first of all—our full-mount buffalo bull, donated by a local Bison rancher.

He was shot by a hunter who won the raffle to shoot it in the coldest week of January when the hide was at its best. Photo Dakota Buttes Museum, by Joel Janikowski.

You will finish off your BSC Dakota Bison Symposium tour in the Dakota Buttes Museum with a delicious buffalo dinner the evening of Friday June 24. Then back on the bus for your ride back to Bismarck. Photo Credit Melissa Lewis.

Sign up and Resources

More info from Eric Holland—What’s the follow-up?

“One of the pieces in getting graduate credit is for teachers to write a couple of pages in a very personal way about the material and how they plan to use it in their classes,” Holland says. “How they can think about the experiences they’ve had and what they are getting out of this. Each in your own way that connects all this.”

If you want Grad Credit:

    1. Sign up online with University of Mary at https://bscdakotabison.com/register/graduatecredit/), cost $45
    2. Attend the entire conference
    3. Write a short essay describing how materials and experiences of the BSC Bison Symposium will help you and your students get familiar with America’s National Mammal while aligned with the North Dakota Social Studies Standards
    4. Submit your essay to Erik Holland, Teacher of Record (701-328-2792) email eholland@nd.gov His office is in the ND Heritage Center and State Museum (https://statemuseum.nd.gov) and part of his duties relate to North Dakota social studies curriculum available at (https://NDStudies.gov)

You’ll go home with plenty of resources:

Our Dakota Buttes Visitors Council 88-page book, “Buffalo Trails in the Dakota Buttes: Self-Guided Tour” which I wrote in 2017 gives information on the 8 historic and contemporary bison tour sites in our area. Plus to complete anything we might have missed, we suggest you visit Fort Yates on the Standing Rock Reservation and the National Buffalo Museum in Jamestown, ND.

In addition you’ll have lots of brochures, videos and movies available to borrow or buy and access to online learning and curriculum sites. From all this you choose what you deem most valuable for your classes. Store the rest for later or for student research as opportunities arise.

You’ll have the resources you need to revisit these places and buffalo in your own community with knowledge you’ve never had before.

Holland has another idea: “Teachers who bring their own children to the symposium can think about ways to engage them in presenting the buffalo—and related Native American—experiences to their classes.”

He says the topics presented over the course of three days will provide information that can be used to align class materials with all social studies standards as directed by North Dakota Century Code 15.1-21-01: North Dakota Studies course requires that each ND public and nonpublic elementary and middle school provide students instruction in North Dakota studies, with an emphasis on the geography, history and agriculture of the state in the fourth and eighth grades.

“This event is a continuation of BSC’s work to bring humanities to the entire community,” Larry Skogen, BSC President Emeritius added. “We have a lot of really good partners in this event including the BSC Foundation, Indigenized Energy, NATIVE Inc, the State Historical Society of ND, and the Rockstad Foundation.”

We who made the trial run hope our timing that summer day was just right. Enough, and not too much.

Loren and I hope you’ll come back again. Bring your family, relatives and friends, to enjoy what you didn’t get to see this time!



Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

New Threat to Buffalo—Mycoplasma bovis

New Threat to Buffalo—Mycoplasma bovis

After 30 years building up his herd here in the South Dakota badlands, Frederick DuBray is frustrated. “Everything I try seems to make it worse.” But he is determined to see it through. Photo credit Fred DuBray.

A recent New York Times article by Mitch Smith describes the disaster that has come to one Native American rancher in South Dakota who has worked 30 years to build up his buffalo herd.

He reported that Fred DuBray’s bison herd on the Cheyenne River Reservation has been ravaged by Mycoplasma bovis, a tiny bacterium that is decimating herds across the Plains and the West. Smith’s report He Spent Decades Protecting Buffalo; A Microscopic Invader Threatens That Work appears in the March 12, 2022 issue of the Times.

Since last year, his buffalo have been dying by the dozens, victims of a microscopic invader, Mycoplasma bovis, that has ravaged pastures across the Great Plains and the West, according to Smith.

The reporter describes riding for miles with DuBray through his large buffalo pasture that stretches for miles through the badlands. There he saw for himself black buffalo carcasses scattered in the sprawling pasture—now speckled with skeletons in various stages of decay.

“You have no idea what’s going to happen,” DuBray told him. “I really don’t even know what to do. Everything I try seems to make it worse.”

Now this man, who over the decades has helped lead efforts to re-establish herds on Native American lands, fears that the bacterium is a major problem to the future of the buffalo.

As he drove, DuBray scanned the brushy draws for lone buffalo standing off by themselves. As Smith writes, “There were many. Standing by themselves, or limping or coughing—all signs of an infection.”

DuBray indicated a small group of gaunt bison off to the side—against a riverbank.

“All three of those are sick—this one’s coughing,” he said. “They’re kind of gasping for air. Once they get where they’re like this, their lungs are totally destroyed already.”

“When a calf starts coughing and gasping for air, it’s probably too late—their lungs already may be destroyed,” notes Fred DuBray. SD Game Fish and Parks, Chris Hull.

Gaining Publicity is Worth it

Of course ranchers don’t like to talk about sickness in their herd—especially when they are losing animals. That can trigger one disaster on top of another.

Ranchers who have outbreaks are not required to report them, and many producers fear stigma or financial hardship if they come forward. So obtaining statistics on Mycoplasma deaths has been a challenge.

But DuBray has gone public about his losses and his frustration.

He says his business has already suffered as a result of the outbreak and his openness about it. He expects to stir up more abuse because he speaks publicly about what is happening in his buffalo herd.

But to help the cause is a risk he is willing to take. “People are trying to hush it up—to hide it,” he told me. “But I think it’s too important for that.

“It destroys the lungs, causes respiratory problems. And buffalo are social; they are always trying to lick each other.”

DuBray grew up on a cattle ranch and used to work with the Cheyenne River tribal herd. He says he’ll never go back to raising cattle.

Zach Ducheneaux, the national administrator of the Federal Farm Service Agency and also from the Cheyenne River tribe, said the recent decision to compensate ranchers for their losses should give them a reason to detail their losses, eventually leading to better data about the scale of the problem.

“What’s the point of sharing your information if the door is closed?” asked Ducheneaux, who previously served as a tribal council member at Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation and has worked with DuBray.

“Now that we’ve opened it, I think we can have a freer communication with the buffalo industry about what their numbers are like, what their issues are.”

Both agree that for years the ranchers’ fight against M. bovisWi has been complicated by lack of information about its effect on buffalo.

Ranchers and researchers have relied on anecdotal accounts to come to a consensus that the ongoing surge in cases is probably the worst ever, even as they disagree about whether the bacterium is likely to have dire, species-level consequences.

“There’s just a ton that we don’t know about why this is happening and, therefore, how to manage it,” said Dr. Jennifer Malmberg, a veterinary pathologist from the Wyoming State Veterinary Laboratory who has examined some of Fred DuBray’s buffalo.

Widespread Infection: Causes and Effects

Jeff Martin, who grew up on a Wisconsin buffalo ranch and is now the Research Director at South Dakota State University’s new Center of Excellence for Bison Studies in Rapid City, said there is a link between the growing number of Mycoplasma bovis cases and the warming climate. This can cause stress for buffalo, weakening their immune systems and making them more susceptible to infections.

Dr. Martin has gathered a task force to help find a solution to the M. bovis problem, as they also call it. He said he knows of about 20 bison herds with confirmed Mycoplasma outbreaks in the last 18 months. He adds that it is made worse by drought conditions across the plains.

The Northern Plains, where many of the outbreaks have emerged, have experienced severe drought in recent years.

Many of the known cases in bison have hit private commercial herds, but officials said an outbreak last fall at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas killed about 22 animals, around 25% of their herd.

“This is just one of the expected outcomes of climate change worsening: drought, getting hotter, wildfires,” said Martin. When buffalo are run down or stressed they are also more vulnerable.

“It’s not just that you’re having poor forage quality. You also have poor access [to good water]. As droughts happen, that water begins to dry out and concentrates minerals and salts that are also not good for animals—let alone bison.

“So as they’re having to drink these less quality waters, that just is another compounding factor for their immune function.”

Martin adds what makes Mycoplasma bovis so hard to fight is that it doesn’t have a cell wall, which is what antibiotics target. That’s how most of them work—by destroying the cell wall.

The buffalo is integral to the Lakota Sioux creation story, said Richard Williams, a consultant on Native American issues who is Oglala Lakota and Cheyenne. Lakota people, who for centuries migrated across the Plains with the buffalo and were sustained by its meat, consider the buffalo a relative.

“It’s not just an economic enterprise,” DuBray agrees. “It’s a cultural relationship that I’m trying to restore, as well.

Ongoing Research with Mycoploasma bovis

Dr. Murray Jelinski, a Canadian veterinarian who studies Mycoplasma bovis at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon told the Times:

“When you look at these things under a microscope, they’re kind of a blob—they’re kind of like Jell-O, they sit there—without a firm cell wall. A whole group of antimicrobials don’t work against Mycoplasmas because they don’t have a cell wall.”

Several vaccines tests did not confer protection against M. bovis and even made it worse. Researchers are baffled. The result was post-challenge deaths and increased dissemination of the bacteria.

To learn what NOT to do, researchers might study the National Institute of Health PubMed report Developments in Vaccines caused by Mycoplasma bovis, published June 9, 2021.

I hope they are challenged—not discouraged—by its conclusion:

“Several vaccine tests did not confer protection against M. bovis and even made it worse. The result was post-challenge deaths and increased dissemination of the bacteria in the host.

“To some extent, the vaccine partially reduced M. bovis joint colonization. However, it did not protect against the M. bovis spreading from the inoculated to non-inoculated joints, which was observed in both examined groups of calves.

“Inactivated vaccines are the most commonly used in studies to prevent infections with M. bovis. However, it is generally considered that inactivated vaccines have some disadvantages, including high production costs as well as possible modifications of the proteins of the strains during subculture.

The PubMed article reviews a number of attempts at developing vaccines.

“Many studies have been done using experimental vaccines but to date commercially available vaccines are available only in the US and their efficacy is not fully satisfactory.

“Contagious bovine pleuropneumonia (CBPP), one of the great historic plagues of cattle alongside the now eradicated rinderpest, continues to inflict serious losses on livestock in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

“But why is CBPP continuing to cause problems when it has been eradicated from Europe, Australia, Asia and North America?

“Sadly, because of economic hardships, civil wars and droughts affecting the countries where the disease is endemic and the inability to prevent transboundary movement of livestock, control in Africa seems further away than ever. CBPP is a severe pneumonia of cattle caused by the wall-less bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides subspecies mycoides.

“The disease is localized in the lungs, where it causes a highly characteristic ‘marbling’ of the lungs in the acute stages and lesions known as a ‘sequestra’ in the chronic form of the disease, according to the government publication PubMed.

