Yellowstone park

Yellowstone park is the home to the largest her of American Bison.

Yellowstone: over 2 million acres of valleys, plateaus and mysterious geological formations. The world’s first national park was created by an act of congress in 1872 to help protect Americas vanishing wildlife. This beautiful landscape has been formed over millions of years by fire and ice. This hotbed of volcanic activity is home to over 50% of the worlds geysers, and you will find more than 300 of them throughout the park, headlined by none other than old faithful.

But Yellowstone’s 10,000 thermal anomalies are not the only wonders that keep the park bubbling with activity. Yellowstone also contains one of the largest and most diverse wildlife populations on the planet. It is also home to one of the highest concentration of large mammal species in the continental United States. The primary reason for this large abundance of wildlife is that Yellowstone is one continuous piece of property. It’s a world biosphere reserve and it’s also one of the most intact ecosystems in North America. It has a full range of predators and prey.

For decades the most popular predators were the biggest, the parks grizzly bears. During the winter months however, when the bears are in hibernation, the park is taken over by a voice that had long been silenced, wolves. After a seventy year absence, wolves can once again be heard in Yellowstone. The animals were exterminated from the park in the 1920s but as part of the endangered species act, 31 wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone in 1995 and 1996. Now the population has soared to an estimated 306 wolves in the greater ecosystem. Running free in Yellowstone’s awe- inspiring valleys, is the highest concentration of wolves on the planet. Yellowstone is one of the best places to see wolves!

But among animals other than predators Yellowstone is home to various prey species. There are over 30,000 elk in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, the largest herd on the planet. Thankfully for the wolves, these Elk serve as their primary prey.

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Buffalo Calves

Although the species is starting to flourish again, each year brings a new struggle for the herd. The newborns hold a key to the herd’s survival, and the first year will be a fight for life, an epic battle that has played out on the Great Plains for tens of thousands of years. The herd is constantly on the move, and the young must keep up.

At springtime, after a pregnancy that lasts for nine months, the mother bison slips away from the herd to give birth in private. She licks the calf to clean it and the newborn calf takes its first tentative steps. Newborn calves are wobbly on their legs, but within a few hours they can walk easily. This is imperative, because if it falls behind, it could easily become prey. The mother keeps the calf hidden for one or two days until it can walk well before she and calf rejoin the herd. A single calf is born to each cow about once every two years. The mother needs to bond with the calf if it’s going to survive. As soon as the calves join the buffalo herd, they form close ties with each other, but the heard is constantly on the go and it isn’t always easy for them to keep up.

One of their first struggles may be crossing a river. Within a few weeks the calves are practicing their fighting techniques. They are now weaned from their mother’s milk and graze along with the other herd. It may look like they are having g fun and games, but this is a critical time in a calves life. Winter is only months away, and the calves must prepare for winter survival. They must spend this time of year building the body strength that will protect them during the coming winter. They need to gain about six times their current weight before the first snowfall of late autumn. Even during the best of times, the calves should never wander from the safety of the herd. Luckily for the calves however, the herd is always on the lookout.

A cow may live for 20 years, and may give birth every spring, starting at three years of age. Thus, bison herds may grow to astronomical proportions. It’s no wonder then, that buffalo were once the most populated mammal in North America.

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The Buffalo make a comeback

By 1902, only a few hundred buffalo remained in the United States. Most were held captive in zoos or in private ranches. Only 23 survived in the wild, the buffalo were facing extinction. In response to a public outcry, the U.S congress released some captive Bison into Yellowstone National Park to rebuild a wild herd. So now, more than 100 years later, efforts are underway to repopulate the species, as the America buffalo fight back! Today, nearly 2,500 wild buffalo make their home in Yellowstone Park. Its one of the greatest comeback stories in conservation history! The buffalo are fighting back. On 8,900 square kilometers of parkland, they reclaim their place alongside other wild animals that once dominated the American wilderness.

