The unmistakable silhouette of a bull bison (Bison bison) caught my attention.
Enshrouded in a rainy mist, the curving horns, broad shoulders and massive hump were a perfect picture of nature’s strength.
Seeing bison, here in Yellowstone National Park was not surprising. After all it is the epicenter of their remaining wild range.
Seeing one near a mountain’s peak at nearly 10,000 feet elevation however was not expected.
I ventured on this particular range in search of bighorn sheep and instead found bison and in this case a rather large one.
The story of the bison in North America is a well-documented example of tragedy and triumph.
A government-subsidized push to slaughter them to remove the lifeblood of the plain’s tribes pushed through the 1800s like a freight train.
With deadly proficiency they decimated the herd from 30 million to an estimated 325.
My generation’s view of bison and their habitat mainly comes from the iconic film Dances with Wolves.
Besides introducing the Lakota word for bison”Tatanka” into the vernacular it also gave us the idea that American buffalo are a creature of the flat lands.
The Academy award-winning movie was filmed on plains in South Dakota and Wyoming.
After my Yellowstone encounter, I began looking at locations of wild bison herds and found many are in mountainous areas.
There is the Yellowstone herd that ventures into the high country and bison in the Henry Mountains and Book Cliffs in Utah and other adjoining ranges.
Native Americans used to drive the animals off of cliffs to kill them for food and other provision. Historians call these areas “buffalo jumps”.
The highest known site is at 11,000 feet in Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains.
I never did find a bighorn on the trip but I had an incredible time seeing bison on the mountain and also in the valley below.
Before my time at Yellowstone was up, I saw a large herd of bison in the Lamar Valley. They were 3/4 of a mile away but I decided to shoot photos with my 400 mm lens anyway.
After a few shots, i decided to take out my Leupold 10X 42 binoculars and count the herd.
I counted 386.
That was more bison than existed in the United States at one point in the 1800s.
It was an emotional moment as it hit me we almost lost these great animals and that visionary hunter-conservationists like Teddy Roosevelt and the Boone & Crockett Club helped save Yellowstone by making it a national park and the bison contained within.
I am grateful we now have as many as 500,000 bison throughout North America and am inspired by plans to put wild herds back into their former range.
Thank God for the bison on the plains and on the mountains.
Chester Moore, Jr.
(NOTE: I will be attending Bison On the Edge, a conference in Santa Fe, NM Oct. 28-Nov. 2. It is hosted by the Wildlife Conservation Society and Pueblo of Pojoaque and will focus on bison restoration among other topics. Be on the lookout for reports from the event here at Higher Calling.)
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