Viewing bison, whether magnificent adult bison or their winsomely reddish calves, brings an evocative sense of the Old West to travel in America's western parks. At locations such as Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Antelope State Park in Utah, or Custer State Park in South Dakota, viewing bison on a casual walk, while camping, or even right from your car is an easy, but exciting thrill. Families and children love wildlife, and the sight of a baby bison in the wild brings wonder and delight.
Bison or buffalo?
Although we have culturally embedded phrases such as the buffalo nickel and "give me a home where the buffalo roam," the American plains' animal, often incorrectly identified as a buffalo, is actually a Bovidae family member, the "Bison bison" species, and correctly known as a bison. The bison species of America's West lives only in North America. So, the massive animal with the large shoulder hump and huge head seen in America's national and state parks is correctly identified as a bison, not a buffalo.
An adult bison is a massive animal, and its dark brown to nearly black hair gives it a distinctive, burly look. Baby bison are winsomely different. A baby bison's coat ranges from reddish brown to golden. The sight of a tiny, prancing reddish brown calf alongside its dark-coated, huge and heavy parent is a spring delight. After a nine month pregnancy, baby bison are born in parks, like Yellowstone National Park, as early in the spring as April.
National Geographic offers a thorough fact sheet on bison offering key details like the adult bison's 5 to 6.5 feet height at its shoulder, its weight of over a ton, and the bison's ability to run up to 40 miles per hour.
Respect and caution
Children love seeing baby animals, but parents must remain vigilant and be aware that winsome, cute bison calves are carefully guarded. Set aside any thoughts of wild bison as domesticated wildlife; they can be dangerous and must be respected. Yellowstone National Park offers guidelines for bison viewing safety that protects both the tourist as well as the bison:
- Never approach or follow bison; respect their need for space. This includes not following fresh tracks.
- Do not block their line of travel or escape routes.
- Keep a safe distance from bison (100 feet - the length of three buses)
- Use a telephoto lens, spotting scope and binoculars to get "close".
- Pull well off the road with your vehicle to prevent motor vehicle accidents.
- A vehicle also makes a good "blind" for watching bison, IF YOU STAY INSIDE!
- Respect the special needs of newborn or young animals - leave them alone.
Slideshow and resources
The slideshow accompanying this article offers photographic views of adult bison as well as bison calves. The images are springtime pictures taken in Wyoming and Montana's Yellowstone National Park, South Dakota's Custer State Park, and Utah's Antelope Island. They offer a perspective of what a family might discover on an independent auto drive.
Another powerful resource for family wildlife viewing and travel can be found at Pinterest's TRAVEL FOR FAMILIES board and the TRAVEL AMERICA'S NATIONAL & STATE PARKS & REFUGES board. Additionally, a new resource, Parkvisitor.com, helps plan visits to the nation's national parks.
When to view baby bison
Wildlife viewing has specific demands of locations and times. For example, America's elk rut is an autumn phenomenon and the congregation of eagles at sites in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest is a winter phenomenon. Nature's special events have both time windows and locations, and if those are missed, wildlife viewing that targets a specific animal or event can be significantly different or even non-existent. And, always, nature's wildlife spectacles are variable, for animals roam and their schedules are not locked to human convenience.
For the best wildlife viewing of baby bison, especially in their fluffy, red coats, spring timing is an imperative. In late April, May, and early June, the winsome, reddish calves are newly birthed and a natural part of a bison landscape. In the right location, bison are among the easiest of wildlife viewing targets. The herds graze all day, but there's always more activity in the early morning, (for animals, that's right after sunrise), and prior to sunset. In the heat of the day, mammals and birds take it easy, are less active, and often nap in a more secluded location.
Where to view baby bison at three, great wildlife viewing locations
Yellowstone National Park in spring is an ideal place to view baby bison. The environment of Yellowstone National Park is wildlife rich, but certain locations are more likely to draw specific species. Where should you and your family look for bison and their calves in the over 3,000 acres of America's first national park? In Yellowstone National Park's lush, open Lamar Valley, aptly nicknamed "America's Serengeti," in rolling Hayden valley, in Gibbon Meadows, and in the lower Geyser Basin, your chances of spotting bison and baby bison in May are phenomenally high. You should be able to spot bison from your car, find a pull out, and watch the natural behavior of the adult, young, and baby bison.
