Let's Talk About Bison

I’m back from the Sisters of Fantastical Illustration (aka SoFA) Yellowstone art retreat and I have thoughts about bison.

Bison are large, even-toed ungulates in the genus Bison within the subfamily Bovinae (thanks, Wikipedia!). They are massive animals with shaggy brown coats and curving horns and poor eyesight, but they hear well and have an excellent sense of smell so they’ve got that working for them. Yellowstone National Park has the largest remaining population of wild plains bison (about 4,000) and one of the two herds has established a home turf in the Lamar Valley, an area characterized by rolling meadows, geothermal activity and many, many tourists. Bison can run at speeds of up to 35 mph, and are described by the US Fish & Wildlife Service as extremely agile, able to jump fences and change direction quickly. They’re big. The males generally weigh 1500 - 1800 pounds but can mass as much as a ton.  The females are smaller, but only relatively. Tourists, in general, do not have either the size or the speed to compete.

American bison are large, fast, wild animals with bad eyesight, and the males in particular will meet any perceived threat with belligerence. As a result, the bison of Yellowstone are the most deadly animal in the park, out-murdering the wolf and the grizzly bear, not through bloodlust but by being huge, grumpy animals who know they were here first.

This story started with my quick watercolor sketch of bison.  This sketch is from a photograph I took on our first trip into the park. I sketched and painted it later, back at the house, where I had a table to work on and was not surrounded by bison and tourists.

I was not prepared for how many bison exist beside the motorways of Yellowstone Park. Thinking on it, it makes sense that the roads would run through the flat valley areas of the park, and that bison would graze on valley grass, especially near geothermal springs where heat and moisture make the grass grow early and rich. Thinking on it, it’s nice that bison and humans can live as well together as they do. 

But I wouldn’t take the bison’s tolerance for granted. And I would not leave my nice car to chase a bison into its pasture lands for a selfie.

Later I wound up at the National Museum of Wildlife Art (Jackson Hole, WY) where I met this 1905 painting of bison by NC Wyeth, an illustration for a magazine story on bison as a valuable natural resource. (Not a thrilling interpretation but a step up from trying to exterminate them, as was the fashion of the previous century.)  Wyeth is one of my favorite artists, with his abrupt and energetic art style and his two-fisted illustrations for adventure novels like Treasure Island and Kidnapped. From what I’ve read he seems to have been rather like a bison himself, abrupt and confrontational when challenged, capable of swift and decisive action in his work. After art school he went out west to see cowboy life first hand and wound up working along side cowpunchers and pony express riders for a while, so he may actually have seen buffalo in the wild. Not as many as shown here, I expect, but some.  

To see Wyeth's original work is like seeing a handprint of some friend, stepped out of the room but still close.  I said hello.

It was a privilege to see bison as close to wild as it is possible for them to be today, and I thought them amazing, with their huge battering-ram heads and lean hind quarters, and, yes, the baby bison were adorable but... stay in the damn car.

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