Clinical signs include rapid breathing, fever, nasal discharge, anorexia, cough on exertion and sudden death. Mortality rates can exceed 50% when the disease appears for the first time in herds.

The difficulty is identifying affected animals quickly enough to prevent the disease spreading because, though the lung may be very severely damaged, clinical signs are often lacking.

“Inactivated vaccines are the most commonly used in studies to prevent infections with M. bovis. However, it is generally considered that inactivated vaccines have some disadvantages

“Clearly, next generation vaccines to replace T1/44, should, ideally, be stable, given in a single dose, provide a longer duration of immunity and higher levels of protection and not cause adverse reactions.”

“A vaccine that would confer better immunity is urgently needed. What is clear, is that any M. bovis vaccine needs to be part of a wider vaccination program involving other respiratory pathogens,” NIH researchers say.

As stated prophetically by researchers in 2004: “this is by no means assured.” Indeed, since then no vaccines to date have met all these criteria. Despite encouraging immune responses, cattle, given an immune-stimulating complex (ISCOM) vaccine, had similar gross pathological and histopathological scores as non-vaccinated controls.

“In spite of two vaccinations at 6-weekly intervals and high antibody responses there was no evidence in the animals used of any protection afforded by either preparation; indeed, there appeared to be an exacerbation of pathology in the vaccinated animals compared to unvaccinated contact controls.

“Lesions and fibrin were most extensive and pleural fluid more abundant in vaccinated animals. In one group, half the cattle died before the end of the experiment, while a quarter died in the other group, compared to just under half that died in the control group.

“Data on the present commercial vaccines in use today are modest at best, with one showing an efficacy of 1%. Clearly, improvements need to be made before control of this fast-emerging disease is possible.”

Another vaccine did not protect against the effects of articular challenge with the virulent M. bovis strain, despite effective stimulation of the humoral response. Post-challenge, the clinical disease and the joint lesions in the vaccinated calves were similar to those observed in the non-vaccinates, which was additionally confirmed by histopathology.

The PubMed report continued, “The countries with the highest prevalence include Ethiopia, Ghana, Tanzania and Angola. Indeed, this has hardly changed over the last 20 years, showing that most attempts at control have been unsuccessful.

“The disease in sub-Saharan Africa is mostly characterized by occasional severe outbreaks when native herds are exposed to infected animals moved often illegally across borders. Moreover, due to the weak economies of many countries, stamping out the movement control, slaughter and compensation seen in Europe are not options.

“A Scientific Conference in Gaborone in 1994 concluded that vaccination of cattle remained the best way of controlling CBPP, but a vaccine that would confer better immunity than the T1 strain vaccine being used was urgently needed. Over a quarter of a century later, scientists came to the same conclusion.

“Calls for studies into the immunology of the diseases have also failed to provide sufficient insight to improve vaccines. No inactivated, sub-unit or attenuated vaccines have been developed which improve upon the live TI vaccine developed in the 1950s.

“The limitations of the T1 strain vaccine have been long recognized: short duration of immunity and tendency to cause adverse reactions, and because it is only semi-attenuated, it can lead to outbreaks in closed herds.

“Mass vaccination had been highly successful in many countries but failed in others due mainly to the inability to maintain annual vaccination.

“What is clear, however, is that any M. bovis vaccine needs to be part of a wider vaccination program involving other respiratory pathogens, including BVD, PI3V, Mannheimia, Pasteurella and possibly others.”

New Resources on the Way

“We are excited to assist the bison industry in this way,” says Martin, who is officially in charge of bison research in the US—as Director of the Center for Excellence for Bison. “We look forward to contributing in such a large and positive way that identifies some relief for bison managers while research advances to discover more effective vaccines and treatments.” He can be contacted at SDSU (605-688-4792) or email sdsu.extension@sdstate.edu.

Jim Matheson, now Director of the National Bison Association, located in Colorado—moving up from his position after many years as Assistant Director—tells me NBA will shortly have a one-page handout on M. bovis and what producers should watch for so they might relieve stress on bison and other problems at an early stage. www.bisoncentral.com

A world-wide problem, Mycoplasma bovis was first isolated in the US in 1961 from the milk of a cow with mastitis. It is one of 126 species of genus Mycoplasma, and the smallest living cell in nature.

It causes many diseases including mastitis in dairy cows, arthritis in cows and calves, likely late-term abortion and various other diseases. Mostly the M. bovis affects cattle, but except for calves not as fatally as it does bison.

Seemingly buffalo have no natural immunity against its devastating ravages. There’s no effective vaccine or treatment for M. bovis infections.

We may think that should be easy to solve. But the experts know better.

As of June 2017, only two OECD nations (an international economic organization of 34 countries, founded in 1961 to stimulate economic progress and world trade were considered to be free of Mycoplasma bovis. They are New Zealand and Norway, but in July 2017 some cattle near Oamaru, New Zealand were found to be positive; see 2017 Mycoplasma bovis outbreak.

Qualifying for FSA Indemnity Program

Dark buffalo carcasses were scattered over Fred DuBray’s big pasture—skeletons in various stages of decay. Photo NPS.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency (FSA) recently announced that bison death losses resulting from Mycoplasma bovis are eligible for the livestock indemnity program that reimburses ranchers to some extent. Authored by Jeff Martin, it is retroactive to cover loses in 2021.

Ducheneaux urges: “For now, please encourage any of your producers to notify their local FSA office of any and all losses as soon as possible and keep them updated as to further losses they may sustain and ask for an ELAP application.”

Also, if there is overlap of Mycoplasma losses with drought, the USDA requests that weather be documented as well to assist with decisions. Drought conditions for your area over the past year can be determined using the comparison Drought Monitor online tool.

Ironically, the most urgent recommendations in Martin’s article on M. bovis is how to dispose of infected carcasses. Financial assistance is available under the name Emergency Animal Morality Management as part of Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

Agricultural producers and owners of nonindustrial private forestland and Tribes are eligible to apply for EQIP funds. To receive assistance, papers must be filed and approved before disposal of animal carcasses. Before payment, a mortality certification is required by a veterinarian or an animal health specialist.

Qualifying losses include those greater than 5% in young bison under 400 lbs and/or greater than 1.5% in mature bison larger than 400 lbs. Acceptable proof must be provided as follows:

  1. Of a beginning inventory prior to infection that year and a final tally of deaths by four categories: Bison less than 400 lbs. (broken down by males and females) and bison greater than 400 lbs. (broken down by males and females).
  2. That your property experienced adverse weather event(s) within a reasonable timeframe before the bison died, including, but not limited to, extreme cold, oscillating temperatures and/or precipitation and/or drought;
  3. Your local veterinarian’s certification of death loss attributed to Mycoplasma bovis. This may include, but is not limited to, a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test of at least one animal to confirm that Mycoplasma bovis was present in the individual and that symptoms were present in the remaining individuals. The FSA allows euthanasia of animals suffering from symptoms of Mycoplasma bovis, but the diagnosis must be verified by a veterinarian.

“We need to know more about Mycoplasma bovis. The manner of development of this disease in bison. We also need a well-designed and systematic scientific study of the distribution, frequency, patterns and risk factors for bison,” says Dr Woerner, Montana Veterinarian.

Prevention for Now

Dr Don Woerner, a veterinarian friend of mine from Laurel Montana visited Fred Dubray’s ranch and observed his wide-open South Dakota badlands pastures where there’s plenty of freedom for the buffalo.

“We need to know more about Mycoplasma bovis,” Woerner says. “The manner of development of this disease in bison. We also need a well-designed and systematic scientific study of the distribution, frequency, patterns and risk factors for bison. How it acts. Bison don’t have immunity to this.

It is unclear whether research underway can come in time to help Fred DuBray, whose herd continues to dwindle. Photo Chris Hull SD GFP.

“Feeding low-level antibiotics to our domestic livestock and poultry has never been a good practice and the fact we are getting all these strains of M. bovis may be a result of it.

“I like to see bison managed like a wild herd. Not using antibiotics for buffalo—that can cause complications. These organisms mutate and change.

“I don’t really like bringing buffalo together for sales or competition—and then taking them back home again after they’ve been with other animals.

“We need to quarantine them in a good facility before putting them back in the herd. Some say for 30 days; I prefer 45 to 60 days. Bio security is important—we need to be aware of it.

“We have to be able to deal with buffalo as they are. Sometimes its hard: bison have evolved without the help of man. What’s a good animal? Some have genetic issues.

We should not manage buffalo with a ‘cattle mentality.’ Bison should be celebrated and managed as the wild animal they truly are.”

Dr. Danielle Buttke, a veterinary epidemiologist with the National Park Service who also has visited the DuBray ranch to study the deaths, said that the limited buffalo gene pool, a legacy of the large-scale slaughter during westward expansion, has made it harder for the species to withstand disease outbreaks.

“Without urgent action, Mycoplasma threatens to undo much of the painstaking conservation work that has stabilized buffalo herds.

“It’s not just the loss of individual animals,” Dr. Buttke added. “It’s a very, very different impact to a species that already suffers from genetic bottlenecking and isolation than it is in a cattle system.”

Dr. Buttke said she was working to develop a better test to detect buffalo carrying the bacterium without showing symptoms, which would allow ranchers to isolate those animals before they could spread Mycoplasma widely. She worries about mutations, about species-to-species transmission, about the challenge of developing treatments.

It was not clear that any of the research would come in time to help Fred DuBray and his wife, Michelle Fredericks DuBray, whose animals continue to suffer and whose herd continues to dwindle, according to the Times article.

“The ones that are surviving are they going to be OK?” asked Michelle DuBray. “Are they going to get this next year? Do we keep the calves? What do we do?”


Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Part 2—Crossbreeding Buffalo in Canada

Part 2—Crossbreeding Buffalo in Canada

The cattalo herd at the Canadian Experiment Farm, Manyberries, Alberta, 1960. Photo by JH Gano.

Have you been thinking of crossbreeding some of your bison with beef cattle?

That has sounded like a good idea to lots of honest men and women for more than a century. If we can bring about in one animal: the best of both buffalo and cattle—that would be great, wouldn’t it?

How about having that sound intelligence and hardiness of American bison for every storm that comes along—evolved and adapted through thousands of years—to live in the far north?

And then mix in the abundance of great beef—not just what the slim-hipped buffalo provides, but real abundance in length and breadth of that tasty, tender loin and hip: mmmm.

Your beefalo—or catalo—or whatever you choose to call them—would certainly retain the best traits of both species, wouldn’t they?

Every few years it seems like some promoter is trying to sell that idea. Sounds like a good one, Right? Have you ever been tempted?

Sure, you dreamer! But wait a minute. Are you sure you’re getting the full and honest truth from that promoter? Maybe not.

There’s a long history here, well over 100 years—and for all that time some people have not been willing to tell us the facts.

Oh yes, veterinarians know the truth. Canadian researchers know it, too.

But they’re too polite—or discreet—to give us the facts. Or they’re too busy to get involved in something that doesn’t smell quite right.

