Make Way for Buffalo

The bigger male bison weigh 2,000 lbs. My car is 3,000 pounds, and about the same dimensions. Perhaps they are aware of this fact, since they have no qualms about occupying the road. And sometimes it seems like the biggest bison don’t even cross the road. They mosey into both lanes of traffic and just stand there for minutes. Here, “bison jam” is an acceptable reason to be late to work. So while I waiting for 100 bison to get out of the way, I thought I’d take a couple photos and ponder this unusual animal.

Bison are about as winter-specialized as those groomer rigs at ski resorts. They appear awfully front-heavy, and you wonder if their back legs will come off the ground every time they put their head down. They have evolved to be nature’s snowplows.  All this forward power helps them muscle through the snow, and their huge heads can easily sweep aside 3 ft of snow to expose the grass and sedge beneath. And under all that snow, the dead and dormant grasses have about the same nutritional value as paper. Bison are equipped for this problem too: they have a ruminant digestive system, meaning they have 4 stomach chambers to extract every last bit of nutrition from each mouthful (this is an adaptation shared by all bovine animals).

In these photos, you’ll notice that the bison look pretty fluffy. In fact, their winter coats are so insulative, they start overheating at -5°C. Their winter layers hold in so much heat, the snow doesn’t even melt off their backs. Hence, many iconic Yellowstone winter photos feature bison looking like giant snowballs. With the last couple weeks of 60-degree weather, maybe this guy is just fussing about how hot it is. When they get uncomfortable enough, they’ll start rubbing up against trees, stumps, fenceposts, signs, or unattended cars, trying to shed all that fluff. By May or June, winter fur is stuck to anything sharp and pointy near the plains.

Bison are not to be bothered. They can run 35 mph, and tend to have sour tempers, especially in the July-September rut. In fact, most predators won't even mess with them. There is only one wolf pack in the whole 6-million-acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem with the nerve to take on a bison. And the wolves accepted into that pack are actually bigger than any of the other wolves around. Now that's pretty badass.

Bison kill more people around here than all other animals, including bears. Way, way more than bears. For some reason, tourists have a bad habit of trying to go and pet them. Bison don't like to be pet. Please enjoy responsibly.

However, I can understand why they might be a bit disgruntled with us. Back in the day, there were so many bison across the West that Lewis and Clark described them as "the moving multitude that darkened the plains." Thirty to 60 million, to be precise. As we expanded westward, we systematically and recreationally killed just about every single bison left in the world. Native Americans relied on them for food, so we killed them to starve out the tribes. When we built railroads, gentlemen would put on their Sunday best and, for 'sport,' gun down the herds from the caboose.

The only surviving bison, about 1,000 of them, were those of Greater Yellowstone, and that's where about 2,500, the vast majority of wild buffalo, still roam today.

Notice the half-shed winter fur. Yes, I know this is a recycled photo from last year.


  1. Just because it is big giant and fuzzy doesn't mean it's friendly. You wouldn't wander up to try to pet a lion. Oh, wait.


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