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In Context #14 (Fall, 2005, pp. 3-6); copyright 2005 by The Nature Institute

Wildlife Observations
Craig Holdrege

National Bison Range, Montana (Photo by C. Holdrege).

In early summer Henrike and I and our fourteen-year-old son, Martin, traveled to the Rocky Mountains of Montana and Wyoming. Our aim was to observe wildlife, and particularly the bison, which I have begun to study. We found unexpected abundance: in addition to the hundreds of bison we saw in different herds, we came across nineteen bears (mainly black bears and a couple of grizzlies), wolves (in Yellowstone), coyotes, pronghorns (a unique antelope of the American west), both white-tailed and mule deer, elk, moose, and the large numbers of small rodents whose tunnel openings you encounter nearly every step you take. This is to leave aside all the birds we saw. After two weeks, we felt we had not only bathed in the beautiful landscapes, but also participated to a small degree in a world where wild animals play a significant role.

When you watch animals as we did for only short periods of time, you try to take in as much as you can. You want to gain vivid impressions of the animals' appearance, movements and ways of behaving, which include what they are relating to. Usually I try to re-picture the encounters later and then make journal entries. These observations provide an essential background and context for my further studies of the animal - for my investigations of the animal's morphology and for the literature research I do to build up a many-sided picture of the animal.

Here is a selection of journal entries from the trip, lightly edited to provide the necessary context.

June 12, 2005, National Bison Range, Montana

We drove to the 19,000-acre National Bison Range, which lies north of Missoula, Montana, near the southern end of the broad Mission Valley. It had been a rainy June and the landscape was still green and seemed lush, despite the widespread presence of sage brush. The mountain peaks on both sides of this vast valley were still covered in snow. The bison range itself is hilly, the lower areas are prairie, and the tops of many hills also support Douglas fir/ponderosa pine forests.

Bison: Today we saw bison mostly at a distance and caught sight only of small groups (often one to five animals, once thirteen). Since my previous observations of bison were in zoos, it definitely felt "right" seeing them in this vast landscape, where they belong, as small black dots, grazing and moving slowly along the grass-covered hills. We observed one group of five bison up close-three males (one yearling, one juvenile and a large, older bull), a female, and her one to two-month-old male calf. The calf was a light, reddish brown in contrast to the deep dark brown of the other animals. It had not yet developed a hump or long hairs on the head and shoulders, so that it strongly resembled a domestic cow calf. If you saw it in a herd of cattle, you might not know it was a bison. The inimitable look of bison develops only over time.

The calf was more playful than the other bison, which were either lying and ruminating, or standing and walking slowly while grazing. The calf was also the only one of the group to take notice of us. At one point it ran around vigorously in a wide circle and repeated this jaunt a number of times. Periodically it bounded with all four feet in the air - the embodiment of youthful vigor. The juvenile male then walked to a roundish, plant-free depression in the ground - a wallow - and lay down on its side. Creating a cloud of dust, it rolled a number of times onto its side with feet in the air. But it never rolled over, since the hump on the back provides an insurmountable barrier. The calf watched the juvenile's wallowing and then it wallowed. If I have ever seen a case of imitation among animals, this was it. The calf clearly hadn't mastered wallowing yet. It could hardly roll on its side and its legs flailed around. Evidently, wallowing is not an inborn capacity!

Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park (Photo by C. Holdrege).

The group grazed silently during the half hour we watched them. The yearling occasionally pushed a bit with its head at the calf in a playful, sibling-like way.

Close up, with their massive and compact bodies, bison make impressive forms. Calmness, yet also a kind of held strength radiates from them. The large head, with all its fur and the long, hanging beard, is always near the ground and makes a singular, hard-to-describe impression, as it weighs downward, full of gravity, from the raised hump between its shoulders.

Black Bear: A wholly unexpected site greeted us as we drove up the range's narrow dirt road near the edge of a Douglas fir/ ponderosa pine forest. The forest was bounded by a lush meadow full of wildflowers-arnica, Senecio, geranium, lupine, butter and eggs, Echium, sunflowers, and many more species we didn't know. Out of the forest appeared a cinnamon and dark-brown-colored black bear. (Black bears, Ursus americanus, are by no means always black; many display this cinnamon coloring.) The bear's head was nearly black around the face and muzzle and then turned rich cinnamon brown in the rump and legs. It stood, four-legged, about three-feet high.

We were able to watch it for about forty minutes as it ambled around in the meadow. It would go up to a rock lying in the meadow and, with the claws of one of its forelegs, flip the rock over. This occurred with the greatest ease and nonchalance, indicating the bear's immense strength. Once the rock was displaced, the bear poked its nose down into the opened-up soil, evidently feeding on grubs, ants, and other substonal delights. Sometimes it just tipped a rock to one onside, dropped it again, and moved along. Not every rock covered ample treats! A couple of times it looked our way, but didn't seem overly concerned or disturbed by us. After it had fed richly and moved many stones, it ambled off and up into the forest.

June 13, National Bison Range, Montana

Bison: We spent about eight hours on the range today. Driving along slowly on the dirt road we encountered a large herd of bison, perhaps three hundred animals. They moved along the grassy hillside, grazing. The herd was mixed - all age groups and both sexes. There were many calves, most of which (we were told by the Range's biologist) had been born in April or May. The herd moved in segments down toward the gravel road we were on. In no time we were surrounded by bison. But we were not the focus of their attention. They were moving across the road toward a few watering holes and the neighboring wallows. Although separated by the walls of our car, it was often breathtaking to have a huge creature move by literally at arm's length, emitting deep guttural grunts as it walked.

