Lament for 500 Yellowstone bison--and one bison calf

Does Zisa, the late season bison calf who beat all the odds, deserve to die?

I recently wrote a lament for one bison that had been shot as part of a failed test to allow the animals to wander freely outside the park's north entrance. Seems I'll be kept busy writing eulogies for these magnificent animals this winter.

A district judge in Montana ruled today that the 500 Yellowstone bison being held outside the park's north entrance could be sent to slaughter as their removal would not threaten the long term survival of the herd. Even though the slaughter of the bison was "distasteful" (the judge's word) it was still an acceptable method in managing the animal.

It's been rumored that the little bison calf I've been reporting on, Zisa, is a part of the 500 bison on death row. This little guy, born late in the winter, beats all the odds in surviving only to be sent to slaughter because..because why? A bureaucratic plan for which I can find no justification. Bison are killed because of the fear of them transmitting brucellosis to cattle, but from the reports I have read, there has never been a single documented case of this transmittal and the more likely culprit is elk.

So why are we indiscriminately slaughtering 500 of Yellowstone's bison? Do these bison truly deserve to die? They left the park because it's a tough winter and they went in search of food. Government officials-please rethink your decision. These animals are part of the last continuous herd of wild bison in America. They are part of our heritage. They don't deserve to be condemned to death. They deserve our reverence and protection.

I stood and gazed at the captured bison this evening and simply cried. And I realized how powerless I felt that I could do nothing for them. Yellowstone--the world's first national park--is the best protected place on the planet. But what good is "America's Best Idea," if we can't keep the magnificent bison wild and free.

Please take action now to save Yellowstone's bison with one of these groups:

Buffalo Field Campaign

Defenders of Wildlife

Natural Resources Defense Council

The Little Bison Calf That Could

Late bison calf in Yellowstone leaping through deep snow (Photo by Beth Pratt)At the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park, a small late-born bison calf wanders with his herd, defying all odds in surviving the winter. The calf, nicknamed “Zisa” (the Lakota word for orange), can be seen around the Mammoth Hot Springs and Gardiner areas, its bright reddish-orange coat standing out against the snowy terrain.

Yellowstone has experienced one of the snowiest winters in recent years, making foraging for the park bison even more challenging, and a calf born this late in the season is already beating the odds. As Harold Picton, author of Buffalo: Natural History and Conservation, observes: “such small, late born calves are unlikely to survive the winter.”

This past weekend the intrepid calf and his family wandered the area surrounding the Mammoth Hot Springs campground in search of forage, then headed south down the park road in the direction of Gardiner, causing traffic to stop due to the ensuing ‘bison jam.’ Delighted park visitors observed little Zisa as he leapt through the deep snow and followed his mother down the highway.

Once Zisa’s coat turns to brown, he’ll be difficult to spot, but park staff and visitors are rooting for him to survive the winter.


A Lament for a Bison

I never tire of gazing at bison in Yellowstone. I find them magnificent creatures and they are inextricably linked for me to a prehistoric time when 60 million of their ancestors roamed in endless herds across North America (one explorer noted a sea of buffalo that stretched 20 miles wide).

In the winter I salute their tenacious survival skills, and smile when I see a bison "snow angel," the marks in the snow left from them brushing their head from side-to-side in search of sparse forage underneath. Somehow these 2,000 pound animals scratch out a living in Yellowstone's extreme winter by eating mostly dead plants--what we would consider the equivalent of munching on cardboard.

May is my favorite time in Yellowstone, as bison give birth to what some visitors mistake for "little orange dogs." Although an adult bison can't really be described as cute, a bison calf is pretty darn adorable. Last year a bison calf was born in my front yard and another in the snow right outside my office. When my parents visited Yellowstone, they witnessed a grizzly bear take down a bison calf at Old Faithful-- and saw members of the herd brave the danger and go back to try and unsuccessfully retrieve the calf.

And if one needs a further testament to the intrepid spirit of this remarkable animal, we need only recall the story (and look again at the photos) that went viral last year of a bison, badly burned from a fall in a hot spring, who still managed to outrun a hungry grizzly bear.

On this blog, for the most part, I prefer to steer away from opinion and instead inspire others by simply sharing the wonders of Yellowstone. Yet when I read this evening that one of the test bison I had written about in my prior post was killed as a result of it not staying within the prescribed safe area, a profound sadness overcame me.

