Last year we visited both the National Bison Range in Montana as well as Yellowstone National Park. We were disappointed in the former, only seeing bison way off in the distance so they looked like dark specks on the hillsides. Yellowstone was much better for bison spotting, with frequent sightings and bison jams. With Custer State Park’s bison numbering around 1500, this was the largest concentration of bison/ per square mile we’d yet visited. I was greatly anticipating viewing these magnificent animals during their "rut", their mating time, which runs from July through August. We hadn’t been driving the Wildlife Loop long when we came across a huge herd, maybe between 250-300 bison, with a string of cars and motorcycles stopped on the shoulder alongside. The bison were right by the roadside in a big open field, some crossing back and forth across the road. This was apparently a favorite wallow area for them, as very often a huge shaggy beast would flip right over with dust flying and feet kicking, taking pleasure in a dirt backscratch.
Standing by our car, I soon became aware of an undercurrent of sounds – something between a cat’s purr and pigeon’s coo. Low and rumbling, but with some vocalization as well, the voice of the herd. Calves were sticking close to their mamas, and now and then nursing. Bulls were doing their own thing, avoiding one another, but showing strong interest in the cows. Following, sniffing and nuzzling the cows, the larger bulls with massive heads incongruously gentle as the purring, cooing rumbling sounds continued. Sometimes a bull would sniff, dog-like, at a cow’s rear. We didn’t see many overtly aggressive moves on the part of the bulls, neither with the cows nor between one another. One particularly large bull began to chase off another one when he was getting too close to his cow, but they didn’t openly clash. We spent a good half hour there, looking and taking pictures, and I was sorry to leave. I felt like I could have watched them the entire remainder of the day in perfect contentment, with those lulling throaty sounds of the herd washing over me.
I was surprised at the lack of aggressive behavior, for I’d imagined we might witness some fighting between the bulls, at least some stamping the ground and bellowing, which reportedly sounds like the roar of a lion, so loud it can carry for 3 miles. Signs of impending conflict include loud grunting, hissing, spitting, head waving, tail raising, stiff-legged walking around one another, and eye rolling and staring. But this herd was relatively sedate as we watched. A ranger I spoke with later said there had been more aggressive displays at the beginning of the rut, but by the second month (August) the bulls were getting worn out.
Bison females calve every other year in their prime. For most of the year, they hang out in matriarchal herds with their calves and yearlings. The bison bulls remain solitary or roam in small groups, with other bulls. But during the rut, the bulls are looking for love, and find it, or rejection, or a fight – in the mixed herd. Bulls butting heads (and getting butted in other parts of their bodies) can lead to injury and sometimes even death. People watching bison at any time need to remember that these seemingly slow and gentle animals are anything but; they are wild and agile, can pivot on a dime, and can quickly gain speeds of up to 35 miles per hour. They can also jump, kick, and swim.
At its historical apex, the bison population has been estimated to number 60 million, ranging over most of what is now the United States, and well into Canada and Mexico. Pioneer settlement in the 1800’s decimated the last of the great herds by wanton and senseless killing of these beautiful beasts. By 1889 only about 1100 bison remained on the entire North American continent. As I’d learned on my visit to Crazy Horse Memorial, the Dupuis family, Indian (Minneconjou) ranchers north of the Cheyenne River, had captured 9 pure bison calves in 1883 and from them started a herd. This herd was later bought by Scotty Phillips of Fort Pierre, and continued to thrive. Around 40 animals from this herd started the Custer State Park herd in 1913. Today, an estimated 250,000 bison live in North America and are no longer considered endangered, but they came very close to extinction just over 100 years ago.
Custer State Park’s herd is actively managed, with an annual Buffalo Roundup in October. Here, the calves are branded and immunized; two-year old bulls are semen-tested, and sale animals tested for brucellosis, TB and the sale cows for pregnancy. The excess bison are auctioned off on the 3rd Saturday in November each year, to join other herds or become food for us. Thousands of private herds have been started from the Custer herd since the first auction in 1966, and the sales from the auction have contributed up to 25% of the parks income.
Further along the Wildlife Loop, we came across several more herds and groups of bison, but none as large as that first one. By the end of the loop, we weren’t even stopping anymore, although I wouldn’t have minded if we had…