21 March 2012


At some point the grizzly bear and the bison must have come head to head to battle out who would be the Montana state animal. Of course, despite the bison’s menacing expression, horns and fearsomely strong shoulders the grizzly bear won. Nonetheless, the bison lives on as a state treasure, despite the threats it has faced. Montana is home to one of North America’s few wild bison populations, where they can be visited and admired in their natural habitat.

American bison (bison bison) are also, wrongly, in scientific terms, known as buffalo. It is thought that French explorers called them ‘les boeufs’ which the British then changed to ‘buff’, hence buffalo. The beasts are majestic, you know the ones: massive with straggly beards, a shaggy coat, a forceful looking shoulder hump and horns with mature bulls at over six-feet high and 12-feet long and weighing around 2,000 lbs. Quite amazing for a creature that just feeds on grasses and a true sight to behold.

Bison mostly graze, chew and wallow in dry or wet hollows to rid themselves of insects, though this trouble can also be alleviated by pecking magpies, who ride on their backs. Although they look calm and lazy, they can be unpredictable. The National Bison Range in Montana warns visitors: “Bison and other wild animals can be dangerous.” Likewise, Yellowstone warns that every year some visitors are injured by bison and tells visitors to stay at least 25 yards away.

A raised tail may indicate an impending charge. Think they look slow? Think again. Somehow, they can shift their mass up to as much as 35 miles per hour! They can also spin round faster than a horse! This presents many good reasons for keeping up insurance; just as an extreme fisherman needs good boat insurance, a bison photographer should have all his equipment insured!

Past to present

Prior to the 1800s bison were free to roam throughout North America though preferred the Great Plains. Estimates vary, but it is thought that there were at least 30 million. They were crucial to the survival of the Plains Indians, who would capture them in ‘jumps’ where they were herded off a cliff and you can visit such sites today. Every part of the captured creature was put to good use: its skin was used for leather for clothing or to make shelter, meat was dried for food, horns and hooves were made into a glue or tools, sinew was used for sewing and dung for fuel. There was also a strong spiritual connection to the bison, which was considered sacred, especially the rare White Bison.

With the movement west of the early settlers in the 1800s, bison-hunting threatened the animal with extinction. They were killed for their hides and sometimes even just for their tongues, considered a delicacy. Concerns had been raised earlier, but thanks to Roosevelt and others, federal  legislation was introduced in 1894, ensuring that bison killing was met with imprisonment or a fine. By the twentieth century, there were as few as 300 bison in the wild, but the legislation halted further slaughter. Nodding to the threat the bison faced in Montana, the state quarter carries a bison skull.

Further steps protected herds in parks. In 1908, the National Bison Range was set up in northwest Montana, again under the auspices of President Roosevelt. Today some 350-500 of Montana’s bison live the 18,500-acre range. Photographers join families and wildlife enthusiasts to watch these fabulous beasts. Many moves have also been made to protect bison in Yellowstone National Park, which now, with over 3,000, hosts the world’s largest free-roaming bison. They can be seen all year-round in Hayden and Lamar valleys, in grasslands in summer and in winter in the hydrothermal areas and along the Madison River.
Plate and palate
These awesome creatures are also enjoying a revival on the American plate. The National Bison Association says that there are 500,000 heads of bison in the US, as ranches exist throughout the US where the animals are bred to provide meat for a population with a growing taste for the meat, also aware that it is said to have nutritional benefits over other meats. The president served even up ‘Bison Wellington’ for a state dinner at the White House with British Prime Minister David Cameron earlier this month and took him to see baseball. Perhaps a trip to Montana to see bison in the wild would be even more satisfying!

If you’re heading to Montana and want to see some bison my favorite place is the National Bison Range near St. Ignatius. This park is a gem. There are great roads you can drive and, if you’re lucky get quite close to these elegant beasts. Also, you are not likely to have to battle crowds as this park does not get quite the press as it's near neighbor Yellowstone. That makes it even more special to me. I can watch the herd graze over the hillsides and imagine and be transported to a different time. Very special!

Black and white image of a bison at the National Bison Range in Montana.

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