As someone who has dedicated over two decades to studying bison behavior, I have gained valuable insights that I believe can benefit both ranchers and individuals seeking a deeper understanding of these majestic creatures. In this blog post, I will share some of my observations and the implications they hold for those working with bison or cattle.
1. Understanding Animal Behavior
It is essential to acknowledge that animal behavior findings can vary depending on the experiences, biases, and backgrounds of the observer. Different perspectives can lead to contrasting conclusions about a species’ behavior. For instance, a solitary researcher might assume there are no leaders among a species based on their observation that different animals take the lead each day while grazing. However, a family-oriented observer might draw on their own experiences with their children running ahead to the store, realizing that leadership is not always apparent in everyday situations. They may look for more relevant indicators of leadership in their observations.
To truly understand the behavior of another species, it is important not to impose solely human characteristics on them. Respecting the animals being studied is paramount before assimilating information and drawing conclusions about their behavior. In this report, I focus on the buffalo, a complex animal whose characteristics played a significant role in shaping the lives of many Native American tribes.
While I do not claim that everything I present is concrete fact, my extensive time spent in Yellowstone’s backcountry, often disconnected from civilization for months at a time, has allowed me to observe wildlife in its natural habitat. Additionally, having raised bison for over 20 years has given me valuable insights into their social order and behaviors. Raising captive herds with intact natural instincts has provided opportunities to accelerate observations through controlled interventions such as introducing hay in winter and changing pastures in summer.
It’s worth noting that bison and cattle are closely related, capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring. So, even if you primarily work with cattle, the insights gained from studying bison behavior can still be applicable and valuable.
Ultimately, my purpose is to stimulate thought and encourage the incorporation of these insights into your own operations. If you can identify ways to achieve a net energy gain and improve your financial outcomes, that’s even better. Good luck to all of you!
2. BENEFITS OF SOCIAL GROUPINGS
In studying bison behavior, one of the most significant findings is the multitude of benefits derived from their social groupings. These benefits shed light on the importance of complex organization within bison herds and have implications for both ranchers and individuals seeking to understand these magnificent animals.
(a) Division of Labor
Social groupings among bison allow for a division of labor that benefits the entire herd. For instance, nurseries are formed where most mothers gather, enabling them to graze more effectively while their calves are cared for. This cooperative arrangement optimizes the utilization of resources and ensures the well-being of both mothers and offspring.
(b) Dispersal Grazing
The confidence required for bison to engage in truly nomadic behavior, exploring unfamiliar territories, stems from their complex organization. This organization can be likened to that of a large military crusade. A fascinating example of this can be observed in Thorofare of Yellowstone National Park, where the grazing distance of horses is directly proportional to the number and familiarity of the herd. If a few horses are removed from a group, the remaining ones tend to graze closer to the cabin. Conversely, when new horses are introduced, the entire herd stays around the cabin until familiarity is established.
(c) Young Learn From the Old
Within bison herds, the young learn valuable lessons from the older, more experienced members. This transfer of knowledge occurs through natural instincts and observation. In our private bison herd, for instance, the calves instinctively want to run from humans. However, their tame mothers demonstrate by not running that humans can be trusted. This intergenerational learning ensures the survival and success of future generations.
(d) The Old Delegate Approval and Status to Selected Young
In bison herds, the older individuals delegate approval and status to carefully chosen younger members. This transfer of responsibility ensures the smooth functioning of the herd. In Thorofare, for example, I have had the same “main” horse for 15 years. He held the esteemed position of the “top gun” horse in an 80-horse stable. Even when he was fourth in line, he displayed alertness and a sense of leadership. Other horses preferred him to be in the lead. As he aged, he recognized another horse with the energy and spirit he trusted, and he passed on the responsibility of chasing moose away from the salt to this younger horse. After each successful chase, the two horses would touch noses, as if seeking approval. Now, at 20 years old, my horse insists that an eight-year-old horse named Aziim takes the lead down the trail. While still the top horse in our group of five, he is gracefully passing the torch to the younger generation.
(e) A Purpose To Live Is Achieved
Bison, like many animals with social order, exhibit a strong drive and will to live. The complex web of hundreds of distinct instincts and emotions within a social herd contributes to this purposeful pursuit of life. When a distress call is sounded by a calf, the entire herd responds swiftly. This collective response showcases the intricate nature of their emotions and instincts, fostering a powerful will to survive.
(f) Less Stress
Social groupings among bison reduce the uncertainties and stresses of life. With a well-structured social order, both humans and animals can dedicate more time to productive endeavors. This reduced stress allows for increased productivity and overall well-being.
Understanding the benefits of social groupings among bison provides valuable insights for ranchers and individuals alike. By incorporating these observations into our practices and appreciating the intricate dynamics of bison herds, we can enhance our understanding of these remarkable creatures and promote their well-being.
Stay tuned for the upcoming sections, where I will delve into the traits to consider when starting a bison or cattle herd, and the importance of family groupings in forming social order.