Many of the bison walked into the watering holes and stood drinking for a while. Often they would then climb up the banks and wallow in the dirt. The most prolific wallowers were two-to-three-year-old bulls. They either just rubbed their heads back and forth in the dirt or lay down and rocked to and fro on their sides. These short and intense meetings with the earth seem an essential part of a bison's daily activity. The young bulls often wallowed next to each other, and then got up and sparred. The sparring usually consists of head to head pushing and then simply ends, sometimes with one of the bulls walking off. With their heads almost touching the ground and their humps rising above their powerful, forward thrusting shoulders, sparring bison display impressive strength.

The bison sometimes galloped while coming down the hillside into the valley. Otherwise they usually walked and, while walking, grazed. On the back of a bison we often observed cowbirds, whose black heads and brown body coloring somewhat mimics the coat of their giant companions. These birds would fly down off the bison and jump around on the ground in close proximity to the bison's hooves. It seems remarkable that in this search for food they don't get trampled.

How to give expression to the feeling of being surrounded by bison? Their massiveness and of course the density of the presence of so many animals at one time grips you. There's an atmosphere of earnestness - only the calves are playful and "light."

Later we observed a large, lone, old bull. He was grazing, extending his long pointed tongue and enwrapping tufts of grass. His head rose and descended as he grazed and slowly moved along, making such an impression of immensity that I can't think of anything comparable. The head is covered with a luxuriant growth of hair, especially the forehead and chin, and the dense, long pelage extends down (or up) the neck, over the shoulders and along the forelimbs. This impressive coat accentuates strongly the front part of the animal. The fur is much shorter in the rear half of the body and on the back legs. Since the tail is neither long nor furry, the rear part of the body seems to recede just as the front half protrudes and dominates in the bison's gestalt.

June 16, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Bison: We drove out into Lamar Valley at 5 am. The valley is fairly broad with the flood plain of the meandering Lamar River surrounded by hillsides of sagebrush prairie (mainly on the southern exposures) and Douglas fir forests on the northern exposures and hilltops. We drove along and encountered small bison groups, a few lone males, and then a large herd that inhabits the valley at this time of year. The herd was on both sides of the road and once again we were surrounded by hundreds of animals. The herd consisted primarily of females with calves, as well as young males and females. The older males were mostly off on their own.

We watched extensively a cow and her almost newborn calf. The calf was much smaller than the other calves - little more than half their size - and we could see the remnants of the umbilical cord. It couldn't have been more than a few days old, a late birth in the herd. The calf was just tall enough to walk under its mother's chest, right behind the front legs! When we caught sight of it, it looked as though it might have been nursing, but then it stopped and didn't make any nursing attempts again. It always stayed close to its mother. Sometimes, after walking a while, it would lie down. When its mother moved along, it would stand up and walk to catch up with her. Its gait was still uncertain, and once it tripped, stumbling a bit forward before catching itself.

Another calf tried to get close to the newborn but the mother nosed it away; the same occurred with a yearling. Evidently, the cow was trying to keep others at a certain distance, although she and her calf were clearly within the herd and not separate from it.

We observed an older calf nursing. It forcefully shoved up against the udder and the (in our eyes) poor mother seemed almost lifted into the air. We noticed that quite a few of the bison here still had their winter coats of long, thick fur. Many looked straggly as they shed bunches of this thick fur in the rear half of their body. The cow with the newborn calf still had a complete winter coat. This herd moved continually along, grazing and grunting. In the distance on the other side of the river a large group of bison grazed and many animals were lying, ruminating.

June 19, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Coyotes: Shortly before dusk, we drove along a back road in the flat country west of the Teton range - sagebrush openings, lodge pole pine forests, and aspen groves. There were also willow thickets along a stream where we hoped to find moose - but to no avail. On the way back to the main road I saw two grayish, light-brown, dog-like creatures moving along the road ahead of us. They turned out to be coyotes. One was chasing the other. They crossed over into a sagebrush field and were moving fast. Suddenly they stopped and turned head-to-head. Both reared up on their hind legs and pawed for an instant at each other. One of the coyotes broke off and raced away. The chase through the sagebrush resumed. They galloped off into the woods. Strange how such a fleeting glimpse - I'm sure we didn't watch them for more than a minute - into the life of two animals can be so powerful and stick with you so vividly.

Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park (Photo by C. Holdrege).

Moose: After watching the coyotes we drove back to the main road. The willow-bottomlands along the Snake River seemed prime moose territory. We had just remarked that if you look for something too hard, you may well not find it, when we saw some cars stopped at the roadside. We also stopped, got out and looked down the steep ten-foot embankment to the wetland. There was a huge, chocolate-brown bull moose. He had a full rack of growing, velvet-covered antlers and was standing almost up to his chest in a small pool surrounded by willows. He would sink his long, barrel-shaped muzzle down into the water and submerge his head so that all you saw was the more-than-a-yard-wide spread of his antlers. When he raised his head, water cascaded off his fur, and white roots and stems dangled dripping from his mouth. He pulled these in and chewed. He steadily and calmly fed off the pool-floor vegetation for about an hour.

At times, when his head was submerged, he would blow out through his nose and the water would bubble up around him. (I'd never thought of moose contributing to water aeration!) Once a police car zipped by with siren screaming and the moose took no notice of it. Only when a car screeched briefly with its breaks did he lift his head and look up toward the source of the noise. Otherwise he seemed to have little interest in the humans and machines around him. His eyes were tiny compared to his long and blocky snout and his immense antlers. His ears were hardly visible near the base of the antlers.

From the pool he finally moved a few steps and began feeding on the willows. Sometimes he would strip a branch of its leaves by putting his mouth around it and pulling back with his head. Other times he bit off an entire twig. Finally, he moved off deeper into the willow thicket and out of sight.

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