The success story for buffalo goes beyond Yellowstone, today over 150,000 bison are being raised in other parks and ranches across America. In South Dakota, Fred Dubre manages buffalo for the shian river sun reservation. He corrals the herd of wild bison over 80 square kilometers of land. Fred Dubre founded the Intertribal Bison Cooperative to restore the buffalo to public and Indian lands. Through Fred’s efforts, Native Americans now raise over 15,000 buffalo over 400 square kilometers of tribal lands. But it’s not just a case of taking care of the buffalo. Fred also believes that the buffalo helped to take care of the prairie. He says that if you take care of the land, it will take care of you, and if you respect the things on it and take care of it, it shall do the same. He says there is no better way to take care of the land than to take care of the buffalo that are part of the natural ecosystem on the land.

With the return of the buffalo, Native Americans are rediscovering their cultural pride. At pow wows around the country they are reconnecting with their past. Over the last 100 years, their culture had almost disappeared but today it is returning. So in a sense it seems as though the Native American have gotten their fight back as well.

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The importance of the herd

Bison society is based on the herd: a group of up to 20 related adult females together with their young. The total size of the group may number about sixty animals, young and old. The females in the group stay together for life, but young males leave to join all-male herds when they become mature at the age of three. Adult bulls join the herd in the breeding season and during migrations, or sometimes for mutual defense, but they rarely stay long.

The herd is led by the oldest, most experienced females, who know where to find the best food and water throughout the year. In spring and autumn their quest may take them on long migrations along traditional trails, and at such times many herds travel together. In the early 19th century the plains bison moved over the American prairies in vast super-herds, with thousands of animals the dusty grasslands into brown seas of bison each autumn. Yet each bison was able to recognize relatives or herd members, and at the end of the trek the super-herd split up again until it was time for the return journey the following spring.
Living in herds makes good sense for grazing animals like bison. Despite their size, the yare vulnerable to powerful killers when they are on their won, for they have to spend a lot of time grazing with their head down in the grass. If they live in a herd, some animals can check for danger while others feed. And if they are attacked, they can band together for mutual defense. This is especially important for the bison calves, who would make easy meat for wolves and pumas if they had only their own mothers to protect them. In a herd they can shelter within a circle of heavily armed adults, standing shoulder to shoulder like a living shield.

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Where the buffalo lives the Prairie

The tall grass prairie evolved with weather and fire, yet it was actually created by ancient geologic events. About 65 million years ago, North America was as forested and level as the ancient sea beds that formed it. Then, tectonic plates under the earth’s surface began to shift, creating a spine of mountains that stretched from the Sierra Nevada to the Canadian Rockys. The Rocky’s intercepted the flow of moist air from prevailing Western winds, drying out the midsection of the country. The arid winds opened clearings in the forest and the American plains became a vast savanna similar to the Russian steps or the primordial African grasslands. As wind streams drifted eastward towards the Mississippi, they pickled up precipitation, encouraging a variety of grasses. Short grasses grow in the shadow of the Rockys where it is high and dry. In the mid plains you will find mixed grass species. In the furthest edge of prairie country, bordering the eastern forests, rain averages 30 inches per year and the tall grasses rise from 6 to 12 inches high. Ice also played an important in shaping the parries. Around 18,000 years ago the earth’s climate cooled and glaciers inched down from the north. When the glaciers retreated, they piled tons of rock, silt, and clay over the landscape and formed the hills, lakes, and watersheds of today’s Midwest. Perhaps their greatest gift to us was the soil called prairie earth.

The development of very rich and productive soils in the American Midwest and prairies is a result of many things. First of all and foremost, the presence of grass species themselves makes an impact. Underneath the ground however, there is just as much material in the form of root material. There are roots that penetrate to all depths, vertically and horizontally. So the special distribution of roots is very intense in a prairie ecosystem. As these roots decompose and die the soil organisms: bacteria, protozoa, fungi, and nematods use the dying roots for food. There are upwards of 58 million bacteria in a single gram of fertile prairie topsoil.