So before you involve yourself—if you’re an honest person, listen first to the research I’ve uncovered.

It’s not pretty.

We all hear how much buffalo ranchers love their animals. You do too, don’t you?

Bison and cattle hybrids are also known as cattalo or beefalo. Bison mixed with Herefords often retain the white face like this cow from Buffalo National Park near Wainwright, Alberta. Photo Peel’s Prairie Provinces, U of Alberta Libraries

‘The Violent Cross’

The obvious, simplest way to get started in crossbreeding is to use Bison Bull semen and artificialy inseminate a dozen of your beautiful Angus heifers with it. The calves might even be born naturally hornless. Nice, huh?

But wait.

A Bison bull cross with a domestic cow. What could go wrong?

Well, what everyone interested in crossbreeding needd to know is that Canadian reseachers call this “the Violent Cross.”

So what’s the worst?

Would it be if you killed off a good share of those Angus heifers? Or that most calves were aborted or born dead? And any male calves were rendered infertile?

It’s hard to uncover statistics and facts from the research we get—even from Canada. Most generally the experts are evasive. Over and over they report simply,, “it didn’t work.”

They don’t say why: they don’t give figures and statistics, as researchers are supposed to do.

Even if you weren’t told why, but knew that the experiment meant killing a good share of your nice heifers would you do it? I don’t think so.

How about killing as many as 30 percent of your females and 77 percent of their calves?

All that could happen. It seems to have happened again and again in Canada over 50 years. Apparently the two species are genetically incompatable.

The bison hybrid cross was allotted only a few sentences, a couple of paragraphs in the Manyberries’ report: “One Hundred Harvests, 1886 to 1986,” published by the Research Branch, Agriculture Canada in 1986.

Seemingly, it’s a brush-off. Not much there. Just forget it happened.

It was terse and to the point. Plainly the entire 50-year experiment was unsuccessful: The 100-year report admitted the consequences bluntly: “The bison crosses with domestic cows resulted in 77 percent calf mortality and males of this and the reciprocal cross were invariably sterile.”

Also no advantage in growth or carcass performance. The end.

This was the most specific I was able to find in most any report. And It took a lot of digging.

It didn’t mention why—or the deaths of mother cows. But others did.

A second official report “Lost Tracks: Natl Buffalo Park, 1909-1939,” written by Jennifer Brower was more specific.

She says, “The bison male and domestic female cross resulted in a high number of calves aborted or stillborn. The cause of these deaths was attributed to an excessive amount of incompatible amniotic fluid surrounding the fetus.

“It was called the violent cross because the cows often succumbed as well.”

She does not explain what she meant by ‘often.’ Perhaps half—or more, or less?

“Because of the high incidence of mortality among the cows, they discontinued the bison sire and domestic cow cross in favor of the domestic sire and bison cow cross, with which the Dominion government had more success.”

Not a total success, however, as many calves still died: she was silent on the fate of cows.

The conformation of surviving adult hybrids was far from optimal. Each one had an odd look of its own.

Finally in 1965—after nearly 50 years—the Canadians threw in the towel: they butchered all the hybrids.

However the reason they came up with is unconvincing.

They reported:  the hybrid wasn’t needed in the far north: ranchers said Hereford and Angus cows were doing just fine.

It’s disappointing to get an excuse like that instead of a real answer.

If at that point these good Canadian researchers would have given us the awful reality clearly: pointing out consequences in percentage of dead cows and aborted calves and what killed them, maybe this madness would have ended abruptly.

The two species are simply incompatible. Why not make this clear?

But they didn’t.

They continued to circle the wagons and avoid admitting the worst: while cows and calves may continue to die.

Canadian Experiment Begins

The violent cross: daughter of domestic cow and Bison bull. In one report 77% of calves died or were aborted before birth. Often the mother died too.

In 1916 the Canadian Parks Branch and Deptartment of Agriculture initiated the crossbreeding experiment inside the borders of Buffalo National Park near Wainwright, Alberta. The Park already held a big herd of Plains buffalo purchased from Michel Pablo of Montana.

Later the crossbreeding part of the buffalo program was moved to Manyberries, which was a government cattle experiment station.

It sounded like such a good idea.

The purpose of the program—which ultimately lasted over 50 years—was to create a hardier breed of range cattle to overcome the blizzards of the far north in northwest Canada.

In addition to their natural hardiness, the hybrids were expected to produce a larger quantity of high quality beef than the slim hipped buffalo could provide.

One glowing news article  Popular Science Monthly imagined this magical herd of the future with high hopes: “A valuable new breed of hardy cattle called ‘cattalo’ that will range wild in the north.

“Feeding themselves, great herds of cattaloes, it is expected, will increase at no expense, as long as the northern plains remain unsettled. It is too cold in the north for ordinary domestic cattle, unless shelters are provided for them and they are fed artificially.

“Promises to become a reliable source of meat in northern Canada where domestic cattle, because of severe climate conditions, have found it hard to exist.

“Possessing some of the characteristics of both cow and buffalo, the new type of animal has the meat qualities of beef cattle, and like its buffalo forbearers is hardy enough to find its own food even in the coldest weather.

“The latter quality is highly desirable for the far north. By hunting their own food, the cattalo save settlers the labor of feeding them hay all winter. They can be left out to graze without fear of their becoming lost in the heavy snows.”

A ready-made partly hybrid herd was at hand from Mossom Boyd, a wealthy man from Bobcaygeon, Ontario, who began his cattalo experiments in 1894. He supposedly crossed a purebred bison bull he brought from California with several different breeds of domestic cows.

When Boyd died in 1815, his cattalo herd was sold to the Canadian government and moved to Buffalo National Park.

it was a program beset by difficulties from the beginning.

Not always did the various Directors of the Buffalo Program approve of the hybrid experiments. Often they were short on funding and the focus on hybrids faltered correspondingly.

However, of all the experiments up to this point, Boyd’s three-stage process appears to have been the most methodological. He identified the offspring from each stage by a different label.

  1. The first stage involved crossing bison with domestic cattle. The offspring he called hybrid.
  2. The second stage was to cross the hybrid product from the first stage with a purebred animal of either bison or domestic cattle descent. This was called by the percent of bison in the cross—as a ¼ or ¾ buffalo.
  3. The final stage, to be reached by 1913, involved breeding two animals, both of mixed parentage, with each other. Only the offspring of this stage would be called cattalo.

But after 10 years—by 1925—none of the animals from the Boyd herd had produced any offspring. Despite different combinations of sires and females used and each subject to regular examination by veterinarians.

Thus, the researchers were forced to start again from scratch and encountered all the obstacles with the first cross they had hoped to avoid.

Hardy Yakkalos

A yakkalo is a cross beween a bull yak and an American bison cow. Not occurring in the wild, they were created by Canadian scientists in the 1920s conducting experiments in hybridization.

For a time, the park at Wainwright also bred bison with yaks, producing ‘yakkalo.’

They reported, “Experiments now are being made in crossing the buffalo with the yak, a draft animal from Asia. Yaks are splendid range animals capable of withstanding the effects of long, rigorous winters in the open and at the same time they are domesticated.

“Their meat, except that it is finer grained, is almost identical with beef. The natives of Asia have crossed the yak with domestic cattle successfully for many years. Now, this yak hybrid is being crossed in Canada with the bison.

“The yak acts as an intermediate stage in the process of developing cattalo.

In the 1920s it was believed that bison were at the primitive end of an evolutionary continuum that eventually led to the ‘perfection’ of European domestic cattle. Yaks were thought to be at a halfway point between bison and domestic cattle.

The last word on the Yak hyybrids: “very few of the yakkalo calves survived and the program was discontinued in 1928.”

This was not the first time crossbreeding bison had been attempted.

In the US both Charles Goodnight of Texas and Buffalo Jones of Kansas had tried to crossbreed buffalo with domestic cattle. As had others before them.

Both claimed far more success than they could show.

Goodnight praised his herd lovingly: “The cattaloes are a decided success. They will carry their young and make beef at any season of the year. They do well in the extreme south or far north.

“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.

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

Buffalo Jones boasted of his cattalo—to everyone who would listen. In his mind they brought together the very best qualities of both species: bison and cattle. Although some suggested the cross brought out the worst of both.

In reporting on Jones, Larry Barsness explains the worst in his book “Heads, Hides and Horns:”

“In 1877—typically slam-bang ways—he turned young buffalo bulls in with his Galloway cows, hoping for a hybrid calf crop: a wild hope, for these were scarcely bulls, they were the two-year-olds and yearlings he’d captured as calves on the Staked Plains in 1886.

“No calves resulted. The next year 1888 he reported 80 or 90 pregnant cows–but only produced 2 live calves. Worse, 30 of the cows died giving birth or before. But he cruelly kept on experimenting.”

That’s about 33% of mother cows.

Barsness summed it up, “Too many cows died abirthing, too many cows aborted bull calves, too many bull calves died, too many bull calves proved sterile’”

“When they continued to die, he went on breeding.

“Charles Allard gave up trying to raise catalo on Flathead Lake Wild Horse Island, because he lost too many cows.

“About the same time in New Jersey, Rutherford Stuyvesant gave it up when 19 of his Galloway cows died calving.

“P.E. McKilip in Kansas had quit after 10 years, for the same reason.”

Director Harkin Quashed Private Efforts

From the time Canada first acquired bison for Rocky Mountain Park in 1897 private ranchers were requesting bison for crossbreeding.

But park officials refused to supply or sell them, saying ordinary citizens would not have the technical information to do it right.

The cattalo experiments became their excuse for refusal, charges Brower in her official report.

It was true the Dept of Agriculture had the necessary facilities, equipment and staff.

Harkin, the director, held firm. But of course he knew more than he was letting on. Just like researchers and veterinarians: he knew death losses in hybrid breeding were severe. The species were incompatable.

Likely he didn’t want the awful results publicized because that might jeopardize the government experiments.

At first the researchers noted, “Angus, Shorthorn and Hereford cows were used in the first mating with the buffaloes.”

But after sizeable disasters they switched to the opposite cross: mating a domestic bull with buffalo cows.

“This cross works better than the other way,” they explained briefly.

But in 1951, the manager at the Manyberries station wrote that the low fertility persisted into the next generations even when the bison blood was reduced to a low percentage.

“Only a few of the male ‘cattalos’ were fertile. Generally, male domestic bulls were crossed with buffalo cows, producing offspring of which only the females were fertile.”

Not much was revealed in the rare reports written by the researchers. Some mentioned through the years that the greatest difficulty was infertility.


When 77% of calves abort or are born dead—as was cautiously revealed at last—and maybe one third of mother cows die from being bred to a buffalo bull: it’s more than difficult. it’s devastating!

Of course in Canada some researchers held high hopes for surviving calves. They had a mixed herd to deal with however they wished. Maybe they could ignore the swamp and celebrate small victories.

Maybe the fact that nearly all male hybrid calves were infertile—and others died—just added one more wrinkle to the experiments.