Last week marked the beginning of what many heralded as a new era of bison tolerance on the northern range of Yellowstone when a test group of bison were released and allowed to roam outside the park boundary for the first time in decades. Yet not even a week later one of the herd is slaughtered for refusing to move from private property adjacent to the newly designated protection corridor.

This has been a very snowy winter and even the lower elevations of the park near Gardiner have received above average snow. The bison was probably hungry and tired and had no conception that his quest for greener pastures would result in death. The punishment doesn't seem to fit the crime. Bison with ancestors who once roamed the entire continent don't perceive property lines, they see the world in terms of survival and migrate where they find a food source. So why was this bison shot? Allegedly to prevent the spread of brucellosis to livestock, although most sources I have consulted say there has never been a documented case of a bison spreading the disease to cattle.

The Yellowstone bison are part our our national heritage, they are the last continuous descendants of the mighty wild herds of bison that once wandered our country. In the early 1900s, bison had dwindled from the 60 million animals that existed prior to the mid 1800s to less than two dozen hiding out in Yellowstone. In one of the most significant conservation measures of our time, the park restored the herd back to health, and today over 3,000 bison call Yellowstone their home.

When confronted with the historical mass slaughter of the great bison herds, most of us express dismay. And although it was only a single bison shot this weekend, I feel the same sadness. Have we still not learned to cherish wildness and the specialness of wild creatures? If even one bison can't find protection in the last sanctuary for his kind, then we as a people may need to rethink our priorities.

Where Yellowstone’s Bison Roam

Yellowstone's bison leaving the park's northern entrance by Roosevelt Arch Photo: Beth Pratt This morning at the north entrance of Yellowstone, a steady stream of bison wandered down from the foothills below Sepulcher Mountain, strolled by the famous Roosevelt Arch, and marched beyond the park’s boundary into the town of Gardiner. Many camped out in the football field of the local school and grazed beneath the goal posts.

Just over 3,000 bison live in Yellowstone National Park. In one of the most significant wildlife conservation measures of our time, the park built the Lamar Buffalo Ranch in 1907 to save the last 23 wild bison in North America, the remains of a population that had dwindled from 60 million animals. By the 1950s, the herd had grown to over 1,000, and in 1968 wildlife managers declared the population restored to health.

Bison grazing on the football field of the Gardiner School (Photo by Beth Pratt)Yet the restoration of Yellowstone’s bison has not been without its controversy. Bison migrate to lower elevations outside the park’s boundaries in winter in search of food. Because of the fear of the animal spreading brucellosis to livestock (whether bison spread brucellosis is another source of fierce debate), once bison cross the park boundary they are often hazed back into the park, or in extreme cases killed. Park management sparked criticism in 2008 when fifty percent of the park’s iconic herd—over 1,600 bison—was slaughtered.

Last week, the first bison in decades were allowed to travel unhindered outside the northern boundary of the park in the Gardiner Basin. The Interagency Bison Management Plan, developed by agency partners, called for an experimental release of the bison this winter to assess the potential for allowing more of Yellowstone’s bison to access this winter range. In 2008, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) secured 30-year grazing rights for the bison in this area with a $3.3 million deal with the Church Universal and Triumphant. Payments for the fee come from FWP, the National Park Service and non-profit conservation groups.

As this year serves as only a test for the new migration corridor, the dozens of bison wandering outside the park this morning will likely be hazed back if they travel too far in search of forage. And the test group of bison still risk being killed if they travel beyond the newly protected area (as half of them did the day after being released and had to be herded into safe territory).  Despite the recent progress, for Yellowstone’s wild bison the ability to roam freely still remains an uncertainty.

Late bison calf stopping traffic in Yellowstone

A late bison calf and his mother nap in the snow in Yellowstone National Park Photo: Beth PrattAlthough most of Yellowstone is blanketed in snow after the recent series of storms, visitors to the park's north entrance have been stopping to photograph a bright splash of orange against the white landscape. The source? A fuzzy bison calf born late in the season.

Bison babies don’t resemble their parents at all—although adult bison are magnificent creatures, it’s a stretch to call them cute. But bison calves are pretty darn adorable. The starkly different appearance of the calves from the adults—especially the brick red color of their coats—has caused some park visitors to ask about the “little orange dogs” running with the bison.

