To be fair, David Mamet’s play was not about the Wild Wild West or about the animals seen above – his story was about the proposed theft of a rare “American Buffalo Nickel“

But the furry beast that roamed frontier lands from the time of the  Old West to today’s national parks , that Kevin Costner learned was  called Tatanka  (Lakota for Big Beast) in his movie  “Dances With Wolves,  and graces the back of a nickel, is actually a bison.  Here are a few factoids:

  • Bison have a hairy fur coat and beard, buffalo do not.
  • Buffalo’s horns  are longer than a bison’s and not as sharp
  • Bison have a hump.  Buffalo do not.
  • Bison are the largest mammal in North America – males can weigh 1 ton and be 6 feet tall
  • Baby bison are nicknamed  “red dogs” – you will see why below
  • The tail of the bison is a good indicator of its mood – if it is low and swishing – all is calm – but if it is straight up and stiff- watch out!  The bison may charge

Almost hunted to extinction, herds of bison are now growing thanks to conservation efforts.  During my visit to five national parks (Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Olympic, Grand Tetons and Glacier) I was thrilled to see hoards of bison and in two instances had quite unexpected close encounters.

I was actually totally unprepared for the first sighting. We had just begun our morning hike along the boardwalk adjoining Yellowstone’s Geyser Basin, my camera still in my backpack when I almost literally bumped into this fellow:

Mr. Bison was sitting so still – most likely trying to absorb some ground warmth in the chilly morning, that our whole entourage at first thought he was a prop! Nope – definitely real and a little too close for comfort. Our guide Dodge quietly but emphatically told us to back away and give Mr. Bison a wide berth. Fortunately for us he was more interested in getting warm so just eyed us as we passed by.


The other close encounter happened when we stopped for a picnic lunch in a lightly wooded forest next to a wide pasture where we had spied a few bison lolling around. After lunch, I took a few steps beyond where we were sitting in the woods and then this (no zoom used):

Magnificent – but scary.  I slowly backed away trying not to make a sound – this was his territory, not mine. And note, his tail was down – which is a sign of calmness – but not a good idea to take chances with a 1 ton animal.

I had another close encounter with an entire herd of bison in of all places, Manitoba, Canada, but this was safely accomplished in a van with a guide who was ready to scoot if the bison got annoyed.  Fortunately for us, they did not – they were more interested in lolling about in the surprisingly hot sun.  Video provided by my friend Lenore:

And here some cute “red dogs:”




  1. Nice memories of the bison I got to observe with you and Lenore. I’ve been fortunate to see a baby with its umbilical cord still attached and then also see the little one discover it could jump which was a sight to see! This brand new (4 hours old) bison discovering its ability to hop around.

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