Friday, November 4, 2022

North American Bison


Saturday, November 5th, 2022 is National Bison Day, and each year since 2013, the first Saturday of November has been set aside to raise awareness of and to celebrate the largest land animal in the United States. In 2016, President Obama designated and signed into legislation the North American Bison as our national mammal. I can think of no other mammal more deserving of this honor. Their history is steeped in lore, tragedy and legend. 

Bison arrived on our continent approximately 195,000 to 135,000 years ago during the middle Pleistocene period. They descended from the Siberian steppe bison, who in turn descended from other prehistoric bison-like animals. These herbivores roamed in large herds across the vast great plains of our nation for thousands of years. Early man evolved with the bison and depended greatly on all the bison provided, including meat, fur, hide, bones, and sinew. Nothing was wasted. By the 1700’s it was estimated bison herds exceeded thirty million in number. These historically large herds of bison fed on sedges, grasses and other plants in the prairies and woodlands, scattered all across the Great Plains. 

They created large wallows by rolling around on the ground in dry dusty soil. These wallows served to rid the bison of shedding fur, and to help eliminate parasites as well as to relieve itchy skin. During mating season reproductive males will urinate in the wallows prior to rolling in it. This coats their skin in aromatic bodily fluids that advertise their dominance, and virility. These wallows serve an important ecological role in the prairie ecosystems. The shallow depressions of the wallows hold water and create shallow pools for invertebrates and small mammals to drink from. The action of rolling in these wallows also compress the soil and allow many plants to seed and develop. Some ancient wallows can still be spotted by airplanes flying over the great plains. As the plant life that developed within the wallows is a different color than the plants surrounding it. 



Nomadic by nature they migrated in vast numbers following food sources. The many Indigenous tribes that depended so much on the bison for survival developed nomadic ways of life alongside the bison. These native peoples followed the herds to summer foraging grounds, where hunting parties would harvest what their people needed to survive the long winters ahead. Most tribes honored the bison for all it provided with celebratory ceremonies consisting of dancing and feasting. 

By the1800’s and with an increase in hostility towards native peoples the bison became the target along with the Indigenous people themselves. Reasons varied for the slaughter of these large beasts, but no one argues the main reason was to subdue the Indigenous nations who depended on them. Other reasons were to provide meat for a growing army and population of civilians, and for the value of the hide and fur. Europeans and settlers of the west also wanted to fence off the land and raise cattle, so by removing the bison they could accomplish this goal. Crow chief, Plenty Coups said of the massacre of the bison “When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again.” Most native people believed the bison would never go away because they had always been, how could they be no more? With the loss of the bison, there was also spiritual loss among the Indigenous people who were dependent upon them for their survival as well as spiritual well-being. The height of the slaughter was during the 1870’s and by 1889 it was estimated there were only 540 wild bison left in the United States.

In the early 1900’s awareness of what we would lose as a nation began to sink in and campaigns were adopted to save the bison. William Hornaday a naturalist during the 1800’s spent time out west among the bison and plains tribes both before and after the near extinction the iconic animal. He commented “It would have been as easy to count or estimate the leaves in a forest as to calculate the number of buffaloes living at any given time during the history of the species previous to 1870.”

It is estimated there are 500,000 bison living in the United States today, with most of them in confinement being raised for meat, fur, hides and dairy products. Of the 500,000 only 15,000 or so reside in national parks and very few are considered truly wild. Yellowstone National Park holds the claim to the only true wild herd in our country. Nearly 5,000 bison live in the park and through DNA testing were revealed to be the descendants of the twenty-four known bison that were able to take refuge there during the height of the massacre in the mid 1800’s. With such a large population of bison in the park and with their wondering, migratory instincts many leave the refuge of the park and conflicts arise with ranchers and landowners. Will the bison ever truly be free to roam?

During the 1800’s some Europeans tried to domesticate the bison for meat and other resources. They soon found these animals are difficult to contain. They could jump six feet vertically, run at speeds up to 65 MPH when agitated and run through fencing, even if made of razor wire. Males weigh around 2,000 pounds and stand roughly six feet at the shoulders and are formidable when angry, females are smaller, at about 1,000 pounds, but still strong and capable of inflicting great harm to humans. With the turn of the 20th century and better fencing systems and a better understanding of the bison in general it has been easier to keep them in confinement, but they are still not without their challenges. In the wild, bison may live up to fifteen years, and in captivity they are capable of living twenty-five years. Females form maternal herds with other females and their calves. Males remain in the maternity herds until they are three years old at which time they leave and remain on their own or form small bachelor herds. Occasionally old males will be found with the maternity herds. The only time males and females intermingle is during breeding season. Typically, bison, because of their size, temperament, speed, and strength are safe from predation. Wolves are the exception. Late winter signals the southward migration of elk, and food sources for the wolves are scarce, and this is when they turn their hunting skills to the bison. Herds are weakened by heavy snowfall, and reduced availability of food. This makes it easier for wolves to cull the sick, dying, injured or very young bison in a herd.

