Abstract - Bull Bison Behavior at Wind Cave National Park

Petersburg, Stephen J. 1973. Bull Bison Behavior at Wind Cave National Park. M.S. Thesis. Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 302 p.


The American bison (Bison bison bison Linnaeus) is probably the most historically significant mammal on the North American continent. Their presence was of extreme importance to the culture and survival of many Indian peoples. Bison were perhaps equally important the expansion of the "western frontier," both as an asset for survival and as a detriment to the "settlement" of the United States.

Accounts of the discovery of bison by white man, their subsequent expatriation from former ranges, and their near extinction have been recorded by Hornaday (1889), Garretson (1938), Roe (1970) and others. Many authors, including these three, have written about the hunting of bison and/or their importance to Indian tribes (e.g. Branch 1929, Gard 1959, and Haines 1970).

Seton (1929), whose figures are most often quoted, estimated early bison populations at a "conservative" 60 million animals. Hornaday (1889) mapped the pre-white man range of bison and suggested that the bison was probably still expanding its range at that time. From these uncounted millions, wild bison numbers were reduced to less than 200 animals in the late 1800's (Garretson 1938). These few were found primarily in Yellowstone National Park and northwestern Canada. In 1905, a few concerned individuals organized the American Bison Society (ABS) with its expressed objective being: "the permanent preservation and increase of the American bison" (American Bison Society 1908). The interest and efforts of this group, coupled with that of the owners of private bison herds, provided the nuclei for the bison herds which exist today.

Present bison owners include private individuals and nearly all levels of government. Rorabacher (1970) estimates that present bison numbers in the United States and Canada are in excess of 35,000 to 40,000.

Bison behavior has apparently intrigued observers from the time of the first discovery of the species by white man. Perhaps a basic understanding of bison behavior patterns was not only interesting but essential to those Indian peoples who depended on the bison for their survival. Certainly an understanding of some behavior patterns aided hunters in the great slaughter of the western herds in the late 1800's.

Hornaday (1889), Grinnell (1904), Seton (1929), Garretson (1938), and Roe (1970) cite early authors who recorded, sometimes anthropomorphically, various behavior patterns of bison. Behavioral observations by Hornaday, Grinnell, Seton, and Garretson tended to be casual and although many of the behavior patterns they recorded were accurately described, others were assumed or personified. These authors often accepted questionable statements by earlier writers and thus prolonged the acceptance of some misconceptions of bison behavior. Roe (1970) noted that many of the early accounts of behavior were contradictory. He suggested that later writers sometimes arbitrarily accepted or rejected early accounts, depending on whether or not they confirmed or contradicted the writer's own ideas.

Soper (1941) represents a transition between these early authors and the more critical investigators who succeeded him. He devoted much of his work to the behavior of bison in Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada, although some of his reports are now considered inaccurate.

The last 15 years have seen several scientific publications concerning bison and bison behavior. McHugh (1958) has presented one of the most complete reports on bison behavior, based primarily on his observations at Yellowstone National Park, Jackson Hole Wildlife Park, and Wind Cave National Park. Fuller (1960) reported on the behavior and social organization of bison in Wood Buffalo National Park. Later studies have usually been directed more toward specific aspects of bison behavior. Egerton (1962) studied cow-calf behavior, the social hierarchy, and rutting behavior at Waterton Lakes National Park and Wood Buffalo National Park. Shackleton (1968) examined the seasonal charges in the sizes of bison groups at Elk Island National Park and the National Bison Range. Engelhard (1970) concentrated most of his investigations on calf behavior at the National Bison Range. The status of bison populations at Yellowstone National Park during the past and present, along with some information on behavior, is presented by Meagher (1970). Lott (in press) studied agonistic and sexual behavior patterns at the National Bison Range. Three studies directed by Dr. A.O. Haugen and the Iowa Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit provided the background and framework for this study. Fischer (1968) and Herrig and Haugen (1970) studied bull bison behavior at Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park and Ft. Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge. Shult (1972) examined calving behavior, cow-calf relationships and rutting behavior at Wind Cave National Park.

The field portion of this study was conducted at Wind Cave national Park from 30 May through 2 September, 1969, and 26 May through 20 November, 1970. Short trips were made to the study area during the fall of 1969 and the winters of 1970 and 1971. Additional observations were made during the summers of 1971 and 1972 when the investigator was employed as a seasonal ranger at Wind Cave. The purposes of the study were to examine the movements and behavior of bull bison, with emphasis on selected bulls using radio telemetry; to determine daily and seasonal changes in range, with emphasis on the selected bulls; and to investigate the behavior of "lone" bulls. The following report deals with the behavior patterns of bull bison, both as solitary animals and as groups. These bulls include only those animals which are three or more years old and are segregated from cow-calf herds during most of the year.

It is hoped that the results of this study will be of use not only to other investigators of bison behavior and bison managers, but also to students of other disciplines and the general public. Since the bison was the mainstay of many Indian cultures, I hope the results will be instrumental in aiding the interpretation of these cultures. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I believe that the casual observer or visitor to an area with bison will more fully appreciate his experience with bison by being able to understand the significance of the activities he may observe.

Last updated: April 10, 2015

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