Most often, reports simply noted a study was not successful: without explanation.

Barsness suggests the cause of so many deaths in birthing was proved by the Canadian Government as “an abnormal secretion of amniotic fluid.” Or was it that the fluids of domestic cows was not compatible with semen from a buffalo?

Why couldn’t the Canadian researchers have simply told us this?

Instead, when they stopped the government experiments and butchered all the hybrids—cattalo, beefalo and however they wanted to label or spell them–they came up with one more flimsy excuse: after all those 50 years “a new breed of cattle was not needed.”

Ranchers didn’t need them: Hereford and Angus breeds were tough enough for the northern most winters.

The underfunded hybrid experiments were a problem some directors did not want to deal with. They didn’t like having to mix the 2 purposes at Manyberries station: the original purpose of research with cattle—and then adding the problems of hybrids.

When Bud Cotton was early director of the experiment station at Wainwright, he reported that in order to obtain a true breed, hybrids must breed true, and he said their hybrids did not breed true. Crossing hybrids instead resulted in a wide variation of conformation type and also a loss of vigor.

In other words, so far the crossbreds had become random creatures; how could a rancher build a nice-looking herd with the ragtag ungainly creatures they saw in their hybrid herds?

King—one of the most famous cattalo animals. He was a rare male hybrid from a bison bull and domestic cow cross. Because of the high death rate among cows, this cross was discontinued in favor of crossing a domestic bull with bison cow. Photo by JH Gano.

Cattalo Thrive on Winter Forage

Meanwhile the researchers gamely threw the newcomers in with beef cattle experiments.

Cattalo calves were all thin after the trip from Wainwright in the fall of 1949 and most of the calves of less than 1/4th bison breeding required special care and feeding in sheltered pens during the severely cold period.

Cattalo calves of ¼ Bison and ¾ domestic cattle breeding demonstrated outstanding cold tolerance and survival ability on the range during their first winter at Manyberries.

They were able to withstand the cold weather without access to sheltered pens, as did cattalo with higher percentages of bison genetics.

The breeding cows at the Manyberries Station were wintered on native rangeland with a minimum of supplemental feed. A deep coulee known as Lost River crosses the field diagonally, providing shelter from the wind.

During the winter of 1951-52, a daily record was kept of the number of cows of each breed that were found grazing on upland prairie over a 79 day period.

            Number of days when some animals grazed on upland (out of 79 days):

                        Shorthorn                                25

                        Angus                                      26

                        Hereford                                  34

                        ¼ Bison Cattalo                       41

                        ½ Bison Cattalo                       50

            Average percent of animals grazing on upland when some grazed:

                        Shorthorn                                42.1%

                        Hereford                                 49.5% 

                        Angus                                      71.5%

                        1/4 Bison Cattalo                    61.1%

                         1/2 Bison Cattalo                    96.2%


Feedlot Research

Many of the Canadian experiments over the years involved feeding yearlings: for example they compared weight gain of hybrids with calves of various breeds in 6 month feeding tests.

Random findings:

  1. Cattalo cows were superior to range Herefords in ability to graze on winter range in cold weather.
  2. Cattalo calves were lighter at birth and made greater gains from birth to weaning.
  3. Cattalo made significantly greater feedlot gains than bison and lower gains than Herefords in a couple of experiments
  4. Hereford calves made greater feedlot gains and had higher carcass grades.
  5. There was a significant reduction in carcass grade; a reduction in proportion of carcass weight in the hind quarters; and an increase in dressing percentage as the proportion of bison breeding increased.

The researchers noted that cattalo had excellent feet and were long-lived. Also it would be a good thing to retain the buffalo cow’s small, frost-protected udder.

Then suddenly at the end of one report: this project has been “discontinued because of fertility and temperament problems.”

Let The Buffalo be Buffalo

The final report of 100 years of hybrid experiments summed it all up briefly: still no good reason for failure except infertility—and that indirectly:

“The bison crosses with domestic cows resulted in 77 percent calf mortality and males of this and the reciprocal cross were invariably sterile: no advantage.

“Functional males carrying more than 1/8th bison never were observed.

“Subsequent studies indicated that, compared with Herefords, the cattalo had no advantage in growth or carcass performance.

“The work was discontinued in 1965.”

The good Canadian researchers were undoubtedly wise to end it all: pardon me, but it took long enough.

Today crossbreeding is generally discouraged. It violates the Code of Ethics of both the National Bison Association and the Intertribal Buffalo Council.

There’s good reason—even if few people are willing to say it aloud: yes, it kills mothers and babies.

Most bison breeders today are dedicated to protecting the integrity of the species.

They are proud to maintain historic buffalo traits that produce nutritious meat, help buffalo survive harsh weather and require minimum herd care.

This philosophy is often expressed as: “Let the buffalo be buffalo!”

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

What is Birth Synchrony in American Bison?

What is Birth Synchrony in American Bison?

Most buffalo calves in a herd are born during a period of 3 or 4 weeks. Here the red-gold color of all calves reveals their age. These are within 3 months of birth, soon changing to darker color of mothers. National Park Service photo.

Birth Synchrony refers to the short period of time in the spring during which most buffalo calves are born. Typically, the main birthing season occurs within three or four weeks in spring, even though bulls may run with the cows all year around.

In the long history of Buffalo evolving on the plains of North America, birth synchrony is considered an adaptation that insures that most calves are born at the time they are most likely to survive. This applies to Plains Buffalo and probably even more acutely to Wood buffalo of the far north.

Because of long cold winters, the window of time for optimal survival of buffalo calves is especially short in the far north reaches of Canada where Wood buffalo live on the open range. Often pregnant cows come through winter in a semi-starved condition.

Then almost suddenly grass greens up. It’s the birthing season. Winter semi-starvation gives way to spring’s tender and nutritious plant growth.

This provides the best food of the year for mothers and their young calves. Milk production is at an all-time high soon after mothers give birth.

Best milk of the year is available when grass greens-up. Both mother and calf eat well. Credit Tobiason, NPS.

Birth Timing Relates to Seasonal Changes

Scientists who study birth synchrony in buffalo find evidence that the timing of giving birth is strongly related to seasonal changes in their food supply and quality. The timing of birth is important in survival.

Yet the mothers generally get bred during warm fall days. Who knows when spring green-up will occur? And it varies widely year to year.

Almost immediately after birth the newborn calf can run with the herd.

Another factor in the tightness of Birth Synchrony may be the presence of large predators such as wolves. In areas where wolves threaten buffalo herds with big, ruthless packs—as was the case for all buffalo thousands of years ago—it is much safer for a calf to be one of many other calves in the middle of a herd.

August and September are the months when mating occurs for the American Bison. The gestation period is about 285 days long—or around 9.5 months.

Mothers usually give birth to a single calf that will nurse for about a year if she continues to have milk—or until the next calf is born. They may give birth to twins and even triplets, but it is difficult for most buffalo mothers to bond with and feed more than one calf.

At about 3 months old the buffalo calf grows a hump, tiny horn nubbins appear and he begins changing to a darker color like his mom. NPS.

Bison heifers are considered mature and can be bred at 2 or 3 years old. With good management in commercial herds today, cows can live 30 years or more and raise a calf every year.

Males reach maturity about age 3 but do not usually breed until about 6 years old—when they have grown large enough to compete with other bulls. This may depend on how many mature bulls are in the herd.

Pennsylvania State Extension recommends at least one bison bull for 10 to 15 cows. In today’s ranch herds, young bison bulls between 18 and 36 months of age are often sold for meat, byproducts and breeding stock.

Having too many mature bulls in the herd results in more fighting for supremacy. Younger and smaller bulls usually decline to fight and walk away. NPS.

This cuts down on having too many bulls in the herd and excessive fighting during rut. In open range situations, such as in northern Canada more young bulls may remain with the herds.

How Birth Synchrony Works

There are distinct advantages when most calves are born during an optimal window of time.

For instance, calving of American bison was studied at the National Bison Range, Montana, in 1982. Approximately 80% of the calves were born within three weeks–the last week of April and first 2 weeks of May.

Thus in a herd of 100 cows, most of which raise a calf every year—as in well-managed commercial herds today with good grazing conditions and safety from predators—nearly 80 calves might be born during the last week of April and the first 2 weeks of May.

Another 5 calves might be born earlier and 15 later, perhaps dragging out until the end of July. Although in some cases the last calf delays until September or even December.

During that time at the Bison Range, cow-calf pairs grouped together with other cow-calf pairs rather than with cows without calves.

Was this banding together a natural defense against predators, even though there may no longer be viscous wolves in the vicinity at all? Well fed, the powerful bison mothers were well prepared to fight off attacking bands of wolves and coyotes.

However, scientists say climatic factors appear to be the best explanation of birth synchrony in bison.

By four months of age black hair shows up on head and legs of bison calves and they take on their mothers’ dark coloring. Hump rises between the shoulder blades.

Parturition: The Process of Birth

Parturition means the process of giving birth—also known as labor. It signals the procedure of delivery after the completion of pregnancy. The developed calf is born with the release of cortisol.

During parturition the cervix dilates and relaxes. Along with cortisol, oxytocin and estrogen hormones are released to begin the milk production and the process of birth.

The uterus contracts to push the fetus toward the cervix and continues until the fetus comes down the birth canal.

After parturition, the uterus releases the placenta and it passes out immediately after the calf is born.

The afterbirth or placenta passes out right after the calf is born. He’s soon up looking for milk and gaining strength in his running legs. NPS.

The first milk is called colostrum and lactation begins. This milk contains antibodies, which is required for newborns to protect them against infectious diseases.

Are Baby Buffalo Hiders or Followers?

Buffalo calves are “precocial”—in other words, they’re fully developed and able to run shortly after birth, able to follow their mothers and the rest of the herd basically right away.

This “follower” strategy—which contrasts with hoofed mammals such as elk and deer whose young initially hide under cover —makes sense for bison and many other open-country ungulates, given how exposed their offspring are.

Some smaller grassland grazers, however—including mule deer and the pronghorn antelope that share the American plains with bison—are “hiders” as newborns.

In American Bison: A Natural History, zoologist Dale Lott noted that infant bison usually take no longer than seven or eight minutes to stand up.

Bison calves are born fully developed and able to run shortly after birth. They are ‘followers’ that stick with mothers and run in the herd, rather than hiding behind in the grass like baby deer.

In that narrow window of relative helplessness, however, a freshly delivered baby buffalo certainly makes a tempting target for a coyote or wolf. But as recent Yellowstone incidents demonstrate, the presence of a horned, half-ton mother is usually enough to thwart predators.

Bison cows often isolate themselves to give birth, but once the calf is able to move, the pair rejoins the herd. A newborn moving about within the group is already that much less vulnerable than if they are hiding in the grass.

Mother stays close to newborn, as she grazes in the sagebrush.