Over recent years we have heard about or read about many human, bison conflicts, mostly in National Parks. People mistakenly think because these animals are so large and cumbersome looking that they pose no real threat to their personal safety. This is a huge error in judgement. Bison are territorial and quick to react to a perceived threat and can easily outrun and overpower a human. Bisons attack dozens of people annually and some pay for their mistake with their lives. There is nothing quite so awe inspiring as visiting a National Park and witnessing the bison freely roaming within easy viewing. These heart pounding encounters are sure to leave an impression! However, tempting it may be, please give them their space and do not attempt to pet the fluffy cows. 

This coming Saturday take a moment to reflect on our national mammal, the bison, on a day set aside just for it and all it represents to our great nation.


Sunday, October 2, 2022

Least Chipmunks

On a trip to South Dakota, near a woodland where we had rented a cabin, we began noticing tiny chipmunks running all around the grounds near where we were staying. Every trip out west is sure to bring with it sightings of chipmunks, and this trip was no different. These small, quick moving, agile chipmunks are called least chipmunks and are the most common of all chipmunks in their range. They are found throughout the great plains, westward to California and in many northern states. Least chipmunks are the smallest of the chipmunk species found in the United States, females may reach lengths up to nine inches (including the tail) with males being slightly smaller.

Their color varies from grayish to reddish-brown with a cream or white underside. There are five brown or black lines separated by four cream or white stripes running down their back. Two light and two dark stripes run from the tip of the nose through the eye and the top of the head. The bushy tail is orangish-brown. These hyperactive rodents are found busy gathering nuts, berries, seeds, and insects during the daylight hours. Because of their diurnal habits exposure to nocturnal hunters like owls, foxes, raccoons, weasels, and other predators is minimized. Although animals such as hawks and snakes, that are active when chipmunks are scurrying around, will still snatch one for a quick meal when they can. And when I say quick, I mean it. These speedy little chipmunks can run at speeds up to four and half miles per hour! They are not only fast, but they are also great climbers and jumpers, so any predator bent on a least chipmunk meal is going to have to work for it.]

Chipmunks, like many rodents’ store food for use during winter and other times when food might be scarce. They use specially adapted cheek pouches to stuff food into for transporting to hidden caches under logs, rock piles and in tree cavities. Because their favored foods are tree nuts and seeds, they are considered seed dispersers and help transport seeds and nuts to new locations thus expanding the range of many plants and trees.


The least chipmunk is often mistaken for the yellow pine chipmunk that shares much of the same range and habitats. The YPC is bigger and much more territorial, often chasing the smaller least chipmunk away from available food sources. Despite this apparent bullying behavior, the least chipmunk is able to survive on less food than most chipmunks and tend to be more plentiful in areas where food sources are scarce.

These little chipmunks are not true hibernators like bats, and other mammals. Instead, they enter into a type of slumber called torpor. They will slow their metabolic rate and reduce their body temperature, which reduces their need for food. They do not pack on fat like other animals do before a long winter of hibernation. Many times, during the winter they will wake up and seek out their caches of food for a quick meal and find water if available before going into a deep sleep again. When spring returns, they are active again. On cooler days, these little chipmunks often climb trees seeking out a higher vantage point to bask in the sun and warm themselves.

 The biggest challenges facing chipmunks are human activity. This comes in the form of habitat destruction as well as poisoning and trapping. Many people consider chipmunks pests and target them much like other rodents. However, least chipmunks pose no significant issues for humans, other than maybe in campgrounds where they tend to beg for treats in a form of conditioning. Who hasn’t tempted a chipmunk closer to them with a tasty peanut or piece of granola? Once a chipmunk associates a human with an easy food source they will hang out where the humans are.


The Iroquois tribe talks of how the chipmunk got his stripes. Back when the animals were in charge of making big decisions such as whether we should have eternal night or night and day, the bear being the biggest and the strongest of all animals climbed to the highest mountain. Deer, raccoon, chipmunk, wolf, and many others followed. On top of the rocky, treeless mountain the bear growled in his strongest voice that the world should have only darkness. The Wolf and raccoon, being too scared to do otherwise, agreed with bear. However, the tiniest animal of all, the chipmunk spoke up against the bear. He wanted there to be both daylight and darkness. The bear grumbled, and growled, and said, “No! Darkness only!” The chipmunk continued to chatter and talk and kept the bear so distracted all night long that the sun began coming up in the East. The other animals having never seen a sunrise before were mesmerized by the beauty. The bear realizing what had happened was angry at the chipmunk and quickly chased him down the mountain. Bear was fast and reached out with his giant paw, but chipmunk got away, although not before bears long claws scratched his back. To this day you can see the stripes on the chipmunks back.

These spunky little rodents are one of my favorite mammals, and no trip out west is complete unless I spot one. These small chipmunks are not only cute but provide much needed nutrition for a variety of predators. They disperse seeds and contribute to increasing the range of many plants. Their antics are entertaining and fun to watch making any camping trip or hike in the woodlands more enjoyable. Sometimes just taking time to appreciate the smallest things bring the biggest joys.