From a distance, the tall grass prairie looks like a single simple thing. This is no monotonous meadow however. The prairie is a diverse plant community which grows 150 types of grass and more than 300 species of wildflowers, but grass is the root of it all. The big four native grasses of tall grass prairies are big and little blue stem, Indian grass, switch grass, and prairie cord grass. Of these, big blue grass is the uncontested king. It rises several feet above a man’s head, loves moisture and good soil and is the preferred forage of livestock.

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What happened to the Buffalo

For hundreds of centuries buffalo roamed north Americas Great Plains. Up to 60 million of them thundered across the continent dominating the landscape and sustaining tens of thousands of Native Americans. That is until, a calculated slaughter nearly exterminated the buffalo and the cultures that revered them.

They are the most numerous of the large mammals ever to have lived on the planet, they are known as Buffalo, or Bison! Their ancestors came to North America from Asia during the Ice age and they quickly flourished. By the 18th century, the American Indians depended on them for their very survival. Buffalo were everywhere, and their meat, bones, skulls, hides, and even hooves were used for nourishment and sustenance.

In their 1804 expedition, Lewis and Clark described a moving multitude that darkened the plains from one horizon to the other. But as they moved westward, they built a world unsuited for free ranging herds of buffalo. Fences and railroads fragmented the open plains, the army and railroad companies hired hunter’s to kill buffalo’s by the thousands for their hungry crew. One hunter, Buffalo Bill, single handedly killed over 4,200 buffalo in less than two years. After the civil war, the U.S army set out to conquer the west. In order to defeat the Indians, they needed to defeat their one single food source: buffalo. So the order went out to eliminate the buffalo.

Plenty coo, chief of the crows wrote: when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground and they could not lift them up again, after this nothing happened, there was little singling anywhere.

If you think about it, buffalo were their entire economy at one point, and so its pretty hard for them to continue or even to have a culture after that. So when the tribes lost the buffalo to the slaughter, the very heart of their culture was slipped away.

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Buffalo breeding season

The bulls are in perfect condition and they are growing more belligerent each day. It is breeding season. The noise and fury of the breeding season lasts for just two weeks in the summer, but its an interesting two weeks at that. It occurs in the summer because at this time, all of the females come into heat. This timing also assures that the buffalo calves will be born in the spring, when there is plenty of grass for it and its mother.

When a bull enters the herd, he selects a female in heat. The bulls are exceptionally good at determine which cows are ready, but the cows play hard to get… thus, the bull develops a strategy: He doesn’t leave her sight and remains within one and a half meters of her as he patiently waits for her permission to mate; it is the cow’s decision whether or not to accept him. The bull can spend up to three days following her around, so obsessed by tending to his selected cow and scaring of other males that he rarely stops to eat. During the rut a courting bull can lose up to 90 kilograms. A dominant bull reinforces his superiority with aggressive signals, his tail goes up, he bellows he paws and he wallows in the dirt. The buffalo is polygamous, and so his obsession with one cow fades away and he goes off in search of another. When the threatening postures don’t work, the bulls resort to fighting. All of this is also important for the cow, for it is her job to ensure that her mating partner is the best choice for fathering her calves.

Surprisingly, It’s also this time of year that the buffalo encounter another nomadic animal, the tourist. So many people don’t understand however that the buffalo can be a dangerous animal, and especially during breeding season. With one flip of the head, they can run their horns through your body, crush your chest, or toss you around. There are more injuries each year by buffalo in Yellowstone than by any other animals in the park. They may seem like huge lumbering lawn mowers but they are not, they are nimble and fast and can be very aggressive.

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Buffalo Survival Adaptations

The buffalo is a mammal most everyone is familiar with. It’s the largest land mammal in north America it reaches as much as 2 meters in height and weigh over 900 kilograms. Yet the buffalo is a herbivore and a prey animal. Humans have been the buffalos most deadly predator. In the 19th century people hunted this huge animal to the brink of extinction. Years ago, millions of buffalo roamed wiled across North American prairies. Today there re fewer than 500,000 living in parks, wildlife refuges, and on commercial ranches.