In Wood Buffalo National Park on the boreal border of Alberta and Northwest Territories, wolves—a much more formidable potential bison predator than a coyote—selectively target bison herds with calves in early summer, but youngsters often escape by fleeing within or in front of the herd, or are saved by an active, belligerent defense from both cows and bulls.

National Parks in Northern US

During a five-year study in Badlands National Park, SD researchers recorded the onset of parturition by Plains Bison between April 3 and 7, with a median birth date of May 2–8.

In Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota, they reported the first births of bison on April 4–7, peaking in late April or early May; although varying among years, the mean length of the birth season, which they defined as period over which 80% of births occurred—was 53.7 ± 10.2 days.

In mountains and badlands, calving is often monitored by aerial count from airplane or heliocopter.

In Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, predicted parturition has varied widely among years and herds, with the onset occurring from March 31 to April 12 and April 10–27 for the Northern and Central herds, respectively.

The median date of parturition for these herds differed by 16 days (May 6 and May 22), indicating variation in the timing of births even among closely adjacent populations.

In all these populations of Plains Bison, the length of the birthing season varied annually, but largely began in early April and concluded by mid- to late June.

A few calves were born abnormally late, including into September for most studied populations of Plains Bison, and, in exceptional cases, into November in Wind Cave and Yellowstone national parks.

Canada—The Yukon

The birthing season for ungulates (which are primarily large mammals with hooves such as bison, elk, moose and caribou) living at high latitudes is short. In northern North America, birth for most of these occurs within four weeks, beginning in mid-May, peaking in late May, and tapering off by mid-June, according to research in 1998.

Where the environment is distinctly seasonal, there is strong selection toward synchrony or grouping for births—both within and between species—likely in response to a short growing season and, perhaps also the pressure of large predators.

Births outside this “birth pulse” is of interest because it aids in better understanding the stretching out in the timing of births. Alternatively, it may reveal a faulty adaptation if survival or fitness is compromised for early or late born animals.

The timing of parturition in high-latitude populations of Bison is not well studied—and much of the documentation was done in aerial surveys at some distance since these are free-ranging buffalo in the mountains.

Timing of births in the far north is not well studied with free-ranging buffalo in the mountains. Much of it is done with aerial surveys and photography.

But previous observations have indicated that births do not start until mid-May and largely end in late June or early July, similar to those of other far northern grass-eaters.

In three high-latitude Bison populations in northwestern Canada, the onset of parturition (births) occurred as early as late March and early April—5–6 weeks earlier than previously observed—and two isolated cases of late births occurred in mid-November and mid-December.

These observations suggest that the onset of the birth process in high-latitude Bison can be earlier than previously known, and late births, while apparently rare, may occur.

Determining whether this signals a substantial, lasting shift in the timing and, possibly, synchrony of parturition in high-latitude populations of Bison will require further monitoring of early-born calves.

Most data on the timing of parturition of Bison are from populations at lower latitudes.

Free-ranging Wood Buffalo in Far North

Unfortunately, similar field data are not available for birth dates of free-ranging Wood Bison, which occur at high latitudes, where seasonal constraints are more pronounced.

Geographic variation in the timing of Bison births has been postulated, with the onset of parturition and median birth date later and synchronicity, or tightness of births greater in northern than in southern populations.

For mountain sheep one study found a strong link between latitude and the onset of birth, with later dates of first births in more northern populations.

Similarly, for Wood Bison, the onset of first births in Wood Buffalo National Park, Alberta and Northwest Territories, was reported as May 10 and 12. This was more than a month later than observed for Plains Bison in the US.

Anecdotal observations from field surveys in northwestern Canada over the past 16 years show that early births by Wood Bison largely occur at about the same time as that for Caribou and Moose.

However, it may start earlier, such as early May, and end later, in late June. This suggests that spring green-up of forage also strongly influences the timing of calving by Bison at high latitudes.

Births outside this period have not been observed.

Allen T. Rutberg writes in Journal of Mammalogy, August 24, 1984, “We document recent observations of unusually early- or late-born Bison calves from three reintroduced populations in northwestern Canada.

“Our observations were from the Aishihik population in southwestern Yukon, Canada and the Nahanni and Nordquist populations, which occur at the nexus of the Northwest Territories, Yukon, and British Columbia, Canada, all located between 59°N and 61°N.

“These populations were monitored irregularly by wildlife management agency personnel during the parturition period. We used the description of coat color changes in Bison calves to crudely estimate the parturition date of those born late.

Early-born Calves

“On April 4, 2013, we observed a calf from the Nahanni population, which was assumed born the previous day. In 2015 and 2016, we observed Bison calves from the Aishihik population, presumably born in early April, with the earliest calf seen on April 4, 2016.

“Further, in the first week of April 2016 and 2017, lactating females that had recently been suckled were observed in the Aishihik population.

“Based on a physical examination of the uterine tract of two lactating Bison shot during April 4–6, 2016, these females may have recently given birth.

“For a lactating female shot on April 5, 2017, the predicted birth date was possibly mid-March, based on measurements of the uterus. We note, however, that lactation itself is not unequivocal evidence that the female recently gave birth, as she may have been suckling her calf from the previous year.”

Late-born Calves

March 17, 2005

Reddish-brown calf in a group of 11 Bison near Haines Junction, Yukon Aishihik, noticeably smaller than other calves in the area. We estimated that the calf was probably 10–13 weeks old when observed and, thus, likely born in mid-December.

January 7, 2012

Small calf with a reddish coat in a group of 26 Bison near Liard River, Nordquist British Columbia, about 30–40% the size of seven other calves in the group. Based on descriptions of size and coloration and photographs, we estimate that the calf was probably 8–10 weeks old when observed and, thus, was born in early to mid-November.

Bison born late were rarely recorded; however, we documented two instances from two populations in northwestern Canada. These calves were substantially smaller than other calves observed, and pelage color also differed. Based on descriptions of size and coloration and photographs, we estimate that these calves were born in mid-December and early to mid-November.

Shifting Dates of Birth Synchrony

“Our observations provide evidence of parturition in early April, and possibly as early as late March, in at least two high-latitude populations of Wood Bison—5–6 weeks earlier than reported from Wood Buffalo National Park and earlier observations for the Aishihik and Nahanni populations by wildlife management agency biologists and conservation officers.

“It is uncertain whether the earlier onset of parturition has occurred previously and gone unnoticed or if there has been a shift in the date of first births in recent years.

“We believe that the latter is more plausible, given that observations of Bison in late March and April by wildlife management agency personnel, Bison hunters, and local residents have not included any reports of calves born earlier than May before 2013.

“Detailed studies of the timing of parturition in Plains Bison in more southern and other ungulates, such as wild sheep provide evidence of annual variation that may exceed 2 to 3 weeks.

Young calves join the traffic jam on Yellowstone highways, keeping right up with their mothers. Photo credit Daniel Kleiman.

“Moreover, the onset of parturition in Bison at Yellowstone National Park has shifted from late March to mid-April over 55 years from 1941 to 1997, demonstrating that changes in the timing of parturition for Bison can occur over longer time scales.

“Whether the early births we observed indicates a shift in the timing of parturition in Bison from the Aishihik population is unknown. Showing this would require further monitoring for early-born calves

“Although the onset of parturition in southern populations of Plains Bison normally occurs around early April to match the food availability, early births in the Aishihik and Nahanni populations have occurred while temperatures were below freezing at night and patches of snow persisted on the ground, indicating a mismatch between early births and spring green-up of forage resources.

“Generally, calves born earlier in the season may have an advantage over their cohorts that may last their lifetimes, but those born early in suboptimal conditions, possibly because their mothers were in poor body condition, may not have an advantage. In the latter case, the prognosis for their survival is poor.

“Similarly, the fate of late-born Bison is unknown. However, the late-born calves observed had survived the critical neonatal period (the first month after being born) during early winter at high latitudes, indicating that they may survive the rest of the winter.

Early calves. Only a few ‘red dogs’—as forest rangers call them—arrive early in the herd.

“In other instances of late-born calves, it has been assumed that the mother was in poor physical condition during the peak of conception and bred later in the season when her body stores had increased. However, the fate of these early- and late-born Bison is unknown.

“In conclusion, our observations are of scientific interest because they provide new information on apparently extreme birth dates for high-latitude Bison, and they demonstrate some flexibility in the onset of parturition in these populations.

“It appears that parturition at high latitudes may begin in late March and, in exceptional cases, extend into December. Overall, however, the timing of parturition for Bison appears to be largely synchronous with spring green-up, albeit with a wider range of dates than for other ungulates in the region.”

Hmm. That’s interesting. As the resident of a northern state, I’m wondering. People who live here know well that spring green-up doesn’t always arrive at the appointed hour or date.

Hard winters sometimes hit—and bring a late spring. An easy winter might mean an early spring. Or quite the opposite.

In the Yukon weather might be even more extreme and unpredictable. So is there some leeway on how many gestation days occur? When spring comes early does gestation speed up to less than 9.5 months? And hard winters with late springs drag births out longer?

Someday will researchers link dates of first green-up with Birth Synchrony and tell us about the weather when Buffalo declare an early spring? Or a late one?

Studies of the timing of births in Plains Bison in more southern latitudes and other ungulates, such as wild sheep, provide evidence of annual variation of more than 2 or 3 weeks from one year to the next. Depending on what? 


Birth Synchrony: The short period of time in the spring during which most buffalo calves are

born. Considered an evolutionary adaptation that insures most calves are born at the time they are most likely to survive.

Parturition: The process of giving birth—also known as labor.
Colostrum: The mother’s first milk after giving birth—contains antibodies that protect

against infectious diseases.

Precocial: Means buffalo calves are born fully developed and able to follow their mothers and

the rest of the herd almost immediately after birth. They need only 7 or 8 minutes to

stand up.

Ungulates: Primarily large mammals with hooves (split or not-split) such as bison, elk, deer,

moose and horses.

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Saving Orphan Buffalo Calves

Saving Orphan Buffalo Calves

Feeding an orphan calf is an emergency situation. It has to be done “right now!” And it is a time commitment.

So it’s a good idea to be prepared.

Calving season has arrived and so have many new buffalo babies. It’s an exciting time of the year when new calves are welcomed to the world.

Fortunately for you who are buffalo ranchers there are usually few problems associated with calving.

Happy scenario for both calf and mother.

However, it may happen that a calf is abandoned—perhaps the weakest of a set of twins—or the mother cow dies, or for some other reason a calf must be removed from the pasture and raised by hand.

Buster—an orphan well cared for by his family. Buster grew up on the ranch and was able to stay in the breeding herd for awhile, although “he was a bit of a loner,” said Randy. Credit Randy Miller.

Miller has been a leader in the Bison Association of Nebraska for many years. He has been in the bison business since 1995.

Randy’s daughter Megan Olesiak works in the Miller buffalo ranch company at NebraskaBison.com. They have a second herd, Miller Bison at Elkhead Ranch, just over the line in Missouri.