In Yellowstone, by June, you may be able to spot baby elk, too! And, whenever you see photographers and tourists pulled over, it's likely that interesting wildlife has been spotted; if it's a bear, you may find yourself in a "bear jam," the park's unique version of a traffic jam created by a bear sighting. Although we've found that moose sightings are more likely in nearby Grand Tetons National Park, be sure to scan Yellowstone's Willow Flats for moose and keep a sharp eye out for moose, grizzly bear, and pronghorn antelope in Lamar Valley. And, check the rocks at Sheepeaters Cliff for yellow-bellied marmots.
South Dakota's Custer State Park has a wonderful, Wildlife Loop Road that offers easy, family road trip viewing of wildlife including bison and even a large prairie dog town. While spotting adult and baby bison on a spring drive around Memorial Day, youngsters can view prairie dog families standing at the mouths of their holes in the park's natural prairie dog town.
Custer State Park's Wildlife Loop Road is paved for its 18 mile length, but for the more adventurous, there also are well-maintained gravel roads, open to the public, that can be explored by driving off the paved auto drive. In addition, a family road trip to view wildlife at Custer State Park can include a scenic drive on Needles Highway with its needlelike granite formations.
Utah's Antelope State Park is the largest island in the Great Salt Lake and its access road is a long, narrow, paved road from the mainland out to the island. The island can be viewed from well-paved roads that include access to the historic Fielding Garr Ranch, located at the southeast end of the island. Bison can be seen in the fields and mountains of the Garr Ranch as well as in meadows along the island park's auto tour. Spring is the best time, as always, to see baby bison, and spring also offers birding opportunities at Antelope Island State Park that include the chance to see the island's nesting great horned owls, its nesting gulls on a rookery island, western meadowlarks, and shorebirds. If you are a birder, be sure to include the long access road from mainland to island as part of your birding route.
Independent auto drives provide the maximum flexibility for families, but guided viewing offers greater certainty and fresh opportunities for learning. An excellent learning experience to add to independent family viewing is the Yellowstone's Junior Ranger program for visitors age 4 and up with booklets, requirement, and patches available at all Visitors Centers in the park. A guided alternative is offered by Yellowstone Safari Company through its family "safari" wildlife viewing, and a custom itinerary can be created. Dependent upon the age of your learner, rich nature discovery and wildlife viewing
Alternative seasonal event: an autumn bison roundup
At both Utah's Antelope State Park and South Dakota's Custer State Park, another family wildlife viewing event presents a seasonal alterative for viewing adult bison. If you can't make a springtime wildlife viewing at Antelope Island or Custer State Park, then consider coming for an exciting bison event like the autumn bison roundup, The bison round ups are part of those parks' management procedures, and the well-planned, public event offers a chance to view large numbers of bison in a thundering, uniquely different events.
Build the wonder
Sharing discoveries in nature can be the centerpiece of a family vacation. Bring binoculars and a field guide, and you'll increase wildlife sightings and opportunities to watch interactions in nature. American naturalist, Rachel Carson, stated, "If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder without any such gift from the fairies, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in." Family travel in America's national and state parks, the experience of thrilling wildlife viewing such as the sight of adult and baby bison, and the pleasure of shared, natural discoveries, all are powerful keys to wonder for young and old, alike.
Find the take in this article to be helpful? National and International Travel and Recreation as well as National Education and Industry materials come from a husband and wife creative team, who travel extensively as photonaturalists and writers. One is an experienced research scientist with a doctorate in Material Sciences and background in optics research. The other is former Vice President of GKE (Global Knowledge Exchange), who served as a US Web-based Education Commissioner during the Clinton administration, and was a former US National Tech&Learning Teacher of the Year.
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