A bison usually gives birth in late April through May to one calf (twins occur occasionally) after a nine and a half month gestation period. For the first few days, the calf spends most of its time resting, but soon becomes energetic enough to explore its surroundings.

The orange-reddish coat typically fades after about ten weeks, gradually darkening until it transforms into the dark brown hue of the adult bison. As this little calf was still sporting the bright color, he must have been born late in the fall. Winter is a rough season on wildlife in Yellowstone—especially the young—so the late birth of this calf puts it at a disadvantage. Visitors and park employees are rooting for the calf to survive the winter.

Visitors can look for the calf when visiting Yellowstone at the north entrance gate and on the road between Gardiner and Mammoth Hot Springs.

For more information on bison, visit the Greater Yellowstone Science Learning Center.

Bison amour in Yellowstone’'s Hayden Valley

The Yellowstone River meanders gently through the soft, verdant grasslands in Hayden Valley. Wildflowers color the hillsides and cumulus clouds lazily drift overhead. This pastoral setting is the perfect place for romance—even for bison.

Approximately 3,000 bison call Yellowstone home, and in late July through August every year they journey to the two primary breeding grounds in the park, one of which is scenic Hayden Valley. Bison bulls, who remain solitary or in small bachelor herds for most of the year, seek out females during the rut by grunting, bellowing, wallowing, and fighting with the competition. 

Visit my Examiner page to read the full article and view a slideshow.

Around the Park in Fourteen Days: A Photo Essay

The last couple of weeks I have been traveling in a mad rush around Yellowstone as part of my work, but I made time for capturing some springtime photographs.  

Yellowstone LakeCecropia Moth

Three Bighorn LambsBlack Bear near TowerWatching Old Faithful Erupt from the Crow's NestSnowshoe Hare in motionBison Grazing in Hayden ValleyGrizzly Near Washburn

Frogs 0, Grizzlies 5, Osprey 2, Bighorn 21, Bison & Elk >100

My quest in Yellowstone today--a search for the boreal chorus and columbia spotted frogs. I ventured out to Lamar Valley and wandered around dozens of wetlands and ponds. Those little guys remained elusive--at least by sight--as I listened to the distinctive call of the chorus frog at several ponds.

Despite the lack of frog sightings, my travels in the park were not in vain as my photo diary below demonstrates. I encountered five grizzly bears, observed bighorn and bison mingling, watched a red-winged blackbird bathing, and an osprey fly over the Lamar River. I also spent a delightful hour watching the most adorable bison calves play together--you can view the video below, but beware as you may overdose on cuteness!

Bison Fun

Video: Bison Friends Playing in Yellowstone

Spring in Lamar Valley

Grizzly Near Slough Creek

Bee on Wyoming Kitten-Tails

Bison Skull and Horn

Beartooth Range

American Coot

Osprey in Flight

Red-winged Blackbird Bathing

A Drive Through Yellowstone

Today I had to conduct several environmental trainings around the park, so I drove most of what's referred to as the Grand Loop (except for the Beartooth Pass which is still closed). I welcome long drives in Yellowstone as there is always something interesting to see. Baby bison greeted me in the morning, and a few minutes later I watched a grizzly bear--his paw hurt from an encounter with a porcupine--foraging in a meadow.

As I drove into the park's interior, I also moved into winter. A blanket of snow still covers Hayden Valley and Yellowstone Lake's smooth, frozen surface shows not even a hint of blue water. I also made sure to catch an eruption of Old Faithful--it never fails to elicit a child-like delight in me even though I've seen it erupt dozens of times. Visit the live streaming webcam of Old Faithful to watch it remotely. I waved hello and said happy Mother's Day to my mom in Massachusetts on the webcam today.

I've posted a selection of photographs and videos below from my Yellowstone field trip.

Old Faithful on Mother's Day

Old Faithful Video

Grizzly Bear

Grizzly Bear With Hurt Paw From Porcupine Encounter

Grizzly Bear Video

Frozen Yellowstone Lake

Two Baby Bison Crossing Road

Hayden Valley

Chipmunk Watching Old Faithful

Of Bears and Bison

John Muir wrote, "A thousand Yellowstone wonders are calling, 'Look up and down and round about you!'" Being lucky enough to live and work in the park, I experience these wonders on a daily basis. Today was no exception. On my drive to Old Faithful, I witnessed adorable baby bison nursing and a mighty grizzly scrounging for food. I took some photographs and video to share (please excuse my poor filming skills--it was freezing and very windy!).