Buster lies down. “Experienced producers like to keep the calves a little hungry at each feeding.” Fewer digestive upsets. They can be weaned from milk at 3 to 4 months. Photo RM.

Megan told me, “You need to be careful when you make a pet of a bison bull calf. They grow up.

“One time when I was a child—we were just getting started with bison. I was sitting in the pickup with the window open. We had a pet bull and he put his head in for a treat.

“And then he lifted his head and took the door off!”

Four Generations of Bison

The McFarlands southwest of Hettinger have long experience rescuing bison calves. Steve patiently corners a young calf that’s ready and able to put up a fight, even though he knows he’s getting a milk bottle. Video credit Roxann McFarland.

My almost neighbors Steve and Roxann McFarland have had about 3 or 4 orphan calves in the 20 years they’ve been raising buffalo southwest of Hettinger.

“Some others may have been born as twins and the coyotes got one of them before we did,” Steve says.

“Each bottle calf we’ve raised has had its own personality. Some learn quickly to follow a bottle, some have been pretty stubborn.”

Actually Steve grew up with buffalo as his father, grandfather and great-grandfather raised buffalo on their South Dakota ranch before he was even born.

As a 4th generation bison rancher Steve grew up helping with bison and bottle calves. It was his great-grandfather who first bought 3 or 4 bison heifers and a bull, just to try them out with his cattle herd. His grandfather Roy improved the herd and so did his father Eugene.

Their daughter Ashley showed her bison calf as a 4-H project at our Adams County Fair a few years ago—under a new class called “Exotics.” Her’s was the only exhibit in the event that year.

Good for Ashley! She’s a pioneer!

Even as a long-term 4-H leader I have never heard of this before except in Canada—where I think Alberta has a 4-H project called “Raising Bison.” Don’t know if they have a booklet for 4-Hers to study.

I’ve seen a photo of one and have written for information, but so far have been unable to find any.

Steve says her calf was apparently a twin born around the first of May and found abandoned. Raised as a bottle calf, they helped Ashley halter break him and she showed him in August at our 4-H fair.

Roxann, Steve’s wife, says a bottle calf seems to get attached to one particular person—perhaps it imprints on whoever feeds it. Often that person is her.

“One calf got so lonesome whenever no one was with him,” she says. “In fact when he was alone he wore all the hair off his head, rubbing it along a plank in his pen.

“We tried a goat for companionship—he was full grown and we thought he could hold his own. But the little bull chased him right out of the pen.


Happy bison calf is healthy, bright, alert and curious. Some advise keeping orphan calves in the barn until they can follow a milk bottle, then bringing them outside to enjoy the sun and grass and get some fresh air. Not leaving them out overnight though until they are older.

 “We put him back in—and soon he was outside again. Then we got another baby buffalo. First time we had 2 together,” Roxann recalls.

“They bonded and hung together—Oscar and Gus, both bull calves–always stayed together even after they grew much bigger. We sold them to a bison feeder.

“They were too dangerous to keep.

“The new owner said as long as he had them, the two bulls always insisted on being close together.”

Feeding Tips

Here are feeding tips from Gerald Hauer, Bison Production Specialist, Bison Centre of Excellence, in Leduc, Alberta, from his article “Feeding Orphans,” as reprinted from “The Tracker,” volume 4, Issue 5, June 2000, in Bison Producers of Alberta.

He begins with the importance of colostrum—the mother’s first milk:

“Calves are born with no resistance to bacteria and viruses and must absorb antibodies from their mother’s first milk or colostrum to be able to fight off disease. There are high levels of antibodies in colostrum and the calf’s intestines have the ability to absorb these antibodies from the inside of the gut into the bloodstream for the first few hours of life.

“The intestine loses this ability within 4-12 hours after birth so it is very important that the calf receives its colostrum within this time period. Always give colostrum for the first few feedings.

“Cattle colostrum or commercial dried colostrum replacers can be used as a substitute for real bison colostrum which is hard to obtain.

It takes time to bottle feed bum calves, but economists say it’s well worth the care it demands.

 “Often surrogate mothers are not readily available so artificial rearing is the only option. What to feed is a common question. Bison calves have been raised successfully on cow’s milk, cow milk replacer, sheep and goat milk replacer and goat’s milk.

“There is now a commercially available bison milk replacer made by Brown’s Feeds. Sheep milk replacer is frequently used because it closely resembles the composition of bison milk.

Note: Two recommended feeds for bison babies are Bison Milk Replacer from Browns Feed https://www.hibrow.ca/browns-feed and BisonGro from Zukudla http://www.zukudla.com/milk-replacers-bisongro

“Once the calf has a good start with colostrum, it is time to feed milk or milk replacer. Some people have had good success by finding a nurse mother for their orphans. A recent article in the ‘Smoke Signals’ outlined one producer’s success with using a highland cattle cow as a surrogate mother for his bison orphans.

“If you are considering using goats to raise your calves I would recommend having them tested for malignant catarrhal fever and Johne’s disease.

“One experienced producer uses real sheep milk available from one of the few sheep dairies in the province. She reports that there are fewer digestive problems with the real sheep’s milk and is worth the extra cost.

“It would be a good idea to pasteurize the sheep milk to decrease the chance of introducing MCF virus into your calves.

Feeding Frequency

“How often should they be fed? Frequent feedings of small amounts will decrease the chances of digestive upsets. Bison calves are usually fed 4 times daily for the first few weeks and this is gradually decreased to 2 times daily by two months of age,” writes Gerald Hauer

“How much to feed depends on the size of the calf. As a rule the calf should be a little hungry at the end of each feeding. If they are allowed to drink their fill they will be prone to digestive upsets and diarrhea.

Orphan calf enjoys a back rub when finished with his bottle. RM.

 “Experienced producers like to keep the calves a little hungry at each feeding. Most calves require about 10-20% of their body weight in milk each day. This works out to about 500-800 mL per feeding for bison calves.

“As the calves get older and the feedings become less frequent the volumes fed at each feeding can be increased.

“Once the calves are few weeks old it is a good idea to introduce them to some grain and hay or grass so they can nibble on some solid feed. By the time they are a few months old they should be eating a significant amount of feed.

“Calves can be weaned from milk at 3-4 months of age and put onto a good quality diet.

“Other tips to help keep your calves healthy are as follows: 

  1. Wash the bottles and nipples after each feeding to decrease the bacterial buildup. Good hygiene can prevent problems associated with contamination of your equipment.
  2. Allow access to soil so calves can lick it as this may provide some nutrients.
  3. Salt and minerals should also be available.
  4. Build a pen that allows lots of room for exercise.
  5. Try not to keep one calf by itself. Provide another calf to keep it company.

“Raising an orphan bison is a lot of work. Before undertaking the job you should become familiar with the husbandry that is required. “

For more information Hauer recommends the following “Bison Breeder’s Handbook, National Bison Association; Bringing Up Baby,” by Peter Haase, Smoke Signals, April 2000. www.bisoncentre.com › feeding-orphans

Imprinting and Sucking

 “The Journal of Buffalo Science,” published in Canada says it is important that mother and calf are able to bond immediately at birth. In the article “Imprinting, Sucking and Allosucking Behaviors in Buffalo Calves,” 2018, 7 (Lifescience Global), Patricia Mora-Medina, from the University of Mexico (UNAM), Fabio Napolitaano, U of Basilicata, Italy et al write:

“From the perspective of the [buffalo] offspring, recognizing their parents is essential for their welfare and survival, since the dams feed only their own young.

“This learning process, defined as imprinting, occurs in a sensitive period under the control of oestrogens and oxytocin, which are abundantly produced at parturition (birth).

“After a few hours the level of these hormones lowers and dams become unable to develop appropriate maternal behavior toward the newborn calves.”

“The amniotic fluid that covers the newborn is attractive to the mother and while licking they learn its specific odor thus promoting the mother–young bond. Lack of amniotic fluid may cause rejection of the newborn.

“The most important aspect of the birth process is that calves must quickly locate the udder and begin to suck their mothers’ milk. Suckling and the maternal care for calves allow them to survive and grow.

“As the calf passes through the birth canal during parturition it generates cervical-vaginal stimulation that activates the hypothalamus and releases oxytocin, a hormone that acts upon the cow’s olfactory bulb. This, in turn, enables the secretion of dopamine, which initiates the sensitive period during which the dam identifies her own calf.”

After giving birth, says this source, the mother stands up and begins to lick and smell her newborn calf. In buffalo (and dairy and beef cattle) this stimulates various activities in the calf, including the respiratory center, breathing, circulation, urination and defecation.

The newborn buffalo calf raises its head and adopts a ventral-sternal posture, followed by hesitant attempts to stand on all fours, first extending the thoracic extremities, then the pelvic ones. These movements allow the calf to reach the mammary gland and begin feeding. Other behaviors include vocalizing to attract the mother’s attention as part of the calf’s survival strategy.

Given all this, say these researchers, it is essential that the buffalo mother-calf bond develops from the moment of birth and through the immediate postpartum period.

Practices like early separation and artificial rearing generate stress in both buffalo cows and calves

“In the context of these behavioral changes, the sex of the neonate seems to play a role, as female calves show faster development than male calves.”

Mixed Blessing: Triplet Buffalo Calves

Triplets arrived at the Buffalo Horn Ranch in Alberta, the first ever reported—a mixed blessing. Photo used by permission, Peter Haase, Buffalo Horn Ranch © 1999.

 “This spring we were triply blessed with a set of triplet bison calves, reported Peter Haase, of the Buffalo Horn Ranch, Alberta, Canada, in April 1999.

“Actually, it was something of a mixed blessing getting three heifer calves and then being confined to the ranch with the numerous feedings. We have some experience working with abandoned calves over the years with mixed results. One of our foundation cows is bottle raised.”

“With the publicity, our babies also became poster girls for ‘Brown’s Bison Milk Replacer,’ a new product becoming commercially available. We were fortunate in that many experienced bison producers gave us advice on how to raise these girls properly.

“A bison cow normally only has enough milk for one calf, so both are compromised when it comes to competing for the limited milk that mom is able to offer. Often one calf won’t get quite enough and will begin to fall behind, while its sibling grows stronger.

“It may take only a few hours or it might take a few weeks, but the usual scenario is that one calf is left behind as a meal for the predators. In the confined pastures of a ranch, the likelihood of a cow raising twins is perhaps somewhat higher than in the wild.

Recently Peter told me that the mother was named Nakimu—and hers were the first ever reported bison triplets—all female. They were named Moon Beam, Moon Shine and Moon Shadow.

“We watched these closely. The first day the mother walked away from Moon Beam—we took her. The next day she walked away from Moon Shine. She raised Moon Shadow. The other two were bottle fed.

“The last of the bottle raised calves died in 2021 of natural causes. This is after the mother having and raising 18 calves, never missing a year until her last year.  The other bottle raised sister died in 2016 and her sister, raised by the cow, died at age 10. In fact Nakimu had 2 sets of twins besides the triplets.