Some of the buffalo’s adaptations include a thick coat and a heavy mane of hair that protect them from severe winter weather. They also have an extremely sharp sense of hearing and smell. They can detect odors from over a kilometer away. Their size gives their predators such as grizzly bears and wolves a great deal to contend with. Buffalo are also strikingly fast, at speeds in excess of seventy kilometers an hour, they are faster even then horses. Wolves are the bison’s natural predator, and they have recently returned to Yellowstone. Working together, a pack can encircle and kill a buffalo. In this epic battle for life, only the strong survive. However, the brutal loss of one weak buffalo will ultimately strengthen the herd. . In spring and early summer, flies are an annoying pest that they continually battle by wallowing in dust baths.

Adult males challenge and fight each other to determine which will be the dominate bull of the herd. The outcome of this fighting affects the herds future because the stronger more dominate male will father the next generation of calves. This is imperative, stronger genes will yield a stronger herd. Buffalo make physical gestures as to their level of anger and potential aggression. Watch out for lifted tails, it’s a warning signal.

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How the buffalo survive winter

It’s the beginning of winter and for the next six months temperatures will plummet to twenty degrees below zero. For warmth, buffalo depend on hot springs, thermal geysers and their own natural protective defensives. Their thick winter coats and extra layers of fat insulate them form the cold, while their large powerful heads act as snow plows. Their humps serve as counterweights to their swinging heads, pushing the deep snow out of the way. Their highly developed sense of smell tells them where to dig; they can detect the scent of grass even under a meter of snow.

In this weather vulnerable calves must stay close to the herd for protection. The bison walk slowly through the deep snow in a single line. The lead animal blazes a path which makes it easy for the herd to follow, especially the younger ones. If an animal strays from the herd, it’s almost certainly in trouble. They are stranded in deep snow without a packed down trail to follow, struggling to survive. The herd is now powerless to help him. The herd must continue on, searching for better grazing. As the herd moves on, once navigable rivers become hidden obstacles. If one buffalo falls into an icy river, it is stuck. Once again, the herd can do nothing, and the animal is left there to die alone.

During a severe winter, the bison often migrate to warmer elevations outside the park, where they are not protected. Some of these animals have been exposed to a disease called brucellosis, there has been no evidence of wild bison transmitting this disease to cattle, but nonetheless the state of Montana is not willing to take this risk, and any animals that stray outside the park can be destroyed. During the terrible winter of 1996 over 1,000 bison were shot and killed, nearly 1/3 of the Yellowstone herd. Winters in Yellowstone are long and difficult, but for the survivors spring means renewal, the beginning of a new cycle.

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What are Bison?

Bison behave like wild cattle. Their ancestors lived on the grassy plains of Europe and Asia four million years ago, and over time these ancient grazing herds evolved into various types suited to different climates. Some found their way to the warm tropics but others- including primitive bison were tough enough to survive the northern ice ages which ended only 12, 000 years ago. Modern types of buffalo are thought to have evolved quite recently- perhaps 4,000 to 7,000 years ago. At this time the sea level was lower, and the Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska was dry land. This enabled the modern bison’s’ ancestors to cross from Asia into North America.

Some stayed in the northern forests. Their descendants, American Bison, are very like the bison still found in Eastern Europe. Others made their way further south and became adapted for life on the prairies. They developed into plains bison – a stockier, slightly smaller type that naturally lives in larger herds than either European or wood bison. Plains bison become extremely numerous, for while there were probably never more than about 200,000 wood bison in the forests, there were probably at least 40 million plains bison roaming the prairies in 1800. Altogether, they formed probably the biggest community of large animals ever known.

The European bison

Two thousand years ago bison lived all over Europe and northern Asia, from Spain to eastern Siberia. But steady hunting over the centuries gradually eliminated them, and by 1900 only a handful of European bison remained. There were two groups. One lived in the great and ancient Bialowieza Forest of eastern Poland, while the other lived in the Caucasus Mountains. Within thirty years both wild populations had been destroyed, but there were enough Bialowieza bison in zoos to start a breeding program. Eventually some of these captive-bred bison were released back into Bialowieza Forest, where they now live wild.

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