Grizzly Bear at Swan Lake Flat

Bison Calf Nursing Near Midway Geyser Basin

Bison Tales, Part II: Beth's Bison Birthing Center

This morning a bison gave birth in or near my front yard on the north entrance of Yellowstone. Although I didn't get to witness the event, my wonderful co-workers captured the newborn in some photos for me. Living in Yellowstone affords us some remarkable experiences--truly everyday in this park is a gift.

Adorable is the only word that describes this little guy (or gal). So begins the season of cuteness in Yellowstone. Spring brings bison calves, Canadian geese goslings, wolf pups, elk calves, and bear cubs. It's hard not to overdose on cuteness here!

Bison Tales

Bison Newborn in SnowJust another day at the office. A bison rested with her newborn calf behind the Mammoth Hotel today, close enough that I could watch the pair from my window. This is the first calf I’ve observed this season—last year I delighted in watching their antics while they frolicked in meadows throughout Yellowstone.

Bison babies don’t resemble their parents at all—although I find adult bison magnificent, it’s a stretch to call them cute. But bison calves are pretty darn adorable. The calves stark difference in appearance from the adults—especially the brick red color of their coats—has caused some park visitors to ask about the “little orange dogs” running with the bison.

Bison and Calf in Mammoth Hot SpringsA bison usually gives birth to one calf after a nine and a half month gestation period; twins occur occasionally. For the first few days, the calf spends most of its time resting, but soon becomes energetic enough to explore its surroundings. The orange-reddish coat typically fades after a month, gradually darkening until it transforms into the dark brown hue of the adult bison.

Yesterday at the north entrance of Yellowstone, I watched from my front porch as staff herded some wandering bison back within the park boundaries. I made a quick video of the round-up.

March of the Bison

BIson and Calf Hanging Out Near My Home, April 2008Last year bison frequented my neighborhood in the late winter and spring, the long winter driving them to the limits of Yellowstone’s northern range in greater numbers than usual.  Bison would sometimes peer into the window of my home, and bison calves frolicked and napped in my front yard. I have missed the abundance of bison visits this year as the lighter snowpack made it easier for the animals to obtain food in Yellowstone’s interior.

Overall, it’s been a better year for bison. The harsh winter last year forced a large number of the animals to migrate outside the park boundary, where they risk being slaughtered. Nearly fifty percent of the park’s iconic herd was lost last year—with over 1,400 being shipped to slaughter. This year, park management has not had to kill any animals leaving the confines of the park.

This evening, a herd of bison marched in front of my house, perhaps trying to escape this abrupt snowstorm that interrupted a week of beautiful spring weather—below is a short video of the herd.

A Spring Hike in Yellowstone: A Photo Essay

Spring is earned in Yellowstone, and both the people and wildlife alike greet the melting of the snow and the rising of the temperatures with a sense of accomplishment. For us humans, winter’s chill poses discomfort; for the animals of Yellowstone, it can threaten their survival—especially for its ungulate populations. Foraging for food underneath the deep cover of snow is tough even in the mildest of winters; Dr. James Halfpenny, in one of his classes, compared it to eating cereal all summer, then having to survive on the cereal box all winter.

This past Sunday I took a hike along the Rescue Creek trail and encountered an abundance of wildlife also appreciating the warm sunshine.

An Early Spring Drive Through Yellowstone

I recently drove though the early season quietude of Yellowstone. The semi-plowed roads are open only to administrative traffic, and wildlife still roam freely, looking surprised at any intruding vehicle. Although the calendar indicates spring, the interior of Yellowstone still appears firmly entrenched in winter. Below are a selection of photos from my trip.