“The birth of the first recorded bison triplets gave us a great deal of publicity in numerous newspapers, magazines and on two national television networks.

“From our research, we have found that most abandoned calves are twins. Are twins more common today? I don’t know, I suspect that we are discovering more twins for a couple of reasons aside from there being more bison.

“Firstly, we producers are checking our herds more closely than before, so perhaps we discover the twins before the coyotes do. Secondly, we are more careful with the bison’s nutrition and health care and this too might contribute to more twins.

“We had a situation with our second calf ever being born. This calf was born at night and in the confusion of 60 heifers, the heifer calf bonded with a young cow who already had a two-week old calf.

“The new mother was frantic looking for her calf and the other cow was running around with two calves. After about 30 hours she didn’t want anything to do with this calf and abandoned it.

“We grabbed her calf at that point, gave colostrum and bottle raised her for three weeks before she died of Navel Ill. The colostrum we gave was too late and did nothing for her immune system.

“The mother of this abandoned calf found another heifer calving about the time that we grabbed her calf. She bonded with the new calf and this calf sucked on his ‘twin’ mothers all summer.

“The lesson here is that the calf must have colostrum in the first 6 to 12 hours or its chances of survival are slim.

“Another note here, we have a five-year-old bottle-raised cow that we purchased as a calf. One thing she really lacks is mothering ability.

“She never licks off her calf, nor does she look out for it very well. Fortunately, she has had two very persistent calves who have done very well despite the shortcomings of their mother. There is more to being a mother bison than instinct, there must be something learned as well.”

Good mothering. Buffalo mothers are naturally protective of one calf. Sometimes a twin gets neglected. Bitterroot Bison, MT, Michael Gallacher Photo.

Carrington Bison Research attempts Alarming Rescue

Bison Research conducted at the Carrington Research Extension Center, North Dakota State University for a few years, published a report in 2001 on “Managing Very Young Bison Calves,” by Vern Anderson, Dale Burr, Tim Schroeder, Chris Kubal and Eric Bock.

The researchers worked frantically for many weeks trying to keep 69 bison calves of all ages alive. They concluded:

“It appears the success rate is very low when caring for orphan bison calves under the age of 4 weeks unless significant individual attention can be given to each calf. 

“These animals are simply too dependent on mother’s milk and cannot be acclimated to milk replacer and starter feeds as a group. 

For their research the Carrington Center accepted a donation of 69 bison calves ranging in age from two days to two months, delivered on June 4, 2001. Their mothers had been managed as feeder heifers and were scheduled for market. Some had been bred accidentally.

“At the time in 2001 there was virtually no nutritional information or guidelines on the care of baby bison prior to weaning,” says Dr Vern Anderson.

“Consultation with a number of experienced bison producers suggested we had a major challenge on our hands.”

Turned out they did indeed! It was a desperate situation for the researchers. All of them working every available minute to save all those calves.

It probably couldn’t be done with the manpower available. But they met the challenge as best they could.

First they separated the 16 youngest and smallest and kept them in a small fenced area, while the older calves moved to a one-acre grass pasture.

“Catching these youngest animals, even in a small pen, proved to be a challenge. At the young age of the calves, they were fast and strong and fought being handled. Roping calves caused severe stress from chasing with some choking and shock resulting when calves were caught.

They refused to suck from a bottle. None of the calves adapted to that even after several days.  None of these younger calves survived to the end of their first month. The experience turned out to be very stressful for handlers and calves.

“Handling (catching, ear-tagging, drenching, bottle-feeding) any age of orphan calf is very stressful,” says their report.

“Most of the 16 simply starved to death. They were unwilling to nurse or fought the tube at every opportunity and did not learn to eat the dry feeds.”

Food was a problem for the older calves, too. The researchers kept changing the rations. The calves seemed to prefer barley malt pellets—which were low in protein and calories.
Barley pellets were then mixed with com, peas and wheat middlings to increase the nutrient density. Then the barley was withdrawn.

“Some commercially available, very palatable, high-protein, high-energy feeds were offered in three pans inside the pen. Two pans were used for milk replacer and fresh water was available in two others. A high quality grass hay bale was also available.

Finally on June 27, a specially formulated baby bison feed was introduced, developed by Heartland Feeds (Hubbard) at Bismarck, ND for use in this study. This new formula was more nutrient dense than the commercial starter feeds with higher protein (24%), more energy (est. 95% TDN) and less fiber.

It was a fortunate combination of field peas, corn, canola meal, com distillers dried solubles, soybean hulls, dried milk powder, molasses, yeast, fenugreek and highly bio-available vitamins and minerals.

Once they were used to this food it replaced all the commercial starter diets. At last the older calves seemed to bloom and their general health improved. The researchers wrote their opinion that having this nutrition from the start might have reduced stress and increased survival rate.

“Calves this old probably start ruminating and have the ability to survive on more traditional feeds,” they said.

Only 25 of the 69 ultimately survived. But by September 10, they appeared in good health and were transitioned to a conventional grain mix, less nutrient dense and lower in cost, 16% crude protein and approximately 80% TDN. This included corn, peas, soy hulls and wheat midds plus vitamins and minerals, offered with free-choice alfalfa hay.

Unfortunately the bottom was already falling out of the bison market by then, and after producing some remarkable pioneer research at the Carrington Station the bison studies came to a halt and were never restored.

Buffalo Handler Learns the Language

Waist deep in wild yellow sweet clover Jim Strand calls over Lucky—a grown-up pet—in the big pasture for a munch of cattle cake. Lucky can’t resist Jim’s relaxed approach and buffalo grunts, but no longer wants to be petted. Photo credit Donna Keller.

Another almost neighbor of mine is Jim Strand who manages the sizeable Blair Johnson herd of about 400 cows, southeast of Hettinger a few miles into South Dakota, where he’s had 8 or so orphans over the past 25 years.

Jim feeds lamb milk replacer because it is richer than cows’ milk. He also feeds at least 3 times a day. The last calf he had took to the bottle right away when born.

The mother of another died when the calf was about 3 weeks old and wouldn’t take the bottle, so Jim put him in with some feeders and he did just fine. I think he spends plenty of relaxed time with them.

Usually bum calves get attached to one person. Jim says he grunts like a buffalo to them and they seem to respond.

One time a friend needed to catch a rather wild buffalo calf and Jim went to help. “I’d grunt to him and he’d come a little closer. I kept coaxing and he came right up to me. I grabbed his foot and held him.

If I get one in a pen, I can usually coax, grunt and corner them.”

One pet they had was Lucky. He enjoyed being petted and talked to—the first year he stayed in the yard close to the family.

“He’s still in the herd. Now that he’s grown he still comes up when I’m around, but he doesn’t want you to pet him.”

Another pet was given him from a family in Bemidji, Minnesota. Raised there on a bottle. She got too big for them before she reached a year old, so they gave Jim a call.

Her name was LaBelle. She comes right up to him in the pasture and will take cake from his hand.

“She had a calf as a 2-year old—that’s unusual,” says Jim. “And she’s had a calf every year since—6 calves in a row.”

Favored cow LaBelle enjoys a back rub. She has raised 6 calves in a row—at only age 8. Credit DK.

Twins-More Work, Well Worth the Effort

When twins are born, it is worth the extra management effort to save both calves, Dr Roy Lewis, a veterinarian, told producers in the March 12, 2018 issue of Grainews.ca in Canada, writing on “Problems and Benefits of Twin Calves.”

“In my practice, I often hear producers complaining about twins,” he wrote. “Mainly because often the focus is on the problems they can present.

“About 8% of most common beef breeds will produce twins and it is also quite common among bison.

“Economics show there is value in making the extra effort to save the extra calf.

“Research on a twinner population over the last 10 years in the U.S. found there to be a definite economic benefit with twins. So it is important to look at both the positive and negative aspects hat come with these double deliveries.

“Some mothers accept and care for twins, as did this cow of a client,” said Dr Lewis. “But be alert for one calf failing to thrive and jump in when problems develop.” Photo credit Roy Lewis, DVM.

 “There is no doubt twins can be a positive if they both arrive alive, are the same sex and you have an extra cow to foster one of the calves.

“But we all know the opposite—twins coming malpresented, then you finally get them out (with or without veterinary assistance). Both are dead and the cow doesn’t clean and becomes a problem to rebreed.

“Dystocias (birth difficulties) from fetal malpresentation are the biggest reason twins have a lower survival at birth.

“When one ponders the combinations of all the legs and two heads coming backwards and forwards, it is no wonder mixups occur.

“If we can minimize the bad scenario and come up with more positives, twins would be welcome. Keep in mind they will always require more care, attention and management skills.

“It’s important to watch the cows and calves closely and jump in when problems develop,” he writes.

An Alberta-based veterinarian specializing in large-animal practice, Dr. Lewis has served as a part-time technical services veterinarian for Merck Animal Health. He is involved in planning the International Bison Convention to be held in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, July 12-15, 2022.

Dr Lewis served on the committee updating the National Canadian “Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Bison.” That publication which was released in 2001 and updated in 2017 tries to discourage making pets of bison.

“Bison should not be raised as pets,” the Canadian Code states bluntly. “Producers opting to rear orphans should refrain from playing with calves. Bunting behavior should be discouraged at all costs.

“Adult bison that have played with humans as calves may become dangerous. Orphaned bison must not be used for breeding under any circumstances. Castration and dehorning is strongly recommended for orphans. Orphans may be able to be reintroduced into a feeding program.”


Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Bison of Yellowstone Park and Brucellosis

Bison of Yellowstone Park and Brucellosis

During Yellowstone’s early days, people still hunted buffalo in the park for trophies. That changed radically in 1894 when Army soldiers in Yellowstone Park captured bison poacher Edgar Howell and posed with eight of the confiscated bison heads. Only 23 original bison remained in Yellowstone in 1916 when park managers began some of the nation’s first efforts to save the endangered species.

Brucelosis has a devastating effect on cattle, in that infected cows abort their first calf, and sometimes the infection stays in the system for years. The disease also infects Bison and elk.

 European cattle initially brought the bacteria Brucella abortus to the new world. The disease especially spread through dairy cattle, but wild bison and elk in the Greater Yellowstone Area became infected with the disease before the 1930s.

The  brucellosis vaccines available today are considered only 65% effective for cattle and even less so for bison and elk.

It’s complicated. And because they are live vaccines, they can bring the infection itself.

Heifer calves need to be vaccinated before the age of 12 months. Otherwise, if any are pregnant at the time of vaccination, they may abort and potentially spread the disease to herd mates or even people getting in contact with the aborted fetus and placenta.

Yellowstone Park herd looks on as one buffalo enjoys a dust bath undisturbed. Others await their turn.

There is hope of better vaccines to come, but it may be quite a long time.

New vaccines are under development at several University research labs, according to The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which is in charge. Their website on brucellosis states:

“Unfortunately, we lack not only a proper treatment but also a reliable diagnosis.

“Adequate and timely diagnosis of brucellosis is necessary to control and treat the disease in the best way. Different serological and molecular methods are used for the screening of the disease. However, each test has some drawbacks in one way or another.

“Vaccination is an effective strategy to prevent the spread of brucellosis and is in practice worldwide.

Bulls spar off during rutting season. But most confrontations are brief and end in quick retreat for the smaller, younger bull. NPS

 “However, there is demand for the development of new vaccines that are safer and more effective.

“With rising interest of the scientific community in brucellosis, a significant improvement in diagnosis and treatment is expected. We are also in need of a broad-spectrum vaccine against Brucella for complete eradication of the disease worldwide.

“APHIS continues to support brucellosis research at universities and is also working with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service to further study RB51 vaccine, and to develop alternative brucellosis vaccines that would be more effective in wild bison and elk herds.

 “Current vaccines are about 65 percent effective. It is unlikely that new vaccines would protect 100 percent of vaccinated animals. However, new vaccines may provide additional protection for the animals and help reduce the incidence of the disease within the herds.

“APHIS is also involved in studying the brucellosis disease agent—how it is transmitted and shed by infected animals into the environment.“

“It took a huge effort in eradicating this disease from cattle in the United States. But as of March 1, 2002, nearly all states have achieved brucellosis-free status with no known infection.

“The only known focus of Brucella abortus infection left in the nation is in bison and elk in the Greater Yellowstone Area. However, this has been a tremendous problem for ranchers in nearby areas of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.”

Until all brucellosis is wiped out—there will continue to be great problems and controversy in the Yellowstone Park area.

Cow with young calf grazing in downed timber clearing in Yellowstone Park.

How does Brucellosis Infect?

Brucellosis is primarily spread within and among bison, elk and cattle during calving season when susceptible animals ingest Brucella bacteria from birthing materials (amniotic fluids, fetus, placenta) or the newborn calf.

Mother elk clean up most of it when they calve outside the park, and scavengers consume most of what remains. But perhaps not all. A secondary mode of infection is through the milk when actively infected females nurse their calves.

Females are often infected with Brucella bacteria at a young age, but do not shed the bacteria until they become reproductively active at around age 3, when conditions become favorable for bacteria to multiply and spread in the reproductive tract during the last months of pregnancy.

At that time, the bacteria can rapidly increase in cells of the placenta and induce abortions, still births, and premature live births in some animals.

Some females appear to recover and clear the bacteria from their bodies after this initial pregnancy, but others retain the infection and can become infectious during additional pregnancies.

Infected male bison shed Brucella bacteria in semen, but do not infect females during breeding because of the fluids in the vagina that are fatal to the bacteria.

In addition, bison and elk are more vulnerable to infection when their immune defenses are weakened, as during winter starvation. Risk comes primarily in February through June when most brucellosis-induced abortions occur.

In background steam rises from hot spots. Warm geyser keeps open water for drinking in the creek, no matter how frigid the day.

Brucellosis in Humans

In humans, brucellosis–also known as Bang’s disease—is called undulant fever, human brucellosis or Malta fever. It is world-wide in distribution.

According to the Journal of the American Medical Association infections may spread to humans through cuts or bruised skin or infected milk. It evidently does not affect the meat, which may be eaten.

People with undulant fever may suffer weakness, headache, painful joints, loss of weight and appetite, alternating chills and fever, profuse sweating, sleeplessness and numbness of arms and legs. It is seldom fatal, but can become chronic or long-lasting and weaken resistance to other diseases.

More than $3.5 billion has been spent since 1934 to eradicate brucellosis from cattle in the United States.

My husband Bert was part of this program, spending his first summer after college graduation in 1953—before continuing his Veterinary Medicine studies—testing North Dakota cattle herds for brucellosis.

During that time he was diagnosed with undulant fever. But although it stayed in his system long-term from that experience, he was generally able to ignore his symptoms.

Bert was most saddened though, by infected cattle herds that had to be condemned. It was the only way of eradicating the disease.

Shedding winter hair in rag-tag patches, one at a time. For a hairy bull it can take a month or two—or all summer.

Low Point in Buffalo Numbers

The lowest point of buffalo numbers in Yellowstone Park was probably around the turn of the century.

In 1916 the original bison were counted at only 23 head. That’s when park managers began their first efforts to save bison as an endangered species.

Many people today, researchers as well as others, seem to believe these were Mountain or Woods buffalo and they are calling today’s Yellowstone Park buffalo a hybrid of the two subspecies—Wood buffalo and Plains buffalo.

I very much doubt whether that can be true.

Apparently, those bison were counted in the summertime, and likely included a few calves and young animals. So they’d have had relatively few fertile cows and I doubt that they would have birthed many calves.

Also the Wood bison probably would not interbreed widely, since they tend to be shy and scattered.  

 In fact, those early herds as well as those introduced could have been simply the wilder Plains buffalo that had found remote mountain canyons to hide from relentless hide hunters—as surviving bison did throughout the west.

Is it really logical to assume that the two—Wood and Plains bison—interbred widely to form a new hybrid subspecies?

 Possible, of course, but probably wishful thinking on someone’s part.

Good swimmers, sometimes YP bison get caught in the ice in springtime.

Soon Excess Numbers Needed Culling

Since 1932 the buffalo in Yellowstone Park have been periodically culled to keep the totals down to a reasonable number for good grazing and to balance the needs of other grazing wildlife.

Eventually the YP bison numbers were targeted at around 3,000 in the Park, although they often reached nearly 6,000 before culling.

After 1960 the culling operation became better organized. As many bison as possible were herded by two coordinating helicopters into one of two traps—the Crystal trap at Lamar in the northeast quarter and Nez Perce trap on the Firehole River nearly 35 miles farther southwest.

By the winters of 1964-65 and 1965-66 squeeze chutes handled most of these trapped bison and they were either sorted for release or trucked to a local slaughterhouse, according to Margaret Mary Meagher, Research Biologist of the National Park Service, author of “The Bison of Yellowstone National Park,” 1973.

Most were aged by Department of Agriculture veterinarians and weighed. Also 47% of the animals removed from the park were examined for pregnancy, abnormalities, and evidence of injury or disease other than brucellosis.

Selected for butchering were bison with brucellosis suspected as well as those with abnormalities and injuries. The meat from healthy animals was packaged, frozen and delivered to Native tribes.

However, reproductive tracts were not examined, because about half of removed bison were brucellosis suspects.

Department of Agriculture veterinarians advised staff against such exams of reproductive organs, where the Brucella organism localizes, to avoid contamination of slaughterhouse premises and exposure of personnel to the disease.

All animals were permanently metal ear tagged and marked with temporary backtags, which were visible even from an airplane.

Fertility control along with culling is being considered in limiting the bison population in Yellowstone. For example, one type of contraceptive vaccine being investigated for possible use in bison would form antibodies that block sperm from fertilizing eggs. Another prevents follicle growth and ovulation.

However, available methods fail to be affordable, very effective, reversible or easily delivered to wild bison and elk that are spread across the vast landscape that is Yellowstone Park.

Further, they would likely have unintended consequences—such as altering the behavior and physiology of wild bison by changing the herd’s age structure.

USDA is charged with eradicating brucellosis from the United States and also remains committed to maintaining a viable and free-roaming bison herd in Yellowstone National Park.

(For more information on attempts to solve this problem, see “Part 1—InterTribal Buffalo Council Restores Herds—and More,” and “Part 2—ITBC, 30 years—Yellowstone Bison Dilemma,” blogs by Francie M Berg, Dec 29, 2020 and Jan 12, 2021. One solution has been quarantining young Yellowstone Park bison that test negative for brucellosis, raising them fenced away from the herds for as many as 5 to 8 years, while annually testing and finally allowing them to join specific tribal herds under strong fences.)

A New Plan gets Underway

A long-term plan for moving ahead with these issues is being made. The new plan includes both ranching and tribal interests at the table.

Of course, it’s difficult. The time for inviting public comments ended the last of February 2022.

Indian tribes today are insisting on what they see as their rights. Mostly they want to stop the butchering of excess bison in Yellowstone Park. They also do not want the bison altered in any way.

Instead, they’d like to bring the excess animals into their own buffalo herds. Many revere the Yellowstone Buffalo for their history as the last wild bison in America.

Indeed some tribes can point to treaties in which they were promised they could hunt and be in control of these areas “as long as the sun shines” or basically forever.

Certain tribes are allowed to hunt bison as they come out of the Park. Many environmentalists and others agree that is only right.

Cattle ranchers in the area are appalled by the idea of free-ranging elk and bison—which are both frankly considered to be about 50% infected with brucellosis—grazing the same ranges outside the Park in the Yellowstone area, even if at different seasons.

So far they’ve been able to get the Montana Legislature to agree with their rule: “To not allow live bison to leave the Park. Period.”

Thus no cattle have been reported as brucellosis infected by bison to date. No cattle are inside the Park and no bison are outside.

The wild elk are a different story. They are free to wander where they wish. Many elk leave the Park for better foraging when the snow gets too deep in the higher mountains.

There have been reports of vaccinated cattle infected with brucellosis from elk.

The experts point to the winter of 1996-97 when, with the Yellowstone Park herd at record levels, the limited forage in the Park was covered with record levels of ice and snow. Large numbers of bison moved outside the park looking for food.

Exiting the Park that winter were 1,079 bison that were then shot or sent to slaughter. An additional 1,300 or more bison starved to death inside the park because they could not paw their way through the ice.

There is a belief that bison need an area at the lower altitude outside the Park for grazing in tough winters.

“Research efforts are also underway to develop a safe and effective vaccine delivery system so that bison can be vaccinated remotely, as opposed to only hand injection,” according to the APHIS plan.

“In addition, APHIS has a veterinarian with wildlife management training and experience stationed in Montana, to function as a liaison among involved government agencies.

“APHIS is confident that, as more activity is generated on this issue, this liaison position will become increasingly important in ensuring that all involved parties are informed and that APHIS’ involvement is coordinated.

A tourist taunts an unpredictable bull who can turn on a dime and run faster and longer than he can—although he probably doesn’t know that.

 Can Brucellosis be eradicated from Yellowstone wildlife?

 “Yes,” replies APHIS to its own question.

“APHIS officials are confident, based on experience in other public and private bison and elk herds and on other successful disease eradication programs, that use of a combination of disease-eradication and herd-management measures will lead to the successful elimination of brucellosis from bison and elk in the Yellowstone ecosystem.”

Wow! They sound pretty confident—but it’s clear this will not happen soon.

 “Currently the best alternative for wildlife and livestock managers is to suppress the probability of Brucella abortus transmission by maintaining separation between bison, elk, and cattle during the period from February through June when calves are born and bedgrounds are being infected,” say USDA officials.

 The new plan for how this might be accomplished will soon be announced—and you can be sure we will report it to you in our blog.


NEXT: Saving Orphan Buffalo Calves


Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

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