March of the Bison

march of the bison 2.jpg.jpgOn the way home from Old Faithful today, my co-workers and I witnessed a lengthy line of cars that stretched nearly five miles past the Madison junction; in Yellowstone this is referred to as the infamous “bison jam.” A large herd of bison marched confidently on the paved road, some peering curiously through our car windows as they passed. The calves--some just beginning to sprout the first sign of horns--trotted and played among the adults.

bison calves with new horns.jpg.jpgIt’s been fun watching the once small calves develop these past few months. The small buds of horns are now showing, and they are developing muscles, most notable in the shoulder region. According to the NPS’s publication Yellowstone Resources and Issues 2008, the bison’s “massive hump supports strong muscles that allow the bison to use its head as a snowplow in winter, swinging side to side to sweep aside the snow.”

Lake Yellowstone

avalanche peak across lake yellowstone.jpg.jpgOld Faithful may be the most popular part of Yellowstone, but it's tough to beat the Lake Yellowstone area for spectacular scenery. Yellowstone Lake, the largest lake in North America over 7,000 feet in elevation, is 20 miles long by 14 miles wide, and its deepest spot is 410 feet. Numerous mountains, such as Avalanche Peak, guard its lengthy shores, and its waters create a blue sky on the ground.

Although regular readers of this blog may recall my fondness for swimming high mountain lakes (Tenaya Lake in Yosemite for one), I won't be freestyling in Lake Yellowstone anytime soon--due to its extremely cold water, I would have a survival time of about 30 minutes.

bison at lake.jpg.jpgScientists have been surveying Lake Yellowstone since the late 1990's. While mapping the bottom of the lake, they have discovered some spectacular features similar to hydrothermal structures found in the deep ocean. One such type of feature is the spire, a silica structure formed by the cooling of hydrothermal fluids rising from the lake bottom. The US Geological Society estimates that some of the spires may be more than 11,000 years old.

Sunbathing Bison

bison in sun.jpg.jpgSpringtime redux. After two weeks of daily snowfall, the sun decided to make an appearance and there was much rejoicing. Green suddenly reappeared on the landscape, the color almost blinding to eyes used to pale white dreariness.

As we drove into the Upper Geyser basin, we encountered a bison herd along the Firehole River enjoying the sun’s warmth. A bison calf strolled on the velvety grass, looking a bit dazed. Perhaps this was his first glimpse of the sun given the long winter we've experienced.
bison calf stretching.jpg.jpg

Bison Jam

A great photo of a typical bison jam in Yellowstone--gridlock bison style!
bison jam.jpg.jpg

And I couldn't resist sharing some more cute bison calf photographs.
bison calve play.jpg.jpgbison calf running.jpg.jpg

Bears Gone Wild

bison crossing geyser hill.jpg.jpgFor my family’s two-day trip to the Old Faithful area, we (along with numerous other tourists) received a stark reminder of the survival of the fittest principle in action. A large grizzly bear took down one of those adorable bison calves in plain sight of unsuspecting park visitors who were leisurely strolling along the boardwalk surrounding Old Faithful.

My parents were ordered off the boardwalk by concerned park rangers as the bison herd fled at full speed across the geyser basin. A few bison followed the grizzly trying to retrieve the calf, but alas it was too late. As a biology major, I am well aware of nature’s food chain thing, and also that grizzly bears need to eat, but I truly don’t need to see a cuddly bison calf get torn apart by a grizzly bear. Can’t the bears stick to whitebark pine nuts?

busted bear.jpg copy.jpgThe next morning, I was on a conference call in my room at the Old Faithful Inn when I heard sirens going off right outside my window. A large intrepid grizzly (possibly the same one who munched on the bison calf the day before) was walking into the hotel parking lot. The park rangers followed in their patrol cars, deploying the sirens to try and scare him away. After about fifteen minutes, he finally ambled off into the basin.

I feel so incredibly lucky to be living and working in a place where I witness magnificent wildlife daily. To be neighbors with grizzly bears is a privilege—as long as they focus on the veggie part of their omnivore diet!

Pratts%20at%20OFI.JPG.jpgThe grisly predator-prey encounter did not seem to affect our appetites, as my family had a delicious dinner at Old Faithful Inn that evening. My dad even had the bison prime rib. My Uncle Jim and Aunt Denise were visiting from New Hampshire, and my parents and brother and his girlfriend made for a full Pratt evening.

On my drive back to Gardiner, I also sighted two coyotes feasting on a winterkill bison. Both looked unbelieving, as if they had hit the jackpot, as wolves or grizzly bears usually claim a fresh carcass.
coyotes with bison carcass